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Bracketological breakdown, 2010 edition, volume 1!

It's March, and the mad­ness of the sea­son has over­tak­en me. Thus, I won't be offend­ed if you are about to click back to Twit­ter, or your RSS reader.I'll start by not wast­ing anyone's time com­plain­ing about this year's tour­na­ment pair­ings. That path is well-trav­eled.1 And well it should be! The pair­ings are out­ra­geous! Kansas was pun­ished! Ken­tucky, Duke, and Syra­cuse — they've all got gold­en tick­ets to Indi­anapo­lis. Right? Right?

For starters, I'm glad I'm not Kentucky

For so many rea­sons. Let's look at the round two match-ups. Texas and Wake For­est have been ter­ri­ble — hor­ri­ble — over the past cou­ple of months. But, they're tal­ent­ed, and each could gel for just long enough to beat any­one in the coun­try, includ­ing Ken­tucky. Is this unlike­ly? High­ly. Is it more like­ly that Cor­nell will grind their way past Tem­ple, Wis­con­sin and Ken­tucky? Per­haps. But indulge me: Texas actu­al­ly match­es up pret­ty well with Ken­tucky, size-wise and tal­ent-wise. I think that it's pos­si­ble that they could get moti­vat­ed (ever so briefly) to not be embar­rassed by them. Am I pick­ing Texas over Ken­tucky? Maybe not. Texas coach Rick Barnes is nev­er in dan­ger of out-game­plan­ning any­one. He's nev­er been accused of hav­ing his team ready to play, and his teams are always threat­en­ing to under­per­form. Let's not for­get this. Still, I wouldn't want to be a Ken­tucky fan, not in this tour­na­ment, or in any life­time. Because let me be frank: I don't think I could face a world with­out read­ing, with­out lit­er­a­cy. I just don't think I could do it.

Which reminds me, did you hear that Coach K was born in the year of the Ratfaced Bastard?

Eerie, right? Not sure what his astro­log­i­cal sign is, but I'm rel­a­tive­ly sure that all the major media fig­ures kiss its ass.

But Duke didn't get an easy road, either

I know, most peo­ple say that Duke has the eas­i­est path: a #4 seed in free-fall after its star blew out his knee (Pur­due), and a #2 seed that lost six of its last ten (Vil­lano­va). I say: Thank you for notic­ing, world, but look at the #3 seed: Bay­lor. This team got pun­ished for play­ing cup­cakes ear­ly — Hardin Sim­mons? Texas Arling­ton? South­ern? Hart­ford? Coach Scott Drew, c'mon. You asked for your crud­dy seed. But then Bay­lor played a tough con­fer­ence sched­ule, didn't lose a game by more than 7 points, and they absolute­ly light it up (119 points per 100 pos­ses­sions — 5th in the coun­try). Enough about Bay­lor; Duke may not even get there. Louisville will give Duke every­thing they can han­dle in round 2; per­haps more. Rick Piti­no v Coach K, in the sec­ond round? Fans' brains might explode. Which coach do I hate more? Minds will boggle.

Back to the Wildcats

Kansas State. Are they good enough to reach the Final Four. Yes. Can they beat Syra­cuse? Quite pos­si­bly. How do you beat Syra­cuse? You pun­ish the zone. And K‑State has two guys who can do this — Pullen and Clemente. What about the glass? Two more guys: Wal­ly Judge and Cur­tis Kel­ly. They can hold their own under­neath. Ken­Pom has K‑State ranked 5th in the coun­try in offen­sive rebound­ing per­cent­age at 40%. They gath­er 40% of the rebounds on their offen­sive glass. That's huge. And they play great defense. Did I men­tion I wouldn't want to be Syra­cuse? I wouldn't. Espe­cial­ly because a big guy might be hurt. Or, he might not be. March mad­ness, baybee!

The team that will break my heart: Cornell

Every year I pick a team like this. They're good. They play under con­trol. They've got a sys­tem. All the ingre­di­ents are there for sur­prise. Sub­text: They played very well against Kansas. Okay, let's face it, they out-played Kansas for 20–25 min­utes in the hal­lowed hall of Lawrence, and they came up short (bare­ly). Texas A&M, Bay­lor, Col­orado, Kansas State and Mem­phis also played very well against the Hawks, and lost. Sub­text: I also have these teams doing well in the tour­na­ment. Caveat! Any­way, every year, I pick a team like this to get out of the first round, and they lay an egg. I'm look­ing at you, But­ler team of 2008. This year's heart­break­er is espe­cial­ly obvi­ous to avoid because Tem­ple is a good team who could eas­i­ly … force the afore­men­tioned egg? To emerge? Any­way, Tem­ple is a great defen­sive team, though you wouldn't have been able to see any evi­dence of that against … Kansas! Yes, they lost to the Jay­hawks at home. By 32 points.Did I men­tion that this brack­et break­down was from the point of view who has watched 34 Kansas games, and rough­ly 20 total oth­er games. Caveat!1 I will offer one sug­ges­tion: Why not just fac­tor their media desir­abil­i­ty into the RPI? Your team's win­ning per­cent­age x their opponent's win­ning per­cent­age x their oppo­nents' oppo­nents' win­ning per­cent­age x the like­li­hood that your team will draw a large, rich audi­ence to the Final Four week­end equals their seed. It's obvi­ous­ly a fac­tor in every year's brack­et. Last year, North Car­oli­na was invit­ed to do the Ten­nessee Waltz all the way to Detroit. In oth­er words, they had it easy. In oth­er news, the nation loves them some Tar Heels. It's worth men­tion­ing that adver­tis­ers tend to pay more when the Heels are play­ing. And of course CBS is for-prof­it enter­prise. You get the point. We all do. It's time to be up-front about it.Okay, wait. One more thing. I will post some­thing about the absurd lop­sid­ed­ness of the pairings:

You want to make mar­gin­al No. 1 Duke's road that easy? Seed­ing the brack­et is tough, but come on. The South reeks of a com­mit­tee that lost the for­est for the trees, and Ken­tucky, Syra­cuse and Kansas — espe­cial­ly Kansas — will suf­fer. So much for being the over­all No. 1. If we can't reward Kansas for its excel­lence with some­thing bet­ter than this, then the anti-expan­sion folks' main point is offi­cial­ly moot. The reg­u­lar sea­son doesn't matter.

