Monday, November 29, 2010

Emotional Investment is a Good Thing (as long as you win)

Despite Minnesota’s football triumph over Iowa for the Floyd or Rosedale trophy (a statue of a pig for those of you living outside the Midwest), I had long abandoned my emotional investment in the 2-9 Gopher football team. Don’t get me wrong -- I was happy to see Minnesota win. I might even look for the pig in the team trophy case when I visit my home state. But because of the football team's struggles this season, I could not put my full emotional energy into the rivalry game. The win was not deeply satisfying, more like mildly amusing.

On the flip side, I have readily embraced a streaking Gopher basketball team and its Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament title. And with the Gophers leading a terrible Virginia basketball team by 13 at home, my rooting energies were firmly behind the Gophers on Monday. This made the 26 point collapse (from a 13 point lead to a 13 point deficit) all the more painful. I was emotionally invested in a punch to the gut.

In the process, Minnesota became our first "double surprise" team of the season. They surprised us by being better than we thought, and now surprised us by reminding us that maybe they are not so great. Many teams have not even given us one surprise yet; Minnesota has already provided two. But the heartbreak is still tolerable. It is early in the season, and it is hard to be crushed by any loss.

But I cannot say I feel the same way about Tuesday's Illinois vs North Carolina basketball matchup. It has nothing to do with the ACC - Big Ten challenge. I could care less about the challenge title. The ACC has unquestionably been the deeper league for most of the last decade. The ACC has produced more recent NCAA titles, more NBA players, and had more high profile recruits. Probably the only area where the Big Ten has had more success is in hiring high profile coaches. Those coaches have helped the Big Ten win a decent number of NCAA tournament games and make the Final Four on numerous occassions. But by almost every metric, including challenge wins, the ACC has been the better basketball league. So my desire to see Illinois beat North Carolina has nothing to do with the challenge. The equation is much simpler:

1) Illinois fans do not like North Carolina. It is no longer about North Carolina stealing Roy Williams from Kansas which led to Kansas stealing Bill Self from Illinois. Bruce Weber is the coach for better or worse. The formula is simpler than that. North Carolina beat Illinois in the national championship game in 2005 and until Illinois gets back to the Final Four, that game is always going to resonate.

2) This is supposed to be the Illini’s year. Since 2005, Bruce Weber’s teams have been hard-working squads that have performed admirably, but lacked the talent to win consistently against good teams. But this year is supposed to be different. Illinois has high profile recruits and talented veterans. The time is now.

3) This does not look like North Carolina’s year. While the national writers mostly put the Tar Heels in the top 10, my statistical model said they were not a top 25 team. And while it is still early, my statistical model looks right. The Tar Heels have suffered from the same problems as last year (lack of guard play, lack of depth), and North Carolina has looked extremely vulnerable. Not only have the Tar Heels lost twice, home wins against NC-Asheville and College of Charleston have not inspired confidence.

4) This is a very experienced Illinois team. If they are going to be better than North Carolina, they should be better in November, not March.

All together this is a horrible recipe. Nothing more than a resounding blowout victory will really satiate Illinois fans. And if Bruce Weber’s squad does not play well from the opening tip, the normally supportive home crowd will not hesitate to boo vociferously.

In many ways, the pent-up emotional energy is a recipe for disaster. That is because Illinois is a jump shooting team and an inconsistent one at that. True, Illinois has perhaps the greatest collection of jump shooters in team history. As Tim McCormick said during Saturday’s win over Western Michigan, if you had to pick a team to play HORSE you would pick Illinois every day of the week. They have 7 or 8 guys who can consistently knock down shots from 17 feet or further and that can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. But basketball is not a game of HORSE. And despite sophomore Brandon Paul’s improved hustle stats, despite freshman Jereme Richmond’s ability to score in traffic, and despite freshman Meyer’s Leonard additional size inside, Illinois still has the same starting rotation as last year. This is still the same team that was inconsistent enough to miss the NCAA tournament last year. In other words, even if Ken Pomeroy labels Illinois a 72% favorite, that 28% possibility is far from impossible.

Given the high expectations and high emotion, the game is almost a no win situation for Illinois fans. A win will only satisfy, it will not be worthy of a full celebration. And given this no win situation, it is tempting to employ the "DVR strategy". The "DVR strategy" is an evil idea, but one that works wonders when you have limited time and do not want to miss the good stuff. You record all your teams games, and watch them the next day, but only if they win. On the surface this sounds great. Lots of fun wins, no punches to the gut.

But that is not what sports are about. If all we cared about were monster dunks and three point shots, all we would need is SportsCenter. The joy of the game is the uncertainty. That unscripted, punch-to-the-gut, tears of joy, emotional investment you make in your team for two hours.

And so again, I will try to minimize my expectations for tommorrow. I will sugar-coat things and say Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament runs are more important than any November game. And I am sure Bruce Weber will tell his players to treat this like just any other game.

