Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Final Four Predictions

Clarity has finally come to me after analyzing this most unlikely group of Final Four teams.

Florida over George Mason -- Anyone who didn't go to school in Gainesville is likely to root for the Patriots. And they can't be underestimated after beating an impressive collection of teams to get to Indianapolis. But Florida has the talent to execute the type of gameplan that can beat Mason. The Gators are a deep team that loves to run and press, and they won't give up on those things even if Mason counters them early. Eventually they will wear out a Patriots team that used its starting five for the final 16 minutes of the Connecticut game. I sincerely hope I'm wrong on this one, because the Patriots' and Jim Larranaga's story is one I don't want to end. But Florida looks like the best team left in the field.

UCLA over LSU -- Watching the Tigers beat Duke and Texas with their strong interior play, I have a hard time picking against LSU. But UCLA plays the type of defense that wins championships. It's not pretty to watch, but it's awfully effective. LSU is a young team that rides emotion and that type of team is most susceptible to a tempo-controlling team like the Bruins. Obviously, UCLA has no one in their frontcourt that can match up one-on-one with Glen Davis or Tyrus Thomas, so Ben Howland's game plan will have to prevent them from getting the ball too close to the basket. He'll probably use defensive stopper Arron Afflalo on Tigers' point guard Darrel Mitchell and try to deny the senior his passing lanes to the big people.

Enjoy the games. I'll post a finals prediction on Monday night.


Bush Leagues

Three announcements came out in the past two days, encompassing the three most prominent team sports leagues. I don't understand any of them.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Item: Bud Selig has commissioned an investigation of past steroid use in the major leagues, and he has named former senator George Mitchell. (I'm inserting a cheap plug for a fellow Bowdoin grad.) Mitchell, also a director for the Boston Red Sox, supposedly will be given free reign to analyze the facts and make determinations. Translation: Baseball is about to psychoanalyze itself. Because, quite honestly, the evidence against Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, the owners and other leaders in the sport is far more grievous than anything that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams have on Barry Bonds.

Baseball stood by while Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds assaulted the home run records while turning their bodies into lab experiments. Now they want to investigate them and anyone else who might have stained the game while its leaders cast a blind eye their way.

So Selig is lying when when he says that the "specificity of the charges" in "Game of Shadows" is the reason for the investigation -- it all comes down to sponsors threatening to run from any association with the league and Bonds' effort to break the home run record. Yes, this is all about statistics. The most hallowed record in the sport is under assault. And Bonds' countdown will also be Mitchell's.

The "damned lies" in the headline above would refer to BALCO founder Victor Conte saying that much of what is contained in "Game of Shadows" is untrue, and that he plans to provide evidence to the contrary.

This ought to be interesting. Conte is the guy who supplied athletes with enough drugs to mutate them into pigeons, then went on national TV to out a bunch of them so that, in his words, children wouldn't be harmed. In the history of Americans, Conte's rank on the honesty continuum would rank below the likes of Washington and Lincoln. It would also be below Benedict Arnold, James Frey and Andrew Fastow.

Grounds for Celebration Eliminated

The NFL competition committee passed a measure that puts limits on end zone celebrations. Using props is no longer allowed, nor is going to the ground to do some sort of animated show. Spikes are fine. Dances are fine. Even the Lambeau Leap was spared (perhaps because the Packers didn't score a lot of touchdowns last year).

What's the point? What harm do these celebrations cause the game? The NFL is positioning this as a players' union request, which is really a way to deflect attention from what is clearly a power play by the league. End zone celebrations are one of the signatures of the NFL. It's where players have the freedom to display their personalities and the joy they have for the game. Football is an emotional sport. How would you prefer the players release their emotions?

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer praised the move, saying, "The game is about the team, not the individual." That's fine -- so let's go a few steps beyond that. Let's take last names off the jerseys. Those direct fans to the individual. Let's take names out of the boxscores. If Willie Parker runs 75 yards, the newspaper can just say "Steelers 75-yard touchdown." Yes, football is a team sport, but the talent -- and the expressiveness -- of individuals are what make it so exciting. This was really a needless decision by the league.


Here's the most bizarre story of all: The NBA is banning tights. I guess they're worried that this might become the latest gang trend, in which the "Robin Hoods" take aim on a street corner against the "Hamlets."

NBA players have consistently stated that they wear tights for health reasons, whether it's muscle efficiency, injury prevention or improved blood circulation. I doubt there's a player in the league who wears them for the look. The NBA will require a doctor's notice before allowing a player to wear them, beginning next season. Sounds like something you heard in seventh grade if you dared fall ill on the day of an exam.

David Stern is the king of rulemaking for rulemaking's sake, but he's entered the theater of the absurd.

For the record, ESPN.com published a list of players spotted in tights this year as a sidebar to their news story. And let me say, that team would be VERY deep at the 2-guard.


Must reading on competitive balance

A few weeks ago, I posted a column about the needless hand-wringing over the potential lack of a salary cap in the NFL. Obviously, a labor deal extension was negotiated and the salary cap will remain in place through 2011. But I stand by my premise that a salary cap and competitive balance are not mutually inclusive. Good management always trumps financial resources.

In my column, I talked about how Major League Baseball has had as many franchises win championships (five) in the past five years as the NBA has had since 1987. Now, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com has dug even deeper and produced a more compelling argument that baseball, without its salary cap, is at no greater disadvantage for competitive balance than the capped NFL and NBA.

Some franchises, such as the A's, Twins, Steelers and Spurs, have maintained competitve and healthy franchises in recent years without spending liberally. And others, such as the Orioles, Cubs, Knicks, and New York Rangers, have rarely contended despite seemingly limitless cash. And for all their money, the Yankees didn't make the playoffs for 12 straight seasons, from 1982 through 1993 (and no one did in 1994).

It's all a matter of building a solid foundation around player development, making smart choices in your drafts, and signing the right players for your system, not necessarily the most expensive ones.

A well-timed bad year can help, too. Pittsburgh got Ben Roethlisberger after going 6-10 in 2004, and San Antonio won the lottery and landed Tim Duncan in 1997 after a 20-62 campaign the year before. (The Spurs also made Gregg Popovich head coach during that woeful 1996-97 season.)