More here.

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As he steps to the line, he feels game pressure

The Bilas­tra­tor has coined a new term: "Game pres­sure." Dur­ing last weekend's Kansas-Ten­nessee game, ESPN ana­lyst Jay Bilas repeat­ed­ly said that Kansas play­ers were feel­ing "game pres­sure" when they stepped to the free throw line. Game pres­sure? As opposed to … prac­tice pres­sure? As opposed to oth­er kinds of pres­sure that you'd feel dur­ing a big game? Or a nation­al­ly-tele­vised game? Game pres­sure? That's the best that you've got? Now, I was going to let this go, because I think I know what he means: "Game pres­sure" sounds like a spe­cif­ic kind of pres­sure that can't be repli­cat­ed out­side of a game. Young teams, per­haps, are par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to it because they haven't been in as many … games. Any­way, I was going to let it go until Bilas referred to Kansas guard Sher­ron Collins as "Law­son-esque" (as in North Car­oli­na guard Tywon Law­son) and then pre­dict­ed that Tyler Hans­brough will again be the nation­al play­er of the year.

You mean Lawson is "Collins-esque," right?

Where was Law­son in the Final Four? I'll tell you: He was get­ting killed by Collins. If Collins played in the ACC, he'd be get­ting com­pared to Chris Paul. (I think he's more like Vin­nie "the Microwave" John­son). On that note, I hope that Bob Knight is going to break up the ACC-lov­ing com­men­tary cabal at ESPN. From the cou­ple of games I've seen, he is made for TV. And he speaks to bas­ket­ball fans, not just fans of the ACC. He's not afraid to say unpop­u­lar things; not a sur­prise. He's also like­ly to com­pare cur­rent play­ers to non-ACC play­ers (such as his Indi­ana play­ers from the 70's), and he's com­plete­ly at ease in diss­ing oth­er talk­ing heads. Is there some way that I can get his com­men­tary on every game? Please?

Aldrich rips the ball away from Hansbrough
Aldrich ruled Hans­brough in the Final Four. "But he just works so hard." Oth­er ath­let­ic cen­ters rule him reg­u­lar­ly. "He doesn't take pos­ses­sions off." The argu­ment against him being play­er of the year is so strong; it seems almost sil­ly to car­ry it out. Pho­to: Get­ty Images

I've got no real beef with Psy­cho T, as Hans­brough is known, but he is not the best play­er in the coun­try. How could he be? When­ev­er he plays against any­one big and ath­let­ic, he gets killed. Yes, he brings it every night; yes, he leaves it all on the court. Dick­ie V loves it. All the old­er com­men­ta­tors love it. Who doesn't love a kid who plays hard every minute he's on the court? I love it. He's like Nick Col­li­son. Nick Col­li­son was awe­some, but he was not the play­er of the year, was he? Would any­one argue that he was, oth­er than hope­less Kansas loy­al­ists? He was a good play­er on a great team. Like Hans­brough, now. Collison's prob­lem was that he didn't play for the most vis­i­ble pro­gram in the most over-hyped con­fer­ence in the coun­try. If Hans­brough played at Texas, he'd get com­pared to Col­li­son all the time, and he'd be the feel-good choice for the Nai­smith. If only.

basketball kansas basketball

March Madness / Zapruder analysis of Mario's shot

A cou­ple of days ago, I was watch­ing Mario's three-point­er for like the 150th time, and I decid­ed to do it JFK/Zaprud­er style. Click. Sher­ron blows by Der­rick Rose. Click. Click. Click. Sher­ron begins to fall. Click. The ball emerges in Mario's hands, he takes a big jump-step toward the top of the key, jumps, fades. Der­rick Rose leaps. Ball leaves Mario's hand. Arc-ing, arc-ing. Swish. (Rewind). Swish. (Rewind). Swish. I felt like Kevin Cost­ner in JFK: Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.

An obscured leaping figure

As I stepped through the swish mul­ti­ple times, I saw some­thing I hadn't seen before, a sort of puff of smoke on the grassy knoll. There's a leap­ing fig­ure behind the back­board, at the very far end of the Kansas bench. Just after Mario's shot goes through, the play­ers on the bench appear to be in dis­be­lief, but a black clad fig­ure at the end of the bench sud­den­ly springs up, spin­ning, arms flail­ing. I think that this was pret­ty close to my reac­tion as well.

Ballard celebratesThis is clos­est I could come to a shot of the bench at that moment Mario's shot goes through the net. It's unclear who it is from this pho­to, but it's almost cer­tain­ly the same guy you can see onscreen, jump­ing and celebrating.

You can kin­da see a black blur behind the back­board in this YouTube clip, but it's much more clear­ly viewed in high-def­i­n­i­tion about two feet from your TV screen.Fast-forward to the post-game cel­e­bra­tion, and it becomes clear that the fig­ure is none oth­er than for­mer Kansas back­up point guard and cur­rent video assis­tant, Brett Bal­lard. Awe­some. I was always a Bal­lard fan because he's a Kansas kid, from Hutchi­son. [Here's a nice Kansan pro­file of Bal­lard.] Now he'll always be the visu­al record of my own reac­tion to Mario's shot.