But it is not just any other game. This is North Carolina. When Deron Williams went to shake Marvin Williams hand after the championship game in 2005, Marvin Williams ran away from him to peel off his shirt and scream in victory. I remember the confetti falling from the rafters, and the Illini coming up one game short of winning it all. It might seem like November, but this is not just another game.

Friday, November 26, 2010

We Need More Friday Night Games

I have been watching Feast Week, but up until tonight, I have had pretty much the same thoughts as everyone else:

-Kemba Walker is good.
-Kyrie Irving better than I expected.

OK, maybe I had some different thoughts. My dominant thought during the Maui invitational was how important Terrance Jones is going to be to Kentucky this year. When Jones was in foul trouble, Kentucky looked lost. When Jones was on the floor, he looked like a freshman-of-the-year candidate. But I hate to make redundant observations, so my keyboard stayed quiet. Thankfully Friday’s South Florida vs BYU game knocked me out of my Thanksgiving stupor.

South Florida vs BYU, South Padre Island Semifinal

A ball rolled under the bleachers (in the South Padre Island gym) which delayed play for 90 seconds at the end of regulation. Someone in a shirt and tie climbed underneath the bleachers to pull it out. I love these random neutral site tournaments. You just cannot make this stuff up.

Hello to South Florida’s Ron Anderson Jr. You transferred from Kansas St. but I guess you learned a thing or two about rebounding from Frank Martin before you left.

Welcome back BYU’s Jackson Emery. You tend to get over-shadowed by Jimmer Fredette, but you are a fine three-point shooter, and your shot at the end of regulation tied the game at 58.

And say hello to South Florida’s Jawanza Poland. His three pointer gave USF a 61-58 lead seconds later. (Poland was only 4-10 shooting the ball, but he had a key steal and dunk minutes earlier and made all his buckets in crunch time.)

And who is this? Why it’s BYU’s Charles Abouo hitting a three to tie the game and send it into overtime. Dueling threes at the end of regulation is always amazing, but we are not done. No, that would be too easy.

What about BYU’s Jimmer Fredette hitting a three at the end of overtime to give his team a three-point lead. It was also one of the only leads BYU had in this game.

But then there is South Florida’s Jawanza Poland again, making another three to send the game to double overtime.

And now in double overtime, with 90 seconds left, there is Fredette hitting a three again. How do they make these shots? In particular, how does Fredette looks so strong after 38 minutes of gametime? If you watch enough of these neutral site early season tournaments, you never want to take a three in these situations. Players are always too tired; the arena is always too unfamiliar. The smart play is to take the ball to the basket. But Jimmer Fredette is not your average player.

I sense that South Florida does not have another three in them. So of course they make the smart play and take it inside. Augustus Gilchrist makes a beautiful post move to cut the lead to one. Gilchrist was seriously in my doghouse two years ago. He was doing what Indiana’s Verdell Jones is doing this year. (Taking a ton of shots and missing a ton of shots.) But in fairness, Gilchrist was coming back from an injury. Seeing that Gilchrist has reemerged as a confident post player, I feel I owe him some sort of apology. Uh, sorry. I guess you don’t suck.

Then there is USF’s Mike Burwell with an incredible block from behind to preserve the one point deficit. Hmm, I’m noticing a lot more of these South Florida players now that my eyes are not glued to former South Florida Bull Dominque Jones. Maybe this was not a one-man team. And Tony Fitzpatrick makes one of two free throws to tie the game. Do I hear overtime number three?

Jimmer Fredette says no. He drives the lane, draws the double team, and passes underhand to Noah Hartsock who knocks down a wide-open jumper as time expires. BYU wins. Awesome.

South Florida is really going to kick themselves about this one. They blew a lead at the end of regulation. And the Bulls had the ball and a four point lead in overtime. But USF missed too many free throws and committed a pair of costly offensive fouls with the lead in OT. You just cannot give Jimmer Fredette that many chances to win the game.

I am going to be honest. I hate west coast and mountain time zone teams. I like sleep. But after the Utah St. – BYU game last week, the double overtime BYU – Florida NCAA tournament game last year, and basically a ton of fun Fredette games over the years, I need to carve out room on my calendar to watch this team more. Scary.

Other Friday Thoughts

-I cannot believe Steven Pearl is playing so much for Tennessee. He is such an offensive liability, I just assumed that with a new recruiting class he would not get any playing time anymore. But every time I flipped to the Tennessee game he seemed to be getting a steal or deflection. I think people forget how much match-ups matter. Tennessee is a terrible match-up for Villanova because they have long and mobile perimeter defenders. Very few teams will be able to slow down Corey Fisher as much as Tennessee did tonight.

-Speaking of match-ups, the Michigan offense is a terrible match-up for the Syracuse zone defense. All Michigan wants to do is shoot threes and get an occasional pass to someone for a lay-up near the baseline. And Syracuse’s zone is extremely vulnerable in these areas. I think Jim Boeheim is happy that John Beilein does not coach in the Big East anymore.