Ultimately, fans that blame their team's failure on a lack of payroll resources are, at best, oversimplifying. Thanks to David Schoenfield for helping to prove the point.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Baseball Predictions, Part 3

Here's a look at the remaining two divisions and predictions for the playoffs and award winners.

American League East

1) Yankees -- New York has holes in their pitching staff, but the lineup should be good enough to overcome that until the playoffs.
2) Blue Jays -- I wanted to pick Toronto, but A.J. Burnett's injury reminded me that their high-profile moves also came with a lot of risk.
3) Red Sox -- There's Manny (being Manny) and Papi, but there's an awful lot of age on the pitching staff. Josh Beckett was a gamble worth making, though.
4) Devil Rays -- The return of Rocco Baldelli and the arrival of Delmon Young are positives, but the bullpen is a disaster. Still, Tampa Bay should get out of the cellar, thanks to ...
5) Orioles -- It's just awful, borderline criminal, what Peter Angelos has done with this team. A great baseball town like Baltimore deserves far better.

Best Starting Pitching -- Toronto. Roy Halladay is a true ace, and Gustavo Chacin, Ted Lilly and Josh Towers are solid. Burnett could be the difference as this team makes a playoff run.

Best Bullpen -- New York. This is solely based on the presence of Mariano Rivera. Boston could challenge if Keith Foulke is back to 100 percent.

Best Lineup -- New York. Adding Johnny Damon only makes the offense better, though he arguably makes the defense worse.

Best Defense -- Toronto. Despite the loss of Orlando Hudson, the Blue Jays have Vernon Wells and Bengie Molina, and they're competent at every position, which can't be said for most of their division rivals.

American League Central

1) White Sox -- If Bobby Jenks can handle a full season as the closer, the defending champions could be even better than last year.
2) Indians -- A team with great young talent will challenge the White Sox all the way, just like last year.
3) Twins -- Solid pitching as usual, but the Twins made cosmetic changes to a lineup that needs a major overhaul.
4) Tigers -- No longer a joke, the Tigers will be the spoiler in the division. Jim Leyland will get them to play hard, and the starting rotation has the potential to be very good, if Kenny Rogers doesn't implode.
5) Royals -- Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek crossed I-70 to sign with the Royals and instantly became the best players on the team.

Best Starting Pitching -- Chicago. The rich get richer. The best starting four last year added a solid fifth in Javier Vazquez, and Brandon McCarthy is waiting in the wings.

Best Bullpen -- Minnesota. If rookie left-hander Francisco Liriano is as good as advertised, he'll fill the only void in what is otherwise a solid pen anchored by Joe Nathan.

Best Lineup -- Cleveland. The scary thing is how young the Indians are. Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta can only get better.

Best Defense -- Minnesota. Newcomers Luis Castillo and Tony Batista are both strong defensively. Joe Mauer is a budding Gold Glover at catcher, while Torii Hunter can probably plan on adding to his stockpile.

AL -- Paul Konerko, Chicago. With Jim Thome protecting him in the lineup, this great clutch hitter will have a lot of chances to come through.
NL -- Albert Pujols, St. Louis. The Cardinals should win the division again, and Pujols is the best hitter in the game.

Cy Young Awards
AL -- Roy Halladay, Toronto. He might have won the award last year if not for a line drive that broke his leg. Halladay has great stuff and a winner's attitude.
NL -- Roy Oswalt, Houston. What we saw in the playoffs is only the surface of how dominant Oswalt can be.

Rookies of the Year (the toughest category to pick because often the winner is in the minors at the start of the season)
AL -- Jeff Mathis, Anaheim. Mathis has a solid bat and is already a great receiver. The Angels pitching staff will make him look good.
NL -- Prince Fielder, Milwaukee. The Brewers had no problem trading Lyle Overbay because of Fielder's powerful left-handed bat.

Playoff Predictions
AL -- A's over Yankees, White Sox over Angels (wild card); White Sox over A's
NL -- Mets over Giants, Cardinals over Braves (wild card); Cardinals over Mets
World Series -- Cardinals over White Sox

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Baseball Predictions, Part 2

Tonight we'll take a shot at the two Wests.

National League West

1) Giants -- Somehow I have a feeling that Barry Bonds will take this season as a personal quest to make his detractors fume. That means a division title for San Francisco, and a new home run record, like it or not (and nearly everyone, include me, won't).
2) Dodgers -- Three new infielders should give Los Angeles the production it lacked last year. Massive Dodger Stadium usually takes care of the pitchers' needs.
3) Padres -- They have the best pitcher in the division in Jake Peavy, but the losses from the rest of the staff are going to be this club's downfall.
4) Diamondbacks -- Bob Melvin made Arizona respectable last season, but the job to a contender will be much tougher. Youngsters Brandon Webb and Chad Tracy are a good place to start, though.
5) Rockies -- This is a baseball team caught in a football town, with a stadium that's virtually impossible to win in consistently.

Best Starting Pitching -- Los Angeles. The Dodgers don't really have an ace, but they have the best five-man rotation. And they, like most teams on the Pacific Coast, get help from their park.

Best Bullpen -- San Diego. Trevor Hoffman is 42 saves shy of Lee Smith's all-time record. The emergence of Scott Linebrink and Clay Hensley made Akinori Otsuka expendable.

Best Lineup -- San Francisco. When you've got Bonds on your team, you have the best lineup. But this is an old group hoping for one final push.

Best Defense -- Arizona. This is a division full of DHs forced to play the field (Bonds, Mike Piazza, Jeff Kent, Ryan Klesko). None of those plays for Arizona, so they get the nod. The D-Backs also have one of the few truly great defenders in the division in Orlando Hudson.

American League West

1) Athletics -- Rich Harden's health is critical, because he has the best stuff on the pitching staff. But imagine if you can a small-market team that might be the most complete in baseball.
2) Angels -- A very professional team that will battle the A's the whole way and likely end up with the wild card.
3) Rangers -- Gutsy moves by Jon Daniels have balanced what was a homer-heavy team. I just don't see enough pitching there to win consistently against the top two.
4) Mariners -- The AL West is the only division without a truly bad team. The arrival of Kenji Johjima and the emergence of Felix Hernandez will make the Mariners exciting.