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Kansas basketball / A dadgum classic

Sur­re­al. That's the word that keeps com­ing to mind. Kansas trailed by nine points with two min­utes left, and yet some­how man­aged to win. Chalmers's shot. Collins's steal. Roy Williams — "Bene­dict Williams" to many Jay­hawk fans — wear­ing a Jay­hawk stick­er. Is it pos­si­ble that all of that *real­ly* hap­pened? Watch the last few min­utes of the game again, and you'll begin to see how many lit­tle things went KU's way. There were big things, of course — Calipari's lack of faith in his bench, Joey Dorsey's fouls, CDR's clankers from the line — but there were also those momen­tary mis­takes that add up: a ter­ri­ble tran­si­tion deci­sion by Mem­phis, ques­tion­able judg­ment when Cali­pari doesn't call time­out after a made free throw to ensure that his team fouls, and the sim­ple bad luck of Der­rick Rose's first free throw that hit every part of the rim and then bounced out with 10 sec­onds left.Still, Kansas need­ed a mir­a­cle to sim­ply pull even.

Mario's shot
Pho­to: Streeter Lecka

Luke Winn of Sports Illus­trat­ed real­ly nails the last few sec­onds in his Tour­ney Blog: "The ball took what Collins said seemed 'like five sec­onds' in the air, per­fect­ly rotat­ing, and Bran­don Rush, who had posi­tioned him­self near the bas­ket in the event of a tip, looked up at the net and 'saw it splash right in there.' … 'It will prob­a­bly be,' said Self, 'the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history.'"

The bench reacts to Mario's shot
The bench reacts to Mario's shot. Pho­to: Jeff Haynes

The Kansas City Star's Jason Whit­lock com­ment­ed on the sto­ries behind the sto­ry: "That's how you win it all, exor­cise the demons and bap­tize a new era of great­ness. You do it with an unfor­get­table ral­ly, a stun­ning three-point­er and with your most famous and infa­mous coach­ing alum sit­ting in the sta­di­um, cheer­ing you on and sport­ing a Jay­hawk sticker."

Baby Jay all the way
Pho­to: Jed Jacobsohn

The Star's Joe Pos­nan­s­ki on Memphis's seem­ing­ly insur­mount­able lead, and Mario's shot: "When you're young, you live in the moment. That's how it's sup­posed to be. Chalmers was not feel­ing the pres­sure of his­to­ry when he fired the shot. He nev­er could have made it then. Kansas was trail­ing by nine points with bare­ly 2 min­utes left. Mem­phis had tak­en all the inten­si­ty and will and feroc­i­ty that Kansas had to give, and then the Tigers pulled away. Up nine with about 2 min­utes left? Over."

Self & Sherron
Sher­ron & Bill Self. Pho­to: Streeter Lecka

Collins's con­tri­bu­tion was huge, despite his turnovers. He was in Der­rick Rose's face all night, and his pace and fear­less­ness cre­at­ed the two biggest moments of the game — the steal with just under a minute left, and the pass to Mario with 5 sec­onds left. Dana O'Neil's arti­cle on ESPN real­ly cap­tures it well (title: "With­out Collins, there is no Chalmers."). Der­rick Rose com­ment­ed on Sherron's play dur­ing Memphis's post-game press con­fer­ence: "He did what he sup­posed to do as a point guard — con­trol the team, push the ball up the court and make tough plays at the end. He just con­trolled the game.â€Self was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly mod­est after the game, "The out­side pub­lic may view peo­ple that win a cham­pi­onship dif­fer­ent­ly, but coach­es know you don't get smarter because a hard shot goes in or doesn't go in. I'm proud of our guys, hap­py for every­body involved, but I don't see it that way.â€I'm not sure what it will take for the talk­ing heads to give him some respect, hon­est­ly. In ESPN's pre-game show, the for­mer coach­es (Vitale, Dig­ger, and Knight) lav­ished praise on Mem­phis coach John Cali­pari. Vitale threw around all the usu­al hyper­bole ("genius," "inno­va­tor," as I recall), and even Knight com­pli­ment­ed Cal's inven­tive­ness as a coach. After the game, the mood was fune­re­al around the ESPN desk, as if they them­selves had lost the game. Why? There are some com­pelling con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries bounc­ing around the com­ments on the Lawrence Jour­nal-World site, e.g. "[Sup­port­ing] Kansas pro­motes [KU's] recruit­ing and keeps Kansas a Cadil­lac pro­gram. In turn, that steers recruits away from schools where the talk­ing heads have loy­al­ties and rela­tion­ships with coach­es that give them the access they require in the major media mar­kets they need to pump up their Q rat­ings and mar­ket share rat­ings." Hmm.Finally, the NYT's Pete Thamel post­ed some engag­ing com­men­tary on The Quad, the NYT's col­lege sports blog. He describes the scene in the Mem­phis lock­er room afterward:

There are only two lock­er rooms I'd ever seen where the play­ers were this dev­as­tat­ed. One was the U.S.C. lock­er room after Matt Leinart and the Tro­jans lost the nation­al title to Texas in the Rose Bowl. I remem­ber Leinart sit­ting alone on a bench, eat­ing a turkey sand­wich and a choco­late chip cook­ie and drink­ing a Gatorade. It was kind of sur­re­al that his whole senior year had come down to that.The oth­er was the Okla­homa lock­er room after the Soon­ers lost to Boise State in what many con­sid­er the great­est fin­ish to a col­lege foot­ball game. That would be the Ian John­son, Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty, hook-and-lad­der game. The most bizarre scene from that lock­er room was Okla­homa Coach Bob Stoops just stand­ing by him­self, star­ing off into the ether. It's rare to see a head coach alone any­where, any­time. But Stoops could have been on Plu­to, and no one at that sec­ond was going to visit. 

Final­ly, today's Kansas City Star front page. Nice! I had the 1988 ver­sion on my bed­room wall for about 10 years, until it basi­cal­ly turned into dust. 

Kansas City Star front page

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March Madness / Final Four shit

If words are win­dows to the soul, this blog has become a mas­sive vista onto my sports obses­sions and, specif­i­cal­ly, Kansas bas­ket­ball. Soon enough it'll all be over, the fever dream will end, the sun will rise, and I'll be back to the old stuff. Until then, I want to post one more thing, to com­mem­o­rate the Jay­hawks' run to San Antonio.

Kansas Jayhawk Final Four 2008 t-shirt - I could give a shit about CarolinaI designed a t‑shirt that expressed my feel­ings with regard to the Heels, which — in a real­ly weird coin­ci­dence — echo Ol Roy's sen­ti­ments c. 2003.

For many Kansas fans, Roy's angry words ring true — truer, even — today. Sure, Roy may have claimed to have "giv­en a shit" at that moment, but he changed his tune a week lat­er. Jay­hawk fans prob­a­bly still couldn't give a shit, to say the least. Now, we can declare this to the world. [Buy it now now now from Zaz­zle].

A day that will live in infamy

In case anyone's won­der­ing what the heck the shirt is all about, let's take a quick trip down YouTube lane. The year was 2003; the time was 10 min­utes after KU's nation­al final loss to Syra­cuse; the place was the tun­nel out­side the Kansas lock­er room The "shit" part clear­ly wasn't pre-med­i­tat­ed, yet it was per­fect­ly timed, putting a bit­ter excla­ma­tion point on a ring­ing rebuke. Of course, the most shock­ing part of it all was that it came from the man who had — to that point — cor­nered the mar­ket in "dadgums" and "dog­gones:" Ol Roy, the kind coun­try cousin of col­lege bas­ket­ball. In more ways than one, that inter­view was the end of an era, and in ret­ro­spect, Roy's aw-shucks-ing and dadgum-ing seems a lit­tle sil­ly, but it sure worked well for a while. Now, well. Times have changed.

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Basketball / It's bracket time

2008 NCAA tournament bracketYou prob­a­bly can't tell, but I've been wor­ry­ing over my picks for the last cou­ple of days.

My patented approach = tossed out the window

I've filled out 20+ brack­ets in my life, and each year I take basi­cal­ly the same tack: At least one #1 seed goes down rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly; every Big 12 team rep­re­sents. This most­ly works, but it gets com­pli­cat­ed because I also gen­er­al­ly want Duke to flame out ear­ly (and with the great­est pos­si­ble degree of humil­i­a­tion), and I expect the Pac 10 teams to eat shit as well. His­to­ry has not been kind to this approach. Did I men­tion that I usu­al­ly send Kansas to the Final Four at least as well? So yes, I usu­al­ly lose what­ev­er pool I've entered.

Instead, I predict that history will be made in a couple of ways

Of course, I still have Duke flam­ing out and Kansas win­ning, but I've twist­ed a cou­ple of the oth­er valves in my strat­e­gy engine:

  1. All 4 #1 seeds make the Final Four. In every case, I couldn't imag­ine any one of them los­ing. North Car­oli­na is play­ing in their home state all the way through. Mem­phis is good, and they're mad, and I don't think they're going to have to face Texas, so who are they going to lose to? Pitts­burgh? Bob Knight thinks so, but I'm not so sure. Kansas is also good, and they're focused, and I just hope that Bill Self has them ready to go. UCLA is the only team that, to me, seems vul­ner­a­ble, if only because K‑Love's back may be hurt. Then again, Ben How­land is a wily bas­tard, and I wouldn't put it past him to use a very minor injury to start mess­ing with the minds of future oppo­nents, a la Bill Belichick.
  2. The Pac 10 per­forms. I dare you to look into the sea­sons that each of the teams played. They played good teams, and they per­formed pret­ty well. I've got USC in the Elite Eight. Crazy? Maybe. But they fin­ished the sea­son pret­ty strong, even though Waz­zu obvi­ous­ly had their num­ber. Which is why I have Waz­zu advanc­ing before los­ing a tight one to UNC.
  3. The Big 12 fiz­zles. K‑State is reel­ing, and I've got them los­ing to USC. Okla­homa looked awful quite a few times this year; I wouldn't be at all sur­prised to see St. Joe's stick it to them. I've got Texas los­ing to Stan­ford, only because I have a hard time see­ing Damion James sin­gle-hand­ed­ly deal­ing with the Lopez bros. On the oth­er hand, I do have Bay­lor and A&M win­ning in the first round, and I've got Kansas win­ning it all. So it's a minor fizzle.

Remem­ber: You heard it here first. Prob­a­bly not.

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Basketball / Jayhawks, predictions, bracketometry

Man, this year is going to be good, not only because the teams are good, but because there are good sto­ries out there. I tell myself that I don't care about sto­ry­lines, but at some point, I absorb them. I repeat them. They become part of my con­ver­sa­tions. All the extra­ne­ous detail from those play­er mini-pro­files being pro­duced by CBS will become cement itself in my mem­o­ry; like Mateen Cleaves' from 2000 tour­na­ment: his sto­ried high school career in Michi­gan, his drunk­en dri­ving, the tough love of father-fig­ure/­coach Tom Izzo. Why do I remem­ber this? Why do I care? Who knows? As Dick Vitale would say: It's March Mad­ness, baby!

Let's start at the top

Mem­phis is the rarely defeat­ed team with killer ath­letes and a dick­head for a coach; North Car­oli­na has play­er of the year Tyler Hans­bor­ough and the elec­tri­fy­ing "Car­oli­na break" (for­mer­ly known as the Kansas break), but it's also got some glar­ing incon­sis­ten­cies; UCLA has good bal­ance, a great coach, good defense, and a stone killer in fresh­man Kevin Love; Kansas has expe­ri­ence, Dar­nell Jack­son, and a recent his­to­ry of flame­outs [cf. Buck­nell, Bradley] to overcome. 

