There's an intimacy in this that so resonates with me. I mean, it's impossible to imagine that I wouldn't be charmed by the subject matter alone — a President I greatly admire, plus two NBA players. But this moment is especially great, because I love Derrick Rose's game and I will always appreciate that he OD'd on candy before the 2008 NCAA Final with Kansas. And I admire Joakim Noah's gritty post play and his serious media game. And I love that there's genuine emotion in this shot. It has got a little bit of stagey-ness, but it also feels, like I said, intimate, like the photographer took this photo and emailed it to me, and said: "You'd appreciate this."
You might have noticed that I wrote a basketball-related post last week, but I'm actually trying to separate my obsessing about sports from … well, real stuff. So I posted this year's bracket at Turrible, which is intended to be my online man cave. Of sorts. Anyway, don't assume that I posted it elsewhere because, like, I'm ashamed of how bad it is. My terrible predictions had nothing to do with my decision to post it on a blog that no one reads. Nothing. Zero. Am I angry that I'm in last place in my bracket pool? Maybe a little. But my only regret is that my picks were not more bold. Except, if they had been more bold, I wouldn't be in last place. I mean, how could I have missed St. Mary's over Villanova? You'll notice in my bracket notes that I even talk about how bad Villanova is playing; the words "Bad moon rising" were cut off in the scanning process under Villanova's first round game. And yet I had them advancing into the Sweet Sixteen. I will ask the now-annual, post-second-round question: What was I thinking?
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.
Excellent Deadspin post about the undisciplined and occasionally crooked world of NBA scorekeeping. It's based on the story of a guy named Alex who once kept score for the Grizzlies, and it includes this gem about how Nick Van Exel (who wasn't known for his passing, let's say) racked up 23 assists one night:
A little more than a year later, with Nick Van Exel and the Lakers in town, Alex decided to act out. "I was sort of disgruntled," he says. "I loved the game. I don't want the numbers to be meaningless, and I felt they were becoming meaningless because of how stats were kept. So I decided, I'm gonna do this totally immature thing and see what happens. It was childish. The Lakers are in town. We're gonna lose. Fuck it. He's getting a shitload of assists." If you were to watch the game today, you'd see some "comically bad assists." Alex's fingerprints are all over the box score. He gave Van Exel everything. "Van Exel would pass from the top of the three-point line to someone on the wing who'd hold the ball for five seconds, dribble, then make a move to the basket. Assist, Van Exel."
Two things: (1) How awesome would it be to play on KG's team? [Don't ask Big Baby that question]. Still, what if KG worked in your office? He could walk the halls, pumping people up, bringing everyone into pre-meeting huddles — one-two-three-UBUNTU! — and he could remind people that it's about the little things, remind them that things are getting better and that they just need to hold it together a little longer for the title run (or the final design deliverable, in my case). Seriously, how rare is it that an athlete is so insanely gifted and so deeply, outwardly passionate? I'll tell you what: He would give Terry Tate a run for his money in the office athlete department. [The pain train is comin]. And, (2) Someone needs to create an iPhone app or an audiobook or something that blends the inspirational wisdom of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights with KG's extemporaneous passion. That would be technology that I could use. (Okay, three things.) (3) Whoever made this commercial is a genius. It's just documentary-ish enough to give you a sense of the entire arc of the season; it really brings out the grind, how long KG spends saying the same stuff again and again; and it ends in just the right way: "What can you say now?" Nothing. You can't say anything. Actually, you could say one other thing: "Anything is possible!"
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 kusports.com 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.