Best Starting Pitching: -- Oakland. But it's close. Anaheim's starting five that might be the second best in baseball. The edge goes to the A's, thanks to Barry Zito's world-class curveball and Harden's amazing blend of heat and junk.

Best Bullpen -- Anaheim. Expect Billy Beane to go after a lefty reliever if one doesn't emerge, because the Angels have more balance. That's assuming mercurial J.C. Romero finds his potential away from Minnesota.

Best Lineup -- Texas. Power across the board, perfect for their home field, and two of the game's best all-around hitters in Michael Young and Mark Teixeira.

Best Defense -- Anaheim. Pluses everywhere and no team has a player as versatile as Chone Figgins.

Tomorrow night, the AL East and Central and the picks for the playoffs and individual awards.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Baseball Predictions, Part 1

With the college basketball season winding down, baseball season is nearly upon us and something to look forward to. The story of the season, unfortunately, will be Barry Bonds -- both his pursuit of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, and Bud Selig's own pursuit of Bonds' activities.

That aside, it is shaping up to be a wide-open year. I'll take a look at the teams over the next few nights, and make some guesses about the order of finish, with the National League East and Central tonight.

National League East

1) Mets -- The Braves have to lose the division at some point, don't they? And don't the Mets' spending sprees have to pay dividends at some time?
2) Braves -- The departure of Leo Mazzone could be the one defection the Braves can't handle. Edgar Renteria is a downgrade from the departed Rafael Furcal.
3) Phillies -- A solid lineup and defense is offset by weak starting pitching and a bullpen that can't hold up without Billy Wagner.
4) Nationals -- The stadium is being built, but that's not to say the same thing for the franchise. Frank Robinson will keep them out of the cellar.
5) Marlins -- Fire Sale No. 2 leaves them with only Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis among last year's regulars.

Best Starting Pitching -- Atlanta, even without Mike Hampton. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz are a solid 1-2, and a healthy John Thomson would give the Braves a solid core of starters.

Best Bullpen -- New York. Billy Wagner is almost automatic, and Jorge Julio could be a strong performer in a set-up role.

Best Lineup -- New York. That's assuming Carlos Beltran returns to his pre-free agent days. With the additions of Carlos Delgado and Paul LoDuca, the emergence of David Wright and the always-solid Cliff Floyd, the Mets can hit.

Best Defense -- Philadelphia. Aaron Rowand is a major upgrade in center field, Bobby Abreu is a so-called Gold Glover with a great arm, and Jimmy Rollins and David Bell are solid on the left side of the infield.

National League Central

1) Cardinals -- Still better than the rest of the field, if a bit long in the tooth. This is a team built for a long season rather than a short series, but maybe their new park will hold some magic.
2) Astros -- It's time to turn the page for Jeff Bagwell and Roger Clemens, both of whom might never play again. But the Astros are developing a new core of position players and still have great pitching with Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Brad Lidge.
3) Brewers -- If you're looking for a surprise team, look no further than the great young nucleus taking shape in Milwaukee.
4) Cubs -- They're counting on too many fragile arms behind Carlos Zambrano, but the additions of Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones will help the lineup.
5) Pirates -- The young pitching is solid, but this is still a team caught on a treadmill. The additions of Sean Casey, Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz seem like band-aids until the Pirates fall out of the race and these guys are traded to contenders.
6) Reds -- Bronson Arroyo instantly becomes the ace of the staff, something you never want to say about a guy picked up in spring training. The outfield will be very good, if healthy, but that's about all there is.

Best Starting Pitching -- Houston. Everyone but Cincinnati has at least a decent rotation, but no one has a better pair at the top than the Astros' Oswalt and Pettitte.

Best Bullpen -- Houston. If Lidge has overcome his postseason problems, the Astros can bring it in the late innings with Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls setting him up.

Best Lineup -- St. Louis. The Cardinals lost three starters but still have the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols.

Best Defense -- St. Louis. Yadier Molina made the Cards forget Mike Matheny, which is saying something. David Eckstein is a fine shortstop, and Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds are Gold Glove-caliber.

Tomorrow night: The NL West and the AL West.


John Feinstein on George Mason

Here's one of college basketball's top writers on the phenomenon that is George Mason.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Fresh Foursome

LSU is in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years. UCLA is back after an 11-year gap. Florida has gone six years between Final Fours (the last one for them, coincidentally, also came in Indianapolis). And then there's the newest face of all, George Mason.

This may be the most wide-open Final Four field in history. Four days of incredible basketball resulted in all four No. 1 seeds being eliminated, four of 12 games going to overtime and a few others going down to the wire, and the most improbable Final Four team of all emerging in those plucky Patriots.

Heroes of the Weekend: Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas, LSU. It's hard to call these guys twin towers because they are so physically different. But what a tandem Davis and Thomas were against Texas on Saturday. The pair combined for 47 points and 22 rebounds, shot 21-for-33 from the field and held Texas big man LaMarcus Aldridge to four points on 2-for-14 shooting. Were it not for Mason, LSU would be coming into Indy with the team of destiny label. Now they're simply going in as a terrific team.

Goats of the Weekend: Allan Ray and Mike Nardi, Villanova. After a solid first weekend, Ray couldn't find the hoop in Minneapolis, shooting 8-for-34. Nardi looked lost throughout the tournament, concluding it with a 2-for-11 performance Sunday against Florida. The Wildcats' 25 percent shooting was the worst percentage in a regional final since 1940.

Game of the Weekend: It has to be Mason-UConn. The Patriots' poise and execution were captivating to watch, and the Huskies actually played a good floor game after looking so sloppy against Washington. It was also a clean game; neither team was in the bonus in the second half until the closing minutes. Then there was Denham Brown's twisting reverse lay-up that tied it at the end of regulation and his potential game-winning 3-pointer that was a smidgen long.