Mid-major blah blah blah

As usu­al, there are also a host of mid-major teams with chips on their shoul­ders. But­ler had Flori­da on the ropes last year; this year, they have to trav­el to Birm­ing­ham as a #7 seed to play South Alaba­ma (a #10 seed); if they win, they earn the right to play anoth­er fired-up south­east­ern team, Ten­nessee. And Gon­za­ga (#7) has to trav­el three time zones to play a team that's dri­ving three hours with­in its home state, David­son (#10). It appears that the tour­na­ment com­mit­tee is no longer amused by fun­da­men­tal­ly sound, deeply expe­ri­enced, sin­gu­lar­ly focused mid-major teams tak­ing down high seeds in the ear­ly rounds. An inter­est­ing development.

Mid-major dis disclaimer

By diss­ing mid-majors, you think I'm play­ing with fire, but I'm not. Oh, no. I've already been burned. Twice. There's noth­ing left to burn. I'm a black­ened husk. It began in 2006; I wrote a long email about "the myth of mid-majors" to my friends. Then, I trav­eled to Austin, where I watched the the Jay­hawks mail in a first-round game against Buck­nell. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some­one for­got to tell Buck­nell that they were sup­posed to climb inside the enve­lope and dis­ap­pear. To the delight of the entire bar from which I watched, they held off the Jay­hawks and advanced. The next year, it was Bradley. I was in a hotel in Albu­querque. Alone. Ago­niz­ing.

Kansas & UNC earn a right to stay close to home

Both teams get to stay local, but each gets test­ed by an inter­est­ing foe. UNC doesn't leave the state until they trav­el to San Anto­nio for the Final Four, but they need to beat Ten­nessee — a team that beat Mem­phis, a team with a legit­i­mate claim to a #1 seed — before they get to San Anto­nio. Kansas tours the Mid­west, head­ing to Oma­ha, then Detroit, but they need to beat George­town — a con­sis­tent, grit­ty team that is well-suit­ed to stick it to the incon­sis­tent Jay­hawks — before cut­ting down the region­al nets. Seems fair, mostly.But does this obsess­ing over geog­ra­phy real­ly mat­ter? I don't know. On a pure­ly philo­soph­i­cal lev­el, the cham­pi­on has to win six games, peri­od. Geor­gia won four games in three days to take the SEC tour­na­ment; they'd won a total of four games in two-plus months of con­fer­ence play. The Fab 5 advanced to the Final Four through Atlanta and Lex­ing­ton in 1992, Phoenix and Seat­tle in 1993.

On a historical note

Last year, Kansas got shipped two time zones west­ward and played what amount­ed to an away game against UCLA. I was there, sur­round­ed by cologne-wear­ing, hair-gelled, Steve-Lavin-look-alike douchebags who roared with every impos­si­ble fade­away prayer hit by Arron Affla­lo (not mis­spelled), and every brass-balled pull-up j by Dar­ren Col­li­son. It has tak­en me some time to admit that UCLA may have been the bet­ter team, a fact that wasn't made any more com­fort­ing by Bill Walton's pod-rhap­sody about the beau­ty of UCLA's win [mp3]. The tour­na­ment committee's cal­cu­lus: Kansas wasn't a clear #1 seed, so they need­ed to trav­el across the coun­try to beat UCLA in their back yard in order to prove they belong in the Final Four. Which brings me to this year's Mem­phis team.

This year, Memphis gets sent through the fire

Don't you get the feel­ing that the tour­na­ment com­mit­tee smells blood with Mem­phis? The Tigers were ranked #1 for a lot of the year, and they lost just ONE game all year. Except. Except they have the mis­for­tune of play­ing in a weak con­fer­ence, and their one loss hap­pened to come at home against a team that got its ass hand­ed to them by Texas. For this, they get sent to Hous­ton for the South region­al final, where they may in fact meet up with Texas. (Is there any way that the crowd won't be heav­i­ly pro-Horn?) The tour­na­ment com­mit­tee is clear­ly say­ing: Show us what you've got, Der­rick Rose and Joey Dorsey. Show up what you got, John Cali­pari! [Here it is again. John Cheney threat­ens to kill John Cali­pari. Thank you, YouTube]. Who knows? Maybe it's a sort of karmic pay­back for Dorsey refer­ring to him­self as Goliath, with Greg Oden as David dur­ing last year's tour­na­ment. Dude, if you're Goliath, then sur­vive this rock-sling­ing gauntlet.

Rick Barnes can recruit, but can the dude coach?

Two things I noticed about Barnes dur­ing the Big 12 final: (1) The guy either can't con­sis­tent­ly set up a decent play off a dead ball, or his play­ers just can't exe­cute one. I find it hard to believe that DJ Augustin, one of the most tal­ent­ed play­ers I've seen in a long time, can't exe­cute a play. So I'm left with the impres­sion that Barnes is just a bad game-plan­ner. Too many times, his team came out of a time­out with some crap play that result­ed in a bad shot or turnover. Augustin can often bail Barnes out by hit­ting lots of bad shots, but how far can this take them, real­ly? (2) Even worse, Barnes rides his stars, and they suf­fer against deep­er teams. Augustin played all 40 min­utes in the Big 12 tour­na­ment final and he aver­aged 39+ for the sea­son. He fin­ished with 20 points, scor­ing only 2 in the sec­ond half and miss­ing all nine shots that he took. AJ Abrams is no help; he can spot up and drain threes, but he's my size and needs to run off a bunch of screens to get an open shot, and there­fore he does lit­tle to ease the bur­den on Augustin. 

Ol Roy on the horizon for the Jayhawks

While I love all of this, I'm also focused on the prospects of my team. To para­phrase a once-great Kansan, I could (most­ly) give a shit about sto­ry­lines. As a Kansas fan, I'm pri­mar­i­ly wor­ried about Port­land State break­ing new ground as a #16 seed. Let's take care of that one. Then I'm wor­ried about UNLV; then Clem­son; then George­town. Then: Ol Roy?In the Final Four, there's the poten­tial for some great, great match-ups, which I'll detail in anoth­er post. Too much needs to hap­pen between now and then.

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Basketball / Tale of two teams

Baron!The Bay Area: Where Baron hap­pens. Pho­to: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Liv­ing in the Bay Area, I've watched Baron Davis and Don Nel­son breathe life into the corpse of the Gold­en State War­riors by play­ing fast, loose, undis­ci­plined, unpre­dictable bas­ket­ball. When they're click­ing, the War­riors are invig­o­rat­ing and life-affirm­ing. Nel­lie doesn't bur­den the team with struc­ture — they don't real­ly run an "offense" or play "defense" in the tra­di­tion­al sens­es — instead, they rely on the play­ers' abil­i­ties to impro­vise, pull their oppo­nents out of their own struc­tures, and wear them down with run­ning and gunning. 

Playground electicity

When the War­riors are good, they're like the best play­ground bas­ket­ball team you could ever imag­ine. What makes them all the more excit­ing is that their ros­ter lacks key tra­di­tion­al dimen­sions asso­ci­at­ed with suc­cess­ful teams. They com­pete with­out the tra­di­tion­al man-moun­tain in the low-post to take on Shaq, Yao, Dun­can, or Pau; instead, Andris Biedrins, who has very lit­tle in the way of a J and doesn't ever try to play fac­ing the bas­ket, uses his quick­ness and hops to rebound, fol­low, and gen­er­al­ly sur­prise oppo­nents with his abil­i­ty to keep War­rior pos­ses­sions alive. (Check out where The Wages of Wins ranked Biedrins for the 2006–2007 sea­son) Spoil­er: He's #1 on the team, with 11.7 to Baron's 9.7. On the guard front, Baron and Stephen Jack­son and Mon­ta Ellis don't real­ly run an offense as much as they weave through defens­es in per­pet­u­al one-on-fives, dri­ving to the rim, dish­ing to team­mates. Baron has a (admit­ted­ly deserved) rep­u­ta­tion as a shoot-first point guard, but he defers to oth­ers when they're hot and his team­mates seem to feed off his ener­gy. Mon­ta, more of a two-guard than a point, some­how can't shoot the three, but he can blow by just about any­one and he's one of the bet­ter fin­ish­ers in the league right now. 6'9" Al Har­ring­ton is more reli­able from behind the arc than he is with his back to the bas­ket; Wages of Wins doesn't think much of him, but it's hard to deny the prob­lems that he cre­ates for defens­es when he's in the game. Stephen Jack­son — Stack Jack, as Baron calls him — is the glue; when he's in the game, every­one is bet­ter. Seri­ous­ly, who wouldn't want to play with him? He's got everyone's back.

DarnellDar­nell can't do it alone. Pho­to: Nick Krug, Lawrence Journal-World.

Con­trast the War­riors with the oth­er team that I fol­low, the Kansas Jay­hawks. Where the War­riors are dan­ger­ous, inscrutable, fierce com­peti­tors who save their best for big games, the Jay­hawks have been the oppo­site: soft, pre­dictable, vul­ner­a­ble when the game is on the line. Where the War­riors have at least three guys who thrive in pres­sure sit­u­a­tions — Baron, Stack Jack, and Har­ring­ton — the Jay­hawks have eight guys who could start on any team in Amer­i­ca, but not one who wants to take over a game. Last week, I trekked to Ora­cle with Justin, Mara, and Lynne (Lynne? Blog?), and we watched the War­riors wear down the Celtics and, in the final moments, dri­ve a dag­ger into their hearts. Three days lat­er, I watched the Jay­hawks wilt in the final moments against a very, very fired up Okla­homa State team. Part of the prob­lem is that Kansas sim­ply doesn't have reli­able offen­sive weapons; anoth­er part is that teams love beat­ing the Hawks, and each Jay­hawk oppo­nent is play­ing its biggest game of the sea­son. Col­lege bas­ket­ball is dif­fer­ent in that regard. Mes­sage boards don't rejoice each time the Lak­ers lose a game, but oh how peo­ple love to see teams like Kansas (Google: "kansas" + "choke"), Duke (Google: "duke" + "choke"), and Ken­tucky (Google: "ken­tucky" + "choke") lose. Which is fine. If peo­ple didn't real­ly react this way, the wins wouldn't be as much fun.The root of the Hawks' prob­lem is offen­sive, though. The War­riors are stocked with guys who can cre­ate their own shot, but Kansas has to rely on Mario Chalmers and Sher­ron Collins (and, to some extent, Rus­sell Robin­son) to break down defens­es and spring Bran­don Rush on the perime­ter or Dar­rell Arthur inside. Like the War­riors, the Hawks don't run a struc­tured offense with inter­change­able parts; they rely on ath­leti­cism. This lack of dimen­sion is eas­i­ly exploit­ed by teams who effec­tive­ly pres­sure the Hawks' guards, and who run big guys out to trap the ball at the three-point line. Add to this mix the fact that Kansas guards can­not seem to defend oppos­ing guards, and there's no ques­tion that they've got some big prob­lems to solve before mid-March.

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Kansas basketball / Post-Julian thoughts

Julian at the SIU game

Julian Wright is tak­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty of a life­time, and who can blame him? He brought enthu­si­asm and ener­gy to every game, con­tributed huge­ly in many of the big wins in the last cou­ple of years (cf. these dunks dur­ing the Flori­da game and this epic 33-point per­for­mance at MU), and showed enough skill and poten­tial to be very high­ly regard­ed by NBA scouts. Who wouldn't seize a chance to be finan­cial­ly secure, and to play in the NBA? The future is rarely cer­tain in these sit­u­a­tions, as these guys can attest. Best of luck to you, JuJu.The KU-sports-relat­ed Inter­net is (pre­dictably) thrash­ing around with the news, and the emo­tions range from hurt to hap­py, fatal­is­tic to opti­mistic. And who can blame them, real­ly? The last four years have been tough on Kansas bas­ket­ball, so tough that the men­tion of cer­tain names — Roy, Mic­ah, Pad­gett, Galin­do, Gid­dens, CJ, etc — can pro­voke pangs and spasms of hurt and guilt. I guess Julian gets added to the list now, though per­son­al­ly I think he's ready and I'm hap­py for him. Most of the com­menters at the end of this sto­ry feel oth­er­wise. Julian's depar­ture is com­pli­cat­ed, of course, by the fact that he pledged to stay fol­low­ing the loss to UCLA. This CBS reporter was real­ly peev­ed that Julian recon­sid­ered his prospects after the sea­son end­ed, which seems kin­da sil­ly to me. Did it real­ly take Julian's change of heart to com­mu­ni­cate to him that big-time col­lege sports are bit­ter­sweet, unpre­dictable, and per­pet­u­al­ly com­pro­mised by the twin prospects of major, life-chang­ing injuries and major, life-chang­ing paydays?Whatever hap­pens, I think that Julian will even­tu­al­ly have a good NBA career. Ryan Greene of com­pares Julian to Shawn Mar­i­on, and I see the resem­blance as well. That said, he would be way bet­ter off with estab­lished, vet­er­an-heavy teams like Phoenix (who wouldn't?) or Chica­go, where he'd be able to learn and adjust out of the spot­light. Career-endan­ger­ing teams like Mem­phis, Atlanta or (once again) Sacra­men­to will give him too much respon­si­bil­i­ty too soon, though he may be able to sur­vive that either way. Long term, he's a West­ern Con­fer­ence play­er who will come off the bench, get his 12 and 8, con­tin­ue do all the lit­tle stuff that makes him great (deflect­ing pass­es, set­ting oth­er guys up, keep­ing offen­sive rebounds alive), and be a good team guy to boot.

The bright sides

Look­ing for­ward to next Novem­ber, here are three sce­nar­ios that reflect my think­ing on the remain­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for ear­ly entries and (yikes, not again!) transfers.

  • With­out Wright: Actu­al­ly may be bet­ter. Like Drew Gooden's ear­ly exit, I actu­al­ly think there's quite a sig­nif­i­cant bright side here. Julian's ath­let­ic abil­i­ty and tal­ent require that he play a major role in the offense, which results in few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for the tal­ents of oth­er play­ers — Mario's dri­ves and shots, Sherron's shot and dri­ve, Rush's entire offen­sive arse­nal, Shady's sweet moves inside 12 feet. When Good­en left, Collison's McHale-like low-post pres­ence and Hinrich's Stock­ton-like abil­i­ty to make the right deci­sion on every fast break end­ed up pro­vid­ing a sys­tem more sta­ble than the one focused on Gooden's always ath­let­ic, some­times errat­ic pres­ence. With­out Julian at the 4, Shady starts and gets more time. This means that the line-up gets bulki­er with­out los­ing that much in the way of speed. They'll miss Julian's explo­sive­ness and shot-block­ing, but they gain Shady's sweet touch and bet­ter abil­i­ty to (more depend­ably) make plays while post­ing up. If Rush is still around (not like­ly, so see the bul­let point below), I tend to think that this line-up may even be more dan­ger­ous than if Wright had stuck around.
  • With­out Wright and Rush: Lots of re-jig­ger­ing, lots of uncer­tain­ty. Los­ing Rush is a much big­ger deal than los­ing Wright, obvi­ous­ly. He's the team's best on-the-ball defend­er; he became the go-to scor­er dur­ing the games in San Jose, and he can stroke it. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for him, he's not the explo­sive ath­lete that Julian is, and scouts are not eval­u­at­ing his drafta­bil­i­ty in the crys­tal-ball­ish terms of upside and poten­tial. His capac­i­ty is known, appar­ent­ly, and there­fore it has lim­its in the eyes of scouts. Does this mean he can't become, say, a Bruce Bowen type of play­er? Heck no. In fact, I think he'd fit in real­ly well with the type of team who would draft him in the 20's or so. And this is prob­a­bly what will hap­pen, so it all works out for the best, for him. If mon­ey and aca­d­e­mics (which are a major has­sle for him) were not issues, he's in a great posi­tion to thrive next sea­son. He fits into Self's sys­tem real­ly well; he real­ly began to shine at the end of the sea­son; anoth­er sea­son would real­ly give him a chance to refine his drib­ble-dri­ve and his out­side shot. But this is not an ide­al world, and bar­ring the entry of the entire UNC team or an injury that pre­vents him from com­pet­ing in the pre-draft camps, I sus­pect he's gone. Good luck to him.
    So. How do the Hawks replace Bran­don? Who becomes the stop­per? Who takes over the offense at the end of games? Who attracts the oth­er team's defend­ers when­ev­er he's on the floor? I'm not real­ly sure about any of this. A cou­ple of things are cer­tain, though: This will be a sea­soned, capa­ble team. They've been through a lot, beat­en Kevin Durant twice, won two Big 12 tour­na­ments, etc. More­over, they'll be with­out a super­star like Bran­don and Julian, and this — weird­ly — might make them much more like Self's Illi­nois teams — grit­ty, hun­gry, scrap­py and dan­ger­ous in the tournament.
  • With­out Wright, Rush, and Collins: !@$#%$#@*&. Almost too painful to con­sid­er. How many times did I text the words "Thank God for Sher­ron" dur­ing the Big 12 sea­son? How many times did he sin­gle-hand­ed­ly change the pace and momen­tum of a game with a vicious dri­ve to the bas­ket? He's not ready to jump to the League, but rumor has it that he wants to be clos­er to home. But would he real­ly want to sit out a year, play for a school in a mid-major con­fer­ence, give up a chance to play in a Final Four, give up a chance to play on nation­al tele­vi­sion for 15–20 or 20–25 games next year? I real­ly hope not. Man, that would hurt.
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March Madness / My bracket, with explanations

UPDATE 1: A cou­ple of changed picks; UPDATE 2: Some eerie resem­blances my brack­et and those of SI writ­ers; UPDATE 4: Sur­vey­ing the car­nage: Thoughts after the first two roundsHere's the brack­et that I made on the Mon­day after the seed­ings were announced.

my 2007 bracket - ideal version

UPDATE: Since Mon­day, I've been spend­ing a lot of time read­ing up on the teams I don't know/care about — in and its Tour­ney Blog, sta­tis­ti­cal ana­lyst Ken Pomeroy's blog, the NYT Brack­et blog, and the ever-unfriend­ly which must hide a lot of its use­ful stuff behind its sub­scrip­tion ser­vice, Insid­er. In any case, the more you read about the first round match-ups, the more con­fus­ing it all gets. I've seen many of the teams play at some point dur­ing the sea­son, but I'm total­ly in the dark on pret­ty much any team from the Pac 10 (even though I live in Cal­i­for­nia, I just real­ly can't even force myself to care about it) and almost all of the mid-majors. One brack­et change came out of this — I can't believe I'm say­ing this, but Duke seems less like­ly to get upset by VCU. Duke has been crit­i­cized a lot for being soft, slop­py, and gen­er­al­ly unin­spired, and they're com­ing off a sting­ing loss in the ACC Tour­na­ment. How could they not be hun­gry? They've got a bunch of tal­ent­ed play­ers, and it just seems real­ly unlike­ly that they won't be able to pull off a win against a VCU team that has only played one team in the tour­na­ment (Old Domin­ion). While I've only changed one out­come, my read­ing did pro­duce many doubts in my brack­et, which I detail below. (It also caused me to cre­ate three more ver­sions of my brack­et to account for the dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios that the pun­dits high­light­ed — What if Ore­gon can't play defense? What if Oden explodes on the scene and dom­i­nates every­one? What if North Car­oli­na is as good as they appear to be in 3‑minute stretches?)

Some second thoughts

UPDATE 2: Inci­den­tal­ly, SI writer Grant Wahl's brack­et is almost exact­ly the same as mine. (Actu­al­ly, same with Seth Davis). Same Final Four; same final game; same out­come. The only big dif­fer­ences are that he has Texas beat­ing UNC (UPDATE 3: Now, so do I), and Creighton beat­ing Mem­phis, where­as I have both UNC and Mem­phis get­ting knocked out in the next round. (I also have more first-round upsets than him … Oral Roberts over Wash­ing­ton State, etc).UPDATE 4 (in the week fol­low­ing the first two rounds): After two straight years in which my brack­et burst into flames dur­ing the first week­end, I was just hap­py to emerge with 15 out of 16 teams still alive. Most­ly, I got burned by my late changes — Texas beat­ing UNC and Duke beat­ing VCU — and by the fash­ion­able upsets that I stub­born­ly decid­ed to stick with — Geor­gia Tech over UNLV, Creighton over Neva­da, and Oral Roberts over Wash­ing­ton State, each of which found their own ago­niz­ing way of dri­ving a spear through my heart. Crxp.As usu­al, there were a cou­ple of teams that I was total­ly, total­ly wrong about: (1) UNLV. Obvi­ous­ly, these guys can play. I dis­count­ed them because (a) who did they beat? and (b) the coach's son seemed to play an inor­di­nate­ly impor­tant role. Both seemed like big-time red flags. I ignored the fact that they were expe­ri­enced, and that they were clear­ly pissed off by their #7 seed. Who would have thought that the team that rose to the occa­sion would be com­posed of hard-nosed guys led by jour­ney­man coach Lon Kruger (UNLV), and not com­posed of McDonald's All-Amer­i­cans and led by the saint­ed Coach K? Seemed unlike­ly before it hap­pened, but oh how sweet it is in ret­ro­spect. (2) Texas. Dur­ing the two Kansas games, they were dan­ger­ous­ly weak at guard. Both games would like­ly have been blow-outs if Durant hadn't total­ly gone off in the first 15 min­utes of each. Abrams is a ter­ri­ble ball-han­dler who needs mul­ti­ple screens to get his shot going, and Augustin is com­plete­ly dom­i­nant one moment and out-of-con­trol the next. USC forced these guys to play a big­ger role by tak­ing away Durant's drib­ble; good call, Tim Floyd. (Didn't real­ly think I'd be say­ing those words any­time after 2002). On the oth­er bench, Rick Barnes made no dis­cernible adjust­ments. Again, not that sur­pris­ing, in retrospect.The next round looks most­ly bor­ing to me, though I guess half the games could be excit­ing — UNC-USC, if USC is able to hang on while UNC goes on its peri­od­ic runs, A&M‑Memphis should dis­play some good offen­sive fire­pow­er (unlike Pitt-UCLA, which almost cer­tain­ly will be a grind-it-out snore-fest), and KU-SIU which could be excit­ing if KU has a hard time run­ning its offense against the defense-mind­ed Salukis. Let's hope that it's not excit­ing in this way.