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.
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.
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.
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).