Conference Roundup: The SEC has Florida and LSU. The Pac 10 has UCLA. And there's the Colonial Athletic Association, which can claim something the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC cannot -- a Final Four team. This is the eighth consecutive year that a conference has two teams in the Final Four.

Gut Reactions for the Final Four: Florida has to be the favorite against George Mason, which ought to please the Patriots just fine. Like Connecticut, the Gators are long and quick up front and love to go to the glass. The formula to beat them is exactly what Mason did Sunday -- establish inside position, don't give up cheap fouls, control the tempo and recognize double-teams to get high-percentage shots. Florida also will press more than UConn did, and they'll try to catch Mason in happy-to-be-here mode at the start of their semifinal. LSU-UCLA is a study in contrasts, with the Tigers' strength lying up front and the Bruins' in the backcourt. A low-scoring game is likely with the way the teams play. It will be interesting to see who Bruins defensive whiz Arron Afflalo draws as an assignment, since LSU's top offensive players -- Davis and Thomas -- aren't natural matchups for the 6-foot-5 guard. Of the two, LSU is playing better basketball, while the Bruins have gutted out their last three victories.


Greatest upset ever?

In reality, we should have seen this coming. The vaunted UConn Huskies, for all their talent, rarely found a comfort level as a unit. The George Mason Patriots took out three talented teams and played with no fear to reach their date with UConn. If there was ever a prescription for an upset, this was it. A confident, loose team playing a heavy favorite facing equally heavy expectations to win.

But it's still almost impossible to believe. George Mason 86, Connecticut 84. The Patriots are going to the Final Four. When Denham Brown's lay-up at the end of regulation hung on the rim, appeared to fall out of the cylinder, then swirled back and through the net, who didn't think the Huskies were going to cheat death once again.

Mason led by four in the final 20 seconds, couldn't nail the clinching free throws, and Brown's athletic play ensured that the Huskies would survive.

But they only survived for five more minutes. Mason executed its offense brilliantly in overtime, and though a couple of players had four fouls, the Patriots didn't have the widespread foul problems that essentially left Washington powerless on Friday night. They were able to play aggressively at both ends of the court. If the players were wearing blank jerseys and you watched the silky inside-outside game the Patriots possessed, you would have said you were watching a Big East or Big Ten power, not an 11th seed from the Colonial Athletic Association.

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun tried to tell people his team wasn't as great as their press clippings. The Huskies were a team with big men and wing players, and only one true guard in Marcus Williams. And with Williams suffering through a 5-for-13 shooting performance and Friday hero Rashad Anderson making only 2-of-8 free throws, UConn wasn't effective against the Mason zone defense.

Greatest upset ever? It's in elite company, at the very least. Villanova had played Georgetown twice during the season before upsetting them in the 1985 final. Ditto Kansas over Oklahoma in the 1988 final and LSU over Kentucky in the 1986 Elite Eight (the only other 11th seed to make the Final Four). NC State over Houston in 1983 was a classic case of an underdog controlling the tempo. Mason was able to slow UConn down a little, but in essence, the two teams played at a pace with which they both seemed comfortable.

This was a classic case of an underdog team from a little-known school taking the game to the favorite, taking blow after blow and returning them all. Where this game makes history is in its signal of a watershed moment in college basketball history. After the rule changes that put in the 3-point shot and the shot clock, the flood of players leaving to the NBA as teenagers and the heavier scrutiny of recruiting, the playing field in the sport is finally level. Any team can beat any other team. George Mason is named for the so-called "Father of the Bill of Rights," which outlines the freedoms we all have as Americans. The George Mason basketball team has ushered in the start of a new era in their sport -- all teams are created equal.


P.S. -- At the time of this writing, a frigid-shooting Villanova team trails Florida 35-25. If that score holds, the four number one seeds will have all been eliminated before the Final Four for the first time since 1980.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

No. 1 with a Bullet (Dodged)

Another outstanding night of college hoops. Some recaps and then predictions for the Elite Eight.

Heroes of the Day: Randy Foye, Villanova, and Rashad Anderson, Connecticut. Foye was the only Villanova player on his game Friday night, and his shooting and fearlessness helped lift the Wildcats out of holes time and again. As great as Marcus Williams was for UConn (again), face it: Anderson's two late 3s are the only reason we're still talking about the Huskies as a title contender.

Goats of the Day: The officials. While both No. 1 seeds showed some grit and determination to come back, they both had a lot of help from the officials. The phantom traveling call on BC's Sean Williams, the non-goaltending call on Hilton Armstrong, and undeniably the worst call of the night -- the double technical on Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay in the Washington-UConn game. The referees had lost control of the game, and decided to make a point by T-ing up each team's best player for a STAREDOWN? As opposed to say, warning both players and both benches about the level of play first? Gutless. Absolutely gutless.

Game of the Day: While BC-Villanova looked like a 15-round fight between two boxers holding on to each other, UConn-Washington was a track meet where neither team could hold on to the baton. This has become the tournament where athleticism at all positions is winning out. When you look at the quality of the teams left -- Florida, LSU, Texas, Memphis -- they have people who can run the floor, jump and control their bodies exquisitely. The two Huskies showed that as well.

Conference Roundup: The SEC and Big East each send two teams to the Elite Eight, joining one team each from the Big 12, Conference USA, Pac 10 and the Colonial. That's right, Billy Packer. Colonial Athletic Association: one, ACC 0.

Player to Watch: Folarin Campbell, George Mason. Campbell came out hot Friday night for the Patriots, and if Mason is going to have any chance against UConn, Campbell will have to be firing 3s again. The game, played in Washington, D.C., will features seven of 10 starters from Maryland -- all five Patriots and the Huskies' Josh Boone and Gay.

Game to Watch: Villanova-Florida. Look out for the Gators, who are playing with the same gusto that took them to the finals in 2000. Villanova has narrowly escaped against a team with great speed (Arizona) and a team with great size (Boston College). Now they face a team with both.

Elite Eight Predictions (games in chronological order)

Texas over LSU -- Not discounting what the Tigers did against Duke, but Texas has far more quickness and size on the perimeter. Daniel Gibson and P.J. Tucker will be able to get their shot off when J.J. Redick couldn't. A key for Texas is senior Brad Buckman, who sat much of the second half against West Virginia because of the Mountaineers' small lineup. The 'Horns will need Buckman's size and toughness against a freakishly good Tigers frontline.

Memphis over UCLA -- The Tigers have just been playing too well. Granted, they haven't beaten anyone better than a No. 9 seed, but look at the struggles that UConn has had against teams seeded 16, 8 and 5. Memphis is taking the game right to its opponents, rather than waiting for the opportunity to present itself. Arron Afflalo against Rodney Carney is the key matchup, with Afflalo's defense trying to tame Carney's explosiveness.

Connecticut over George Mason -- Well, so much for that easy game I was talking about for the Huskies against Washington. After surviving that one, the 11th-seeded Patriots seem like easy fodder. But nothing seems to come easy for enormously talented UConn, and they'll make this game much closer than it appears on paper. At some point, Mason's going to play as if they're just happy to be here. Aren't they?

Florida over Villanova -- The Gators have a chance for revenge against the team that knocked them out of the tournament last year. Villanova had an awful time containing Arizona's Marcus Williams and Boston College's Sean Williams, two long, quick forwards. Meet Joakim Noah, who's better and more polished than both of them. The 'Nova frontline has done an admirable job against bigger teams all year, but Florida has more weapons and is one of the few clubs with team speed to match that of the Wildcats.


Friday, March 24, 2006

What a Finish -- Times Two

Following back-to-back outstanding finishes in the Texas-West Virginia and UCLA-Gonzaga games, I must give two awards for each category today.

Heroes of the Day: Kenton Paulino and LaMarcus Aldridge, Texas. Paulino's last-second shot wouldn't have been possible without Aldridge's stellar play inside against West Virginia. The Mountaineers are the kind of team that it's impossible to hate. They play on grit and deadeye shooting, but in the end, Paulino's big shot beat them.

Goats of the Day: J.J. Redick, Duke, and Adam Morrison, Gonzaga. Again, apologies to fans of these two great players, who were the two best in the country during the season. But Redick's 3-for-18 shooting made him 13-for-60 in games in which the Blue Devils were eliminated from the tournament in his college career. Morrison scored 24 points, but it's up to the team's leader to keep the group focused and organized when the other team makes a run, and Gonzaga was anything but that.

Games of the Day: Whether you like a bang-bang finish or a dramatic comeback, the two late games had something for you. Texas-West Virginia was extremely well-played, and featured a fascinating contrast in styles. The Mountaineers might be the only team in the country that can be outrebounded by such a staggering margin (41-15) and still be in it at the end. UCLA-Gonzaga proved the theory that you have to play until the final buzzer. Gonzaga was not only the better team for nearly 37 minutes; they were utterly dominant. But the Bruins never stopped playing, and as mentioned earlier, the Bulldogs seemed to fall apart at the end. Offensively they seemed content to watch Morrison, who didn't make a field goal in the final seven minutes. And defensively, Gonzaga really missed Erroll Knight at the end, after their best defender fouled out of the game.

Players to Watch: Tyrus Thomas, LSU, and Darius Washington, Memphis. Thomas' athleticism and shot-blocking inside was too much for Duke, and Washington has gone from a Conference USA tournament goat last year to an outstanding team leader. Both Tigers will need to step up Saturday, as LSU faces a quick and athletic frontline and Memphis a trapping, pressure defense.

Games to Watch: I don't know about you, but I plan to watch both of them on Saturday. Memphis might be the best under-the-radar college basketball team in this decade. The Tigers have enough of a name that they don't capture the cute mid-major headlines like Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason have. They also don't have the cachet of Duke, UConn or any of the power-conference teams. They're just good, and I hope they're finally getting the respect they deserve. UCLA, however, will be Memphis' stiffest test by far. The LSU-Texas game features two of the sport's best frontlines. Texas, which had to leave its 2-3 zone against West Virginia because of the Mountaineers' 3-point shooting, won't have to face that dilemma with the Tigers.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Education of Vince Young

On January 4, Vince Young was on top of the world. The Longhorns quarterback had just led his team to a 41-38 upset of USC to win the Rose Bowl and the national championship. He had put the team on his back on the final two drives, scoring the winning touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the Trojans' 8.

Throughout the game, his play screamed Future NFL Star. When he made the decision to turn pro, most -- though not all -- football folks thought he had made the right decision.

Not even three months later, Vince Young has been picked apart more than a medical student's cadaver. First came the naysayers who said he didn't have a fundamental throwing motion for the NFL, that he was the product of a system that allowed him to read plays from a shotgun formation rather than as a classic NFL dropback passer.

Things spiraled further when his scores on the Wonderlic test were revealed, that he had been rumored to get a six on his first try before retaking and scoring a 15.

Yesterday came his first NFL workout, in which he ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash. If you're scoring at home, Young's time was the third best among draft-eligible quarterbacks who played college football in Texas. (Reggie McNeal of A&M ran a 4.35 and Barrick Nealy of Texas State ran a 4.57.)

Though several in attendance praised Young's skills, one unnamed scout told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that while Young's workout was "fairly impressive," his 40 time was slower than anticipated, the conditions for the workout were indoors and that Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler, the current darling of the scouts, was much more impressive in his workouts.

Welcome to the NFL, Vince. The level of scrutiny leading up to the draft is by far the greatest of any sport. If the draft was made on January 4, the wave of momentum might have made Young the No. 1 pick. A couple of weeks later, most agreed that the Houston Texans would prefer Reggie Bush, but that Young was likely going second or third to New Orleans or Tennessee, with the other taking USC quarterback Matt Leinart.

Now with Leinart's clear status as the top quarterback, and Cutler's meteoric rise, not to mention all the free agent movement, Young is being talked about as a Top 10 pick, or maybe lower.

So the question of the day is: Did Young make the right decision to enter the draft?


This process that he's enduring is an indoctrination into the culture of the NFL. With high pay comes high stakes. Scouts, whose jobs depend on placing million-dollar bets correctly, will analyze everything from your bench press to the whether you look them in the eye. But it wouldn't be any different next year, if Young had the benefit of another year in college.