In a previous post, I suggested that the Kansas defense must "contain" Kevin Durant, thereby implying that Kevin Durant could, in fact, be contained. I said: "he's going to get 10–15 points no matter what you do," and anything in excess of that was a matter of the opposing team's defense shutting him down. Against Kansas on Saturday, he rattled off 12 points in a row between the 17:41 and the 14:14 marks in the first half, and had 20 points just five minutes later. (Thanks to ESPN's play-by-play for this). And it wasn't like the Texas offense was getting him a lot of open looks: He was burying every shot, no matter who was guarding him and no matter where he was on the court. 22 feet away, Julian Wright's hand in his face: Rattled in. Pulling up from 27 feet at the tail end of a fast break: Swish. Texas didn't even need to run an offense, they just needed to get him the ball and then worry about getting back and playing defense. In the first half, this worked. In the second half, different story. Two things changed (at least): Brandon Rush was on Durant, rather than Julian Wright. It was hard to say whether Durant just cooled off, or whether Rush cooled him off, but the fact was that he missed 4 of 5 shots before going down with a twisted ankle. Second thing: Another player immediately double-teamed Durant on the perimeter whenever he got the ball, and Texas failed to exploit this for easy low-post baskets. (Nice call by Coach Self. Not sure why he didn't go to this earlier, but I'm just glad that it worked). At the same time, I can't believe Texas couldn't exploit this. I mean, teams must be doing this all the time. Why weren't they able to find Damian James for easy baskets underneath, or Augustin on cuts to the basket? (I share Bill Simmons's assessment of Texas coach Rick Barnes, by the way: "How can you not run more plays for Kevin Durant? Post him up and he has 27 different ways to score. Curl him off picks and he makes 15-footers like they're layups.") Speaking of bad coaching, I was mystified that Texas didn't start fouling sooner. Kansas wasn't even in the bonus until the 2:20 mark, and Texas didn't start fouling until the 1:18 mark when they were down by 8. RussRob missed the front-end of a one-and-one, and Texas cut the lead to 6. Then, on consecutive possessions, Mario makes one of two; RussRob makes one of two; Julian makes one of two. HEART ATTACK TIME. Instead of a 6‑point lead, it's a 3‑point lead, and Texas has a chance to tie. This is a huge, huge issue going into the post-season, both for the Hawks chances and my own physical and mental health.Incidentally, with this in mind, I deeply enjoyed a recent piece by Gene Weingarten about FT shooting: "If I took a year off and practiced all day, every day, I could then defeat the NBA's best free-throw shooter in head-to-head competition" (via kottke).
Watching the Longhorns repeatedly (and ultimately successfully) drive a stake into the heart of Acie Law IV last night, I got to thinking about Saturday's showdown between the Longhorns and the Hawks. (I also penciled in A&M for the Final Four. Is there any team in the nation — other than UCLA, I guess — that has such a perfect blend of March-ready qualities — go-to guy, great defense, grit, gumption? Totally g'ed up). Anyway, here's the big stuff that KU has to address:Contain Kevin Durant. I know, I know. Obvious. Duh. Everyone tries to do this. But I think Kansas has a chance to succeed. Yes, he's going to get 10–15 points no matter what you do. He'll be everywhere — around the basket, out on the perimeter, getting put-backs, rolling off picks and taking jumpers. The challenge for the Hawks is to make sure he doesn't get 30–35, to limit the number of open looks he gets on the perimeter, and to make sure that he doesn't get anywhere near a rhythm like he had against Texas Tech (37 points, 23 rebounds). Durant thrives when teams don't have someone who can get in his face when he's away from the basket. At 6'9", he's going to shoot over the kind of guy who will take away the drive, but he's also fast and agile enough to go around most guys his size. All of that said, I think he's going to have problems with KU's long, fast, and highly disruptive defenders — Julian Wright and Brandon Rush. I think it's totally possible for them to contain him, as long as they stay out of foul trouble. Disrupt the supply chain. DJ Augustin kept them in the game last night when Durant went into a funk. In many games this year, I've seen him slice through defenses, get to the basket, and generally create the kind of chaos that leads to easy put-backs for Durant. Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins have to keep him from driving, and complicate his distribution of the ball. Run them ragged, and don't get beat by AJ Abrams. Or anyone like him. Last year, the relatively quiet Abrams exploded for four three-pointers during a first half run, singlehandedly demoralizing the Hawks. The good news is that, this year, the Longhorn weaponry is far from secret. Abrams, Augustin and Durant play pretty much all game, every game. This is an opportunity for the relatively deep Hawks to be relentless in their defense — Maybe even press a little? C'mon, Coach. Gimmick defenses have stunned KU twice recently (A&M, OU). Why not break one out once in a while? Making free throws. The mere thought that this game will come down to free throws makes my stomach hurt. The last five minutes of the Oklahoma game was excruciating in that it almost turned into A&M, Part II. Unfortunately, it's no secret that Kansas can't shoot free throws. They're going to get fouled late in the game; with any luck, Chalmers and Robinson will control the ball and hit their freebies.Lastly, Collins and Arthur must contribute, and Rush has to get his shots. It's pretty amazing that the Hawks could get by OU without contributions from any of these guys, but there's no way that a win versus Texas is possible without them.