-Horrific blown dunk by Syracuse’s Rick Jackson at the end of regulation by the way, but Syracuse still hung on for the win.

-It was kind of fun to hear Seth Davis do color commentary on a game. (He was announcing the Legend’s classic on HDNet.)

-Teams that go to double overtime almost always lose the next day. (Emotional letdown / exhaustion.) And I think Georgia just ran out of gas against Temple. This also makes Notre Dame’s win earlier today against California all the more impressive.

-Looking at the ticker, Kansas is winning by 40. Explain to me again why they had to pre-schedule an Arizona-Kansas final in their Las Vegas event instead of making a real four-team bracket?

-UAB just won in OT at Arkansas. I would say congratulations to Mike Davis, but with the way things are going for the SEC West, that win might not be worth much at the end of the year.

-Texas Tech is down by 24 to St. Mary’s at halftime. There are so many seniors on Texas Tech, this qualifies as a huge embarrassment. I think Texas Tech might be our first job opening this year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Charleston Classic Recap

A lot has been going on the last few days. I should discuss the fact that no freshman has impressed me more than Texas forward Tristan Thompson. I should ask whether Auburn will ever win a game. But since I have spent the last four days in Charleston, I am going to stick with a recap of the Charleston Classic.

Henry! Henry! Henry!

College basketball fans care about wins, stats, and amazing plays. But if that is all you get out of it, you are missing a lot. College basketball is about watching players develop into men. To a national audience the story is probably minor, but to the Georgetown fans in attendance, the Charleston Classic was Henry Sims breaking out party.

On Thursday I was still complaining about forward Henry Sims tentative play when on the court. After three years, Sims was playing like a player afraid of making a mistake. But something sparked the junior on Friday. Perhaps he was excited to be playing a shorter Wofford team. Or perhaps the coaching staff lit a fire under him. But on Friday, Sims started playing aggressive basketball. He went 3-3 from the floor, but more importantly, he forced the action. He wanted the ball in his hands and he was visibly upset to have his minutes limited by foul trouble.

Then on Sunday, Sims responded with his best game of the season. He scored only four points, but he had 5 assists, and was the heart of the offense for a long stretch early in the second half. In fact, Sims, the scoring-challenged Jerrelle Benimon, and freshman Markel Starks were all on the floor for much of the Hoyas 15-0 run that broke open the championship game. When the lineup first went out on the floor, I was asking myself how they were going to score. But when they left, they left to a standing ovation.

Whether Sims can turn into a consistent inside presence for the Hoyas remains to be seen. No one expects him to replace Greg Monroe. But for the Hoya offense to work, everyone needs to make the right reads, passes, and cuts. And that requires confidence. And while it was a minor improvement, for the die-hard boosters and family members in attendance, they knew what a breakthrough Henry Sims experienced this weekend. And they were more than happy to cheer his name. "Henry! Henry! Henry!"

Chris Wright was the tournament MVP. And this is Chris Wright’s team. But if he turns into a legitimate Big East player, this weekend meant a lot more to Henry Sims.

Eight More Thoughts

1) NC State is one of the fastest teams in the country, and freshman CJ Leslie and Ryan Harrow are wicked quick. I think with the right coaching, NC State could become a top 25 team by the end of the year. But they made a lot of questionable decisions in the championship game. There were too many bad jump shots by a frustrated Leslie. And the Wolfpack fell asleep on a number of back door plays in the second half. And as quick as NC State was in this tournament, Georgetown was equally quick. Once the margin got to 10 points in the second half, Chris Wright was relentless in forcing the fast-break.

2) As someone who has watched a lot of Minnesota’s Blake Hoffarber, I think NC State’s Scott Wood could easily be one of the best three point shooters in the country this year. His stroke is as smooth and as pure as it gets. But the problem with some of these pure shooters is that they need their teammates to set them up. With Georgetown keying on Wood at the three-point line, he was really neutralized in Sunday’s final, shooting just 2-7 with most of his misses coming on plays where he really did not have enough space to get an open shot. I think Georgetown keyed on Wood for two reasons. First, Georgetown played some of its only zone defense when Wood was out of the game. Georgetown seems to play about 50-50 zone these days, and they were far below that on Sunday. Second, I remember a 5-on-2 NC State break where Chris Wright abandoned the middle in order to jump out at a streaking Wood. Wright guessed correctly that Wood would try to take a jumper on the break, and Wood missed a contested three instead of getting an easier basket on the break.

3) Despite NC State’s questionable shot selection at times, I thought the players had a really solid understanding of good spacing. Over the course of the tournament, forwards DeShawn Painter, CJ Leslie, and Richard Howell constantly snuck in position for wide-open lay-ups. It is hard to feed to post in college basketball against well-coached teams, and NC State’s forwards seemed to have an incredible IQ for where to be on the floor to catch the pass, grab rebounds, and finish.