He didn't have anything left to prove as a college football player. He still must prove he has the skills and the intangibles to lead an NFL team. He has 37 more days to do so. They will be the longest 37 days of his life.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Sweet 16 Predictions

With a couple of days to go until the Sweet 16 kicks off, I'm not going to analyze these any further. Here are the predictions, starting with the Thursday games:

Atlanta Regional
Duke over LSU -- A strong performance over George Washington is enough to make me believe the Blue Devils can last at least one more round. In a battle of speed vs. strength, I'm taking speed here and again later in the predictions. But the Tigers' toughness inside could wear the Blue Devils down for the regional final.

Texas over West Virginia -- Which Texas guards show up? The ones who looked like high schoolers against Penn or the ones who looked like pros against NC State? Look for the 'Horns to try to use their bench to counter a West Virginia team that moves exceptionally well but isn't very deep.

Oakland Regional
Memphis over Bradley -- In their first two games, the Tigers look like a team that has been reading their critics' words, and using them as motivation. Bradley, like conference mate Wichita State, is no fluke, but they'll face a team here with Kansas' talent and Pitt's heart.

UCLA over Gonzaga -- I'm just going to keep picking against the Bulldogs because they've done me in so many times before. But in all seriousness, UCLA held an offensive-minded Alabama team to just 59 points and has a pair of guards that can control the tempo.

Washington Regional
Connecticut over Washington -- I will go against the experts and say that this will be the easier of the two games that UConn plays this week. Their history has been that they get up for the tough teams and struggle against lesser-name opponents. You have to believe that if they beat Washington on Friday, some Connecticut players will already have their minds on Indy.

Wichita State over George Mason -- What a wonderful matchup to see these two teams playing for a chance to go to the Elite Eight. The inside battle between Paul Miller of Wichita State and Jai Lewis of George Mason could decide the game. I like Shockers' to avenge a (70-67) loss to the Patriots in February.

Minneapolis Regional
Villanova over Boston College -- Many are picking BC, but I still can't get past the image of UW-Milwaukee's dynamos running around and through the Eagles in the second round last year. Villanova's guards are too quick and too tough, and the Wildcats should move on if they shoot well.

Georgetown over Florida -- The Gators have been one of the most impressive teams in this tournament, but they are young and they showed inconsistency after starting 17-0. Again, tempo can win this game for the Hoyas. South Carolina slowed it down against Florida, beating the Gators twice in the regular season and nearly a third time in the SEC tournament.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Reading

Nothing signals the start of baseball season like the arrival of some good reading material, and this year promises to be one of the best crops in recent memory thanks to the diversity of subject matter and the quality of the authors. Obviously, the two Barry Bonds books will get the headlines when they arrive in stores, but if you're already sick of hearing about the giant creatine machine, you'll still have options for a lot of good reading.

A few titles to watch, some of which are out (marked with an asterisk) and others are arriving later in the spring:

"Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero" by David Maraniss -- This is one I'll wait in line for. Maraniss is a fantastic writer, having penned a biography of Vince Lombardi that is my favorite sports book of all time. He's also written a solid biography of the pre-presidential Bill Clinton and a gripping Vietnam account. Here he takes on one of the most idolized baseball stars ever. If this book is anything like his Lombardi work, Clemente's legend will be done more than adequate justice.

"The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth" by Leigh Montville -- Montville wrote a great biography of Ted Williams and now tackles an even bigger subject, literally and figuratively. Ruth is already the subject of a formidable biography by Robert W. Creamer and a recent book by Jim Reisler on his breakout 1920 season, and he stands as a transcendent figure in the game's history. But Montville handled Williams well and I'm excited to see what he does with Ruth.

"Catfish, Yaz, And Hammerin' Hank: The Unforgettable Era that Transformed Baseball" by Phil Pepe* -- This book came out eight years ago under the title of "Talkin' Baseball" and is now rereleased in a larger format with more pictures and a DVD on the 1970s. They say that the era in which you grow up is always your Golden Age of the sport, and for me, it was the years in which the hair was long, the parks were concrete bowls, and the uniforms were ugly. Those aesthetics aside, the game itself was well balanced and the talent deep and formidable.

"When Chicago Ruled Baseball" by Bernard A. Weisberger -- To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Cubs-White Sox World Series, this historian and professor tells the tale of when the city of Chicago was the capital of the baseball world. Now that the White Sox are back on top again, the work should be particularly timely. If nothing else, it should be a look back at a different and interesting time in American history.

Black and Blue : The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America" by Tom Adelman* -- Adelman wrote a fascinating account of the 1975 season called "The Long Ball," in which he covered in great detail one of the best World Series in history. This time he takes on a less competitive, but just as remarkable series between Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Dodgers failed the score in the series' final 33 innings and were swept by the Orioles. The year featured was also a time of great social change in America, as is often the backdrop for sports.

Clearing the Bases : Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball" by Mike Schmidt with Glen Waggoner* -- This one interests me as a fan of the Phillies and Schmidt growing up. Schmidt was always careful to protect his image, which often was perceived as ambivalence and earned him scores of boos from the merciless Philadelphia fans. So it will be intriguing to see how much of his own soul he bares as he searches for the soul of the game he played so well.

"Baseball Between the Numbers" by the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts*
-- The folks from Baseball Prospectus, writers of the best stats-oriented baseball book since the Bill James Baseball Abstract series, take a look at multiple areas of the game through their prism. Essays cover topics as diverse as the four-man rotation, the overrating of RBIs, the impact of salaries on ticket prices, and the economic effect of new stadiums. Perhaps they might want to choose a cover subject other than Bonds (who merits his own essay in the introduction) when the book goes to paperback. (Speaking of James, he's the subject of yet another new book.)

"Shades of Glory : The Negro Leagues & the Story of African-American Baseball" by Jules Tygiel and Lawrence D. Hogan* -- The Negro Leagues are one of the forgotten eras in baseball history, thanks to the efforts of a team of historians and the wonderful stories of should-be Hall of Famer Buck O'Neil. The Hall is the driving force behind this history of African-American baseball, thanks to a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball for research on the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Its publication coincided with the election of 17 players and benefactors from the Negro Leagues history.

"The Best of Baseball Digest : The Greatest Players, The Greatest Games, the Greatest Writers from the Game's Most Exciting Years" by John Kuenster -- It just hit me as I was typing this. Does every nonfiction book have to have a colon in its title? In any case, who didn't look forward to reading Baseball Digest as a kid? The articles, player profiles, stats, trivia, and my personal favorite section: The Game I'll Never Forget, made it a quick and enjoyable read. Kuenster has been editor of the publication since 1969 and he selects articles dating back to the 1940s. (The magazine began publication in 1942.)

Red Legs and Black Sox : Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series by Susan Dellinger* -- While "Eight Men Out" is a terrific account of the Black Sox scandal, this looks like a wonderful addition to the subject matter, as it is written by the granddaughter of the Reds' Edd Roush, a Hall of Famer. Dellinger probes not only the White Sox behavior but that of the Reds players and their own association with gamblers as well as the leagues' association with shady activities.

"In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig" by Andrew Zimbalist* -- The book examines Selig's reign in light of other commissioners and the nature of the office itself. Zimbalist is an economics professor who has written several previous books about the game, so his arguments would likely focus on the economic impact Selig's decisions have had on the game. While it is true that Selig has presided over a period of economic expansion, one senses that his body of work may be judged on how he handles the Bonds case.

"The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved" by Fay Vincent -- Speaking of commissioners, Vincent has spent his time since vacating the office interviewing many players of the past and presents his first volume in an oral history of the game. This volume will include interviews with Dom DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Johnny Pesky and O'Neil, whose chapter would probably be worth the value of the book alone.

And of course, there's Bonds:
"Game of Shadows : Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports" by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams

"Love Me, Hate Me : Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero" by Jeff Pearlman



Sunday, March 19, 2006

Home of the Braves is the Sweet 16

Hero of the Second Round: Patrick O’Bryant, Bradley. The luck of the Irish didn’t run out on St. Patrick’s Day for O’Bryant. He scored 28 points in the Braves’ second-round upset of Pittsburgh, including a perfect six-for-six from the free-throw line in the final 2:12. O’Bryant plays as if he’s just realizing that he’s 7-feet tall and beginning to discover his talent. It was in full bloom on Sunday.

Goat of the Second Round: NC State’s 3-point shooters. You can’t run the Princeton offense very well when you shoot 3-for-22 from behind the arc. Texas scores an impressive win Sunday after a shaky first-round victory.

Game of the Second Round: LSU’s 58-57 victory over Texas A&M on Saturday. Darrel Mitchell’s game-winner followed Acie Law’s jumper that had given the Aggies a two-point lead. This one was a battle on both ends of the floor.

Other Notes: UCLA held off Alabama despite shooting an atrocious 5-for-13 from the line. … Villanova never trailed against Arizona on Sunday and still only won by four points. … Gonzaga made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001 after three straight appearances between 1999 and 2001.

Conference Roundup: That sucking sound is the air coming out of the Big Ten. After having the second-most bids in the tournament, the conference is shut out of the Sweet 16. Of its six teams, three lost in the first round, and four lost to lower-seeded teams. You could argue that only Indiana redeemed itself, getting to the second round and playing Gonzaga tough. Meanwhile, the Missouri Valley vindicated itself by placing two of its four teams into the Sweet 16, beating two Big East teams, a Big 12 team and an SEC team to get there. Even Billy Packer conceded the performance of the mid-majors, when he pointed out that the Valley and the Colonial leagues had as many teams in the Sweet 16 (three) as the ACC and Big 12.

The full tally: Big East 4, Pac 10 2, ACC 2, SEC 2, Missouri Valley 2, Big 12 1, Conference USA 1, West Coast 1, Colonial 1. In other words, mid-majors snagged five of the 16 spots.

Player to Watch: Marcus Williams, Connecticut. It’s becoming abundantly clear that the Huskies look to Williams when the game is on the line. The knock on Connecticut has been the lack of a step-up player, but Williams was that guy in victories over Albany and Kentucky. In a Washington bracket that has lost seeds 2, 3, and 4, the Huskies are in the driver’s seat to get to Indianapolis, and Williams is the one with the keys.

Game to Watch: Several good ones on tap for Thursday and Friday. Two that look particularly appealing are Gonzaga-UCLA and Villanova-Boston College. The Bruins, traditionally a high-scoring team, are built around defense this year, and it will be interesting to see what they try to do to stop Adam Morrison. ‘Nova and BC have a history from the Eagles’ days in the Big East, and the Wildcats had trouble with Arizona’s front line Sunday. BC’s is even better, though the Eagles may not have quite the team speed that Arizona did.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

Day Two recap and second round predictions

The second day of the NCAA tournament brought our biggest upset and several more near misses. It's clear after the first round that the gap between the top teams and the lowest seeds in this event continues to narrow. While all four No. 1 seeds survived, the day is closer when a No. 16 will finally pull the upset in the first round.

A quick Day Two recap before we move on to second-round picks:

Hero of the Day: Jermaine Wallace, Northwestern State. How can it be anyone else? He made the shot that kids dream about on the driveways and playgrounds of America. Honorable mention to Marcus Williams, UConn's point guard, for leading the Huskies back from the brink of an ignominious upset.

Goat of the Day: Shannon Brown, Michigan State. The junior scored five points on 2-for-11 shooting and fouled out. The Spartans were unusually listless for a tournament game and bowed to George Mason just a year after reaching the Final Four.

Game of the Day: Northwestern State's upset of Iowa. Not only did you have Wallace's shot, but Adam Haluska got off as good a shot as one can expect in five-tenths of a second to nearly steal it back for the Hawkeyes. The Demons also came back from 17 down in the final nine minutes.

Conference Roundup: The Big East made its statement on Friday, winning all five games. Top seeds Villanova and Connecticut struggled, but West Virginia and Pittsburgh were very impressive, and Georgetown recovered nicely in the second half to beat Northern Iowa. The Big Ten, on the other hand, dropped three of four games. Ohio State struggled but beat Davidson; Iowa blew the second-half lead; Michigan State never looked interested against Mason; and Wisconsin was blown out by Arizona. The mid-majors and low-majors also performed nicely -- Mason, Bradley and Bucknell got through to the second round.

Player to Watch: Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia. Here we go again. The Mountaineers must get past Northwestern State to set up a possible rematch with Texas, who beat them by one point in November. Pittsnogle dropped 18 on a tough Southern Illinois team.

Game to Watch: NC State-Texas. Penn stayed with the Longhorns the whole way, and the Wolfpack runs the same type of slowdown offense that appeared to frustrate Texas on Friday night. The game is in Dallas, which favors Texas, but the 'Horns will need to keep their poise.

The second round is often where the stars of the first two days fall back to earth. Cinderella teams can win a game, but the two-day turnaround to the second game often destroys a team that expended everything it had to pull a first-round upset. But usually one or two teams get through to the Sweet 16. Here are my predictions on who those will be:

Washington Regional
UConn over Kentucky
Illinois over Washington
George Mason over UNC
Wichita State over Tennessee
Comments: Somehow I think Jim Calhoun will get his team's attention, and they won't look past Kentucky the way the Huskies did against Albany. ... I'm going with the Illini's experience against an athletic Washington team that was very impressive in Round 1. ... George Mason, with Tony Skinn back, upsets the young Tar Heels, who barely survived Murray State. ... Obviously I'm still not sold on Tennessee -- I was expecting the Shockers to play Winthrop in this round.

Atlanta Regional
Duke over George Washington
LSU over Texas A&M
West Virginia over Northwestern State
Texas over NC State
Comments: Duke will handle the Colonials, but the road is looking tougher ahead for the Blue Devils. ... LSU-A&M features a great frontcourt matchup between Glen Davis and Joseph Jones and two solid point guards in Darrel Mitchell and Acie Law. ... West Virginia stops the Demons' Cinderella run. ... The Longhorns, as mentioned before, need to learn from what they did wrong against Penn to beat the Wolfpack.

Minneapolis Regional
Villanova over Arizona
BC over Montana
Florida over UW-Milwaukee
Ohio State over Georgetown
Comments: Villanova needs to wake up because Arizona played as well as any first-round team. ... BC might be primed for a long run after surviving Pacific. ... Florida and UWM play the same style but the Gators have better athletes. ... Ohio State and Georgetown looks like a game that could go to the wire.

Oakland Regional
Memphis over Bucknell
Pittsburgh over Bradley
Indiana over Gonzaga
UCLA over Alabama
Comments: The Bison and Braves see their terrific seasons end against formidable foes. ... IU-Gonzaga should be a track meet. Can Morrison and Batista stop Hoosiers' big man Marco Killingsworth? ... UCLA looked as good as any team in Round One.


Friday, March 17, 2006

A bonafide upset

Northwestern State over Iowa was the first classic March Madness upset of the tournament. The double-digit seeds that won yesterday included a 10-seed (Alabama), a team that had won two games in the tournament last year (UW-Milwaukee), a team that finished fourth in a power conference (Texas A&M) and a team that was facing its former conference rival (Montana).

The Demons upset of the Hawkeyes was one for the ages. Coming into the tournament, no one knew much about Northwestern State. We knew they were a 14 seed, and we could maybe surmise that they were located in a state and likely in the northwestern portion of it. But after their victory Friday we were all searching for their Web site to find out where they are: Natchitoches, Louisiana.

And we recognize that the Demons are pretty good, and extremely resilient. Down 17 in the second half, they fought back against the Hawkeyes and began hitting 3-pointers. The last came with .5 left on the clock, when Jermaine Wallace drilled a shot from the corner as he was falling backward. This shot was even better than the one Chris Lofton hit for Tennessee yesterday, and that's saying something.

Wallace had a man in his face and landed on his butt out of bounds. The whole team was so surprised it went in that they actually let Iowa get off a decent shot at the horn.

SI.com's Luke Winn is calling it the second-best, first-round buzzer beater since 1990, behind only Bryce Drew's "Pacer" play for Valpo to beat Ole Miss in 1998 (and it will take a lot to knock that one out of the top spot).

Congratulations to the Demons for their upset and for reminding us once again why we love this so much.

In other games, the Big East is back, winning three times (West Virginia in impressive fashion, Villanova sluggishly, and Georgetown with a second-half rally). And the Missouri Valley was the loser in two of those. Bradley will try to salvage a split for the conference tonight against Kansas.

And some sad news from the sport. Ray Meyer, the former DePaul coach, passed away at age 92. Meyer led DePaul teams to the Final Four 36 years apart, in 1943 and 1979 and was head coach there for 42 years.

Late in his career, DePaul became one of those teams that seemed snake-bitten in the NCAA tournament. Seven straight 20-win seasons between 1978 and 1984 yielded just the one Final Four trip, and some shocking early-round upsets to UCLA, St. Joe's and Boston College in consecutive years.

Meyer never won an NCAA championship, but he was a winner (724-354 lifetime), and a great man. May he rest in peace.


Close, but no cigar

That was the theme of Day 1 of the NCAA tournament. Double-digit seeds never had so many chances to win in one day as they did Thursday, but in the end, only UW-Milwaukee, Montana, Texas A&M and Alabama did. The Tide, taking a 7-10 game, is a mild upset winner at best.

Pacific took Boston College to double-overtime. Winthrop fell to Tennessee on a ridiculous shot by Chris Lofton. San Diego State let a late lead slip away against Indiana. And Xavier nearly extended Gonzaga's misery as a high seed, but Adam Morrison carried the Bulldogs to victory.

Some thoughts:

Hero of the Day: Jean Felix, Alabama -- I saw what Morrison did, but it was to be expected from him. Felix's 31 points and 8-for-11 shooting from behind the arc is the stuff tournament dreams are made of.

Goat of the Day: Gerry McNamara, Syracuse -- I hate to dump on him, because without him Syracuse wouldn't have made the tournament. That was validated last night with him playing hurt and ineffective. But ