Bracketological madness, volume 2 — Bracket edition

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?

basketball kansas basketball

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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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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Pre-post-season thoughts / Containing Kevin Durant

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).