4) Wofford’s Noah Dahlman has a bizarre free-throw shot. He gets down to about his knees before standing up and releasing the ball. It looks like way too much motion to me, but he seems to hit nothing but net most of the time. But Dahlman’s free throw stroke looks normal compared to George Mason’s Mike Morrison. Morrison leans as far forward as possible and seems to release the ball about a foot in front of the free throw line. Hey, whatever works.

5) I am always going to have some major conference bias. But it really is fun to see dominant small conference players in person, like Wofford’s Noah Dahlman. Dahlman was incredibly smart about getting himself in position to score over the whole weekend. And despite often being triple teamed by George Mason, he still managed to find open shooters on his team on Sunday. Kudos to Wofford for winning in overtime after Dahlman fouled out, and particularly Jamar Diggs for hitting a huge three pointer to ice the game in overtime. Diggs really seemed to want the ball in his hand in crunch time.

6) I was also really impressed with George Mason senior Cam Long. He is one of those quiet scorers that every good team needs. He does not get the flashy dunks or make the off-balanced shots. But he is just one of those guys who knows what he is supposed to do in the offense, and where to get the easy baskets.

7) Unfortunately, George Mason does not have a go-to playmaker. In a lot of ways, forward Luke Hancock is that player. He has incredible assist numbers for his size over the course of his career. And in this tournament, he had great scoring totals in the second half of games. I tried to figure out why he was waiting until the second half of games to score, and I think he is simply trying to play smart basketball. He knows he does not have the quickness to blow by people early in the game, but often late in the game, when legs are a little more tired, he has the tenacity to put himself in position to finish. (And I should mention that his late dunk against Charlotte practically blew the roof of the building. I had no idea he could jump that high.) But the reality is that Hancock does not have elite quickness or a great shooting stroke. And against an equally well-coached Wofford team, he could not make quite enough plays to win the game. But Hancock, Long, and the whole George Mason team, play smart basketball. And that will win a lot of CAA games again this year.

8) Charlotte’s Shamari Spears made the all-tournament team and deservingly so. He has a similar body-style to Michigan St.’s Draymond Green, but both players are out to prove that skill sets do not always match body types. While Spears is not nearly the passer as Green, he seemed to have a very nice outside shot in this tournament. But for everything nice I want to say about Spears, emerging point guard Jamar Briscoe, or even An’Juan Wilderness who rebounded from a horrible game against George Mason to have a good tournament, I would be really nervous if I was a Charlotte fan. This team just does not look well-coached right now. I saw a bunch of players playing one-on-one basketball, not putting themselves in position for rebounds, and generally playing well below their ability. Sometimes when a disciplined coach leaves town and the players are given more freedom, good things happen. Mike Davis took Indiana to the Final Four right after Bob Knight left. But, I do not see a similar spark following the departure of Bobby Lutz. I think Coastal Carolina and George Mason beat Charlotte because they played smarter basketball, not because Charlotte lacks talent.

A Few Thoughts as a Fan

The George Mason band completely made the four-day weekend special.
Let me count the ways:
-The crazy yellow and green suits on the band leader
-The awesome saxophone solos
-The fun woman in a wheelchair and her drum
-The cowbell
-The way everyone in the band would dance when they were not performing
-The amusing guitar riffs
-The green and gold headbands
-The nicknames on the back of their jerseys (like Big Kahuna)
-The way the band would continue to sing after the action re-started. (They are not allowed to play instruments while play is going on, but that doesn’t mean they could not continue singing the melody.)
-The three-part George Mason rouser

The Dayton Flyers are always going to be my favorite NCAA tournament band, but if you get a chance to see George Mason somewhere, please make the effort.

-In some minor ways, these early season tournaments are better than those held in March. Win or lose, you are guaranteed to see your team play three times.

-There is no reason to stress about games this early in the season, but I cannot help it. That is why there is no better feeling then having your team win early in the day. You have the euphoria of the victory and you realize you can just relax and watch some great basketball.

-I thought when Georgetown went on a 9-0 run to take a 7 point lead and the band started playing that I could not be happier. But to keep pouring it on and coast to victory after trailing much of the first half, this was a very satisfying win. I have never seen my team win a tournament in person, and I really tried to soak in the moment, even if this was "just" the Charleston Classic. From the MVP presentation to Chris Wright, to the team photo, to the in-house DJ playing “Celebration”, the moment could not last long enough.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Charleston Classic

The Charleston Classic is underway.

Random Thoughts:
-There was almost no one here for the afternoon session. The small section of Georgetown fans you see on the right of the picture were about it. In the evening session, the arena was practially full with NC State, George Mason, and Charlotte fans. NC State clearly has the largest contingent in town.

-I love watching the body language at court level. Georgetown freshman Markel Starks is making the right plays. He dribbles around, guards the ball handler, and makes the right fake-passes before passing against the zone. But when you look in his eyes you see a player who is still awestuck by the college game.

It is amazing what body language can say for a player. Georgetown junior Henry Sims still looks like a player who lacks confidence when on the floor, while Georgetown freshman Nate Lubick looks completely confident. Of course Lubick was making the wrong cuts on a number of plays and practically driving Chris Wright insane, but he looks like a player who believes he can contribute this year.

Seeing how quickly freshman can step in is always fascinating to me. I wish the recruiting rankings had some sort of a confidence meter, but sometimes you really do not know. Players that dominate in high school can look so tentative when playing against 20 and 21 year old defenders.

-Most amusing sequence: Austin Freeman was called for an elbow to the back. He complained rather innapropriately to Ted Valentine. Valentine then explained what Freeman did wrong. And when Freeman kept pouting, Valentine rather loudly mocked Freeman's expression. "Oh, what did I do? Oh, what did I do?" It was amusing to see an official call out a player. But then Chris Wright's contact fell out and had to be replaced. And for some reason it took about 10 minutes for him to get it back in. During this whole time, Valentine and Freeman kept discussing the call.

-Eventually Georgetown just blitzed Coastal Carolina in the second half. They had a gear, particularly from three point range, that Coastal Carolina could not match. The same could be said of Wofford in the following game against SC Upstate, and NC State against East Carolina.

The George Mason vs Charlotte game was also a blowout but it had a little different feel. Charlotte point guard Jamar Briscoe, a transfer who became eligible this year, practically carried the 49ers on his back in this game. His ability to get to the free throw line was the one factor that kept Charlotte competitive. But I was shocked at Charlotte's hideous defensive rebounding in this game. I have not checked the final box score, but I thought Charlotte did one of the worst jobs boxing out that I have seen in awhile.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Early Season Printable Brackets

Note: I am off to the Charleston Classic later this week. I highly recommend you attend one of these early season tournaments if you get a chance. They are easily some of the most under-rated basketball of the year.

While I am gone, allow me to repost the printable brackets for the major early season tournaments. I posted this a month ago, but since the tournaments are about to start, it seemed like a good time to bump it up to the front page.

A few updates since last month
-The Charleston Classic now has a printable bracket.
-And it turns out the Great Alaska Shootout has one too. It has been up since August, but it was hidden in the depths of the Seawolves website.

You can find these types of brackets everywhere these days, but posting printable brackets is a YABB tradition. And, because I can never find it anywhere, I've created my own South Padre Island Invitational Tournament Bracket. So take that. Other websites may have this same information, but this is your ONLY source of an SPI bracket. (Of course google docs has interpreted my PDF as a document making it virtually impossible to print. Grr. But now is not the time to be annoyed at minor grievances.) Having printable brackets in my hand always brings a smile to my face. Print them out and fill them out. Life is good.

Old Faithful
Preseason NIT – Nov 15, 16, 17, 24, 26

8 Team
Puerto Rico Tip-Off – Nov 18, 19, 21
Charleston Classic – Nov 18, 19, 21
Paradise Jam – Nov 19, 20, 21, 22
Maui Invitational – Nov 22, 23, 24
Great Alaska Shootout Nov 24, 25, 26, 27
76 Classic – Nov 25, 26, 28
Old Spice Classic – Nov 25, 26, 28
Cancun Governor’s Cup – Dec 22, 23, 24
Diamond Head Classic – Dec 22, 23, 25

4 Team Predetermined Semis
Coaches vs Cancer – Nov 18, 19
CBE Classic – Nov 22, 23
Cancun Challenge – Nov 23, 24
Legend’s Classic – Nov 26, 27
Chicago Invitational Challenge – Nov 26, 27
South Padre Island Invitational - Nov 26, 27
Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival - Dec 20, 21
Las Vegas Classic - Dec 22, 23

ESPN has a few more listed, but even ESPN cannot bring itself to list everything. (That Dr. Pepper Classic does not hold much appeal nationally.)

The next table shows where each conference is sending its teams this year. I list the Top 13 RPI conferences from last year. (Scroll to the right to see additional conferences.)

A few notes on the table:
I list the Cable Car Classic in the table because it includes three mid-major schools, but I could not bring myself to make a printable bracket for it.

*The LV Classic should not be confused with LV Invitational, or LV Holiday Hoops/Tarkanian Classic which are pre-scheduled non-tournaments this year.

**St. John's and Davidson both play in the MSG Holiday Festival Tournament and another exempt tournament.

***San Diego St., Rhode Island, Louisiana Tech, James Madison, and William & Mary are not in the pre-determined Final Four, but they will participate in these exempt events.

****UCF hosts a holiday tournament with a real bracket and the field includes Northeastern from the CAA, but it is nothing to get excited about.

*****Georgia St. also plays in tournament with a real bracket, the Dr. Pepper Classic in Chattanooga, but it is nothing to get excited about.

In addition to these tournaments there are a number of other exempt events that should produce good games. For example, one exempt event will pit Florida against Ohio St. And other event will have Kansas facing Arizona in Las Vegas. But organizers have removed all the fun by removing the bracket from these events. All games are simply prescheduled.

In particular, I laugh at the Las Vegas Invitational. The under-card (Valparaiso vs Northern Colorado and Bethune Cookman vs Texas A&M CC) gets a real bracket, but not the main event. Were the organizers really that concerned that Arizona and Kansas would fall to Santa Clara or Ohio in the semifinals?

Besides the Las Vegas Invitational under-card, there are a few other mini-tournaments I am not listing here. In particular, VCU hosts an event that will include Cornell. But I had to draw the line somewhere. Print these off and fill them out and you will have a very happy holiday season.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Old Dominion vs Georgetown

I realize that elite defense often results in ugly games, but Old Dominion’s defense is a thing of beauty. A year after posting a top 10 defense nationally (according to the Pomeroy ratings), Old Dominion played lock down defense on the Hoyas for 33 minutes. ODU played some man-to-man but when they realized the Hoyas were not hitting their shots, they ended the first half on a zone blitz. And then, perhaps wisely fearing a Hoya adjustment at halftime, ODU went back to man-to-man to start the second half.

I normally hate zone defense this time of year. When a team like Florida Gulf Coast busts it out against Indiana, you just know you are in for some ugly basketball. But with ODU switching from man to zone and back to man, the defensive strategy was in mid-season form. Count 10 blocks for ODU, 11 first half turnovers forced, and a 77% defensive rebounding rate, and the Monarchs dominated this game defensively. When it came to physicality, ODU was a taller, stronger, deeper team. And for most of this game they looked like the better team.

But this has been a backwards series. The road team has won every game in the four game home-and-away, and even the rules of basketball seemed reversed in this one. They say in college basketball, the great equalizer is the three point shot. It is the thing that allows the mid-majors to stick with the BCS boys, and occasionally spring an upset. But this time around the three point shot swung the other way. It was the factor that allowed the smaller Hoya team to upend the Monarchs at ODU.

And the play-of-the-game clearly belonged to Chris Wright. Sure he was 4 of 6 from deep and had a couple of key threes as the Hoyas came from behind with a late three-point barrage. But it was the timing of one of his threes that was so critical.

With 3 seconds left on the shot clock, Hollis Thompson was seemingly unaware of the timing as he held the ball in the corner. Then Thompson skipped a cross-court pass from one offensive corner to the other. It was a foolish play, destined to end in a shot-clock violation. But then Wright pulled off what the announcers called the Larry Bird shot. Wright caught the ball and in one motion released a three as the shot clock hit zero. It was a miracle to get the shot off, and even more amazing when it went it. The Hoyas took the lead, the momentum, and soon after the game.

Chris Wright was not perfect on this night. He had a couple of fast-break opportunities where he seemed to want to finish himself, instead of making the right pass to an open teammate. I was ready to call him selfish. But it is hard to not blame the senior for wanting to put the team on his back. This is a team that will go no further than its three sensational guards take it. While Hollis Thompson was missing a critical second half lay-up on a gorgeous pass from Julian Vaughn, and Vaughn was seeing his own shots swatted away on a regular basis, the elite backcourt led the way. Wright had 19, Jason Clark had 18, and Austin Freeman had 17, accounting for all but 8 of the Hoyas points.

Before the season is over, Georgetown will find a way to get more inside baskets. But with such a perimeter presence, this is going to be an inconsistent team. Georgetown will beat some teams when they make their shots, and lose to some teams that make you scratch your head. But what is new about that? The Hoyas beat Duke last year but were blown out by Ohio in the NCAA tournament. You never know which team will show up.

So the story of this game cannot be the Hoyas. The story of this game is Old Dominion. Come March no one will remember this game played on the first day of the season. But the selection committee will hold it against ODU. They were a mid-major with a chance to beat one of the big boys at home, a chance to prove they deserved an NCAA bid. And if you watched this game, and watched this team smother teams in the CAA last year, you know they are worthy of an NCAA spot. But mid-majors don’t get second chances. Georgetown will have plenty of chances to win and lose big games this season. For ODU, the heartbreak begins before the season even gets started.

But you know what? We need more games like this. Forget these early season tournaments with two home games and a guaranteed slot in the tournament semis. More teams need to go on the road against the mid-majors. We need more games like this.

Two Final Comments
-CSN picked up the CAA feed from Norfolk for this game, and boy were the production values low. Several times they were caught showing instant replays, missing 10 seconds of game action at a time. I think I take for granted the high production values you see on ESPN, and even in the games.

-Georgetown used full-court pressure at the end of the first half. That’s right, the short-benched, boring half-court Hoya team is looking to make this a transition game this year. This is what I love about college basketball. Every season is full of surprises.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Three Games at Once - Finally

Pittsburgh vs Rhode Island

About three minutes into the game, Rhode Island center Will Martell caught the ball wide-open under the Pittsburgh basket and looked completely lost. His shot was eventually blocked by Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna. I immediately wondered whether he was some freshman playing in his first big game. But no, upon further review that was Will Martell, the Rhode Island senior center. Then by the end of the first half, I was wondering if Martell was Rhode Island’s best player. His two-step hook shot over Dante Taylor was a thing of beauty. Of course as soon as I jumped on the Martell bandwagon, Martell picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. At this point the Rams other interior players were either injured or a wobbly nervous freshman. And Rhode Island had already made 8 three pointers and only led by two points. Every one of my basketball instincts said Rhode Island was done at this point. How could they hang with Pittsburgh for another 15 minutes when Brad Wanamaker was penetrating the Rhode Island defense like a revolving door?

By hitting another 6 three pointers, that is how. The continued perimeter onslaught allowed the Rams to stay within two points until the final minute. Rhode Island did not win, but they gave us an incredible ride for the season-opener. But if I am a Pittsburgh fan, I am very happy. The odds of someone hitting 14 threes again are slim to none. Pittsburgh had this horrific draw, and still won. That is the mark of a good team.

But can I ask what has happened to Pittsburgh’s Dante Taylor? People talked about the former McDonald’s All-American like he was the second coming of DeJuan Blair last summer. So I assumed with Nasir Robinson injured that Taylor would at least be starting in this game. Instead he is stuck behind Talib Zanna on the depth chart, and every indication was that Jamie Dixon was making the right call.

Illinois vs UC Irvine

Illinois won by 14. An Illinois optimist would say Irvine went on an 8-0 run to end the game with the supersubs in the game, and the final margin was not reflective of how well Illinois played. An Illinois pessimist would point out that Illinois was once again dazzlingly inconsistent, following a dominant first half with a dreadful second half. The team was so mediocre in the second half that Weber did not feel comfortable pulling Demetri McCamey until the 3 minute mark at the end of the game. I fall somewhere in the middle. I think this game was more about UC Irvine’s inconsistency. Irvine could not make a shot in the first half, but quickly drew 4 fouls on Illinois in the first four minutes of the second half. After that, the complexion of the game changed. Illinois was much more tentative defensively and Irvine was able to make the final score respectable.

But there were a ton of reasons for Illinois fans to be optimistic. Brandon Paul played extremely well making five threes in the first half, but it was his effort diving on the ground for loose balls that is going to earn him playing time. And Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond look like a serious upgrades from Dominque Keller and Jeffrey Jordan. Leonard had a sparkling play running the floor and tipping in a McCamey miss on the fast-break. And Richmond looks like the rare Illinois player who can create his own shot. That is huge for the team since McCamey cannot be asked to carry the entire offensive load all season. Let me be blunt. If Bruce Weber does not start Jereme Richmond soon and give him more minutes, I think he is making a serious mistake.

Maryland vs Seattle

The lack of transition defense in the first half would scare me if I was a Maryland fan. Maryland was eventually able to wear down Seattle, but there are some ACC teams that will be able to run for the full 40 minutes. But a lot of young players were given a chance to shine, and from a pure entertainment perspective, this was a very entertaining track meet.

Texas vs Navy

I was pretty burnt out by the time this game came on. Let me keep it short and sweet. Texas is scary. If you want to pick North Carolina as a top 10 team based purely on talent, why not Texas? Oh, that’s right, because they squandered that talent last year. Well so did North Carolina.

Three games at once. Life is good. Thank you ESPNU, CSN, and ESPN3 on my laptop.

Three Plays to Search for on Youtube

I’m not going to mention any rim-rattling dunks, although there were plenty, particularly in the second half of the Texas – Navy game. Instead here are three more plays that made me smile:

Seattle vs Maryland – The Flip
With just under 9 minutes to play in the first half, Seattle’s Aaron Broussard stole the ball. He drove towards the basket and had his shot partially blocked, but despite some reverse-spin, the ball carefully banked in for a fast-break basket. You often see wild “continuation” baskets in the NBA where players flip it up on the rim and hope for a prayer, but there is no “continuation” in college. But this was one of those crazy buckets.

Illinois vs UC Irvine – The Tip
With four seconds left in the first half Joseph Bertrand put up a prayer three pointer. Jereme Richmond tips it in at the buzzer, but is not quite sure if he did the right thing. Was he nervous about goal-tending, taking away a three from his teammate, or was he just worried that he didn’t beat the clock? Either way the tip was good and Illinois led by 24 at the break.

Pittsburgh vs Rhode Island – Hot Potato
This is my favorite sequence of the night. Near the 13 minute mark in the first half, Pittsburgh inbounds the ball under their own basket, only to throw the ball away to Rhode Island. It is a horrible pass. It seemed like there was not a single Pittsburgh player in the area. Rhode Island then dribbled once and passed it straight back to that same Pittsburgh player. You can’t make this stuff up.

(My notes are a little sketchy on this one. I have this happening at the 12 minute mark in my notes, but it looks like it happens around the 13 minute mark in the play-by-play, with Pittsburgh’s Travon Woodall and Rhode Island’s Daniel West making the foolish passes.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seven Minimally Bold Opening Day Predictions

1. Jamie Dixon or Bo Ryan will make the Final Four this year. These coaches have been performing at too high a level for too long not to catch a break one of these years.

2. The Big 12 will get more NCAA bids than the Big 10. The Big 10 is very good at the top, but I’m not as confident in the bottom or middle of the league.

3. The ACC will once again dominate the early season tournaments. This is not particularly controversial, but I bring it up because I think the ACC is not getting nearly enough publicity this pre-season. The middle of the league has a lot of question marks, but there is simply too much talent here not to expect another dominant non-conference performance.

4. The ACC will have the slowest pace in the last 10 years. Just look at the new coaches.

5. Out of Memphis, Kentucky, and North Carolina, one team will be great, one will be good enough, and one will be awful. I just have no idea where each team will end up.

6. Oliver Purnell will lead DePaul to 4 conference wins. (DePaul has had 0 and 1 conference wins the last two seasons.) I completely agree with people who say Purnell has inherited a disaster. And I’m more optimistic about 2012 than 2011. But Purnell has done this rebuilding thing before and there are a lot of vulnerable teams in the Big East this year.

7. Northwestern will not make the NCAA tournament.

Two Random Facts

If you are watching ESPNU tonight and your team is not playing, you may be a college basketball addict.

If you are reading this blog and not watching ESPNU tonight, you must really hate your cable operator.

The Uncertainty Principle

As much as I love all the preseason prognostication, the great thing about college basketball is that we know so little. This is not the NBA with its handful of clear favorites. Every college basketball season is filled with fresh faces. Every year is filled with uncertainty. We have no idea whether Kyrie Irving can keep Duke’s offense running at a high level. And we have no idea if Kentucky’s youngsters can compete for an SEC title. (Heck, we do not even know if Enes Kanter will play.) But that uncertainty, that fresh start, is what makes each season great. November is like spring training, a time of year when everyone can believe and anything can happen. College Basketball is back tonight!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Basketball Prospectus Book Now Available

The Basketball Prospectus Book is finally here! If you are so inclined, please check it out. For the second straight year, I contributed to the conference previews. As I've noted previously, not everything that gets written can make it into the final publication. Here is something I wrote about Mississippi head coach Andy Kennedy that did not make it into the SEC preview because of space considerations:

While Andy Kennedy was Bob Huggins choice for a successor at Cincinnati, Andy Kennedy has not been the same caliber of coach as his mentor Bob Huggins. Based on six years of tempo free data for Bob Huggins and five years of tempo free data for Andy Kennedy, the data reveal a clear pattern. Huggins teams have been much more physical. Huggins’ teams dominate the offensive boards and force teams to send them to the free throw line, while Andy Kennedy’s do not. And Huggins’ teams play a level of tenacious defensive that Kennedy’s teams have not been able to match. While Huggins’ teams allow an average effective FG percentage against of only 46.1%, Andy Kennedy’s squads are much more forgiving, averaging 48.4% against. True, Andy Kennedy’s teams have been slightly better at ball-handling and shooting. But what Ole Miss fans have discovered is that they have a coach who is not nearly as dominant as his mentor.

When something like this does not make the cut, I think it should be apparent that there is plenty of quality analysis to be found within the 345 pages.

Bracket Luck

While I sneakily saved my most interesting summer project for my own blog, I did contribute an essay on Bracket Luck to the beginning of BP publication. Here is the premise:

We know Duke was placed in a fortunate region last year, but has Duke faced easier than expected opponent’s historically? We know Tom Izzo has exceeded expectations in the NCAA tournament, but how much is due to the hard work of his teams and how much is due to fortunate NCAA tournament draws?

The full article is found within the publication, but today I wanted to include a few hyperlinks and give the article a mini-preview. While everyone correctly emphasizes the importance of NCAA seeding, your NCAA path does not just depend on seeding. Who you play depends on regional slotting and how the bracket breaks in front of you as the tournament progresses. This is what I refer to as bracket luck. If you are looking for something similar, Neil Paine of the Sports Reference College Basketball Blog did a similar analysis using SRS data instead of the Pomeroy data. Paine focuses on whether teams were lucky in the year they won the NCAA title. I focus on bracket luck for all teams in all seasons that we have tempo free data. I calculate and show bracket luck in two ways:

-Which teams have faced easier than expected opponents as measured by average Pythagorean Winning Percentage? (Table 1)

-Which teams have faced easier than expected opponents as measured by the probability of winning, (i.e. expected wins)? (Table 4)

-Then I look at how often teams exceed expectations in the NCAA tournament (Table 5), and make a statement about how important bracket luck is to exceeding expectations.

I also include two other tables:

-Each team’s most fortunate NCAA opponent in the last 7 years. (Table 3)

-And an analysis of Michigan St.’s entire NCAA path over the last 7 years. (Table 2)

The essay is a bit table heavy. And the middle gets a little bogged down discussing one of the tables. But if you read to the end you'll learn why Table 1 and Table 4 do not always lead to the same conclusion. And you will learn the answer to the aforementioned question about Tom Izzo, whether you want to know that answer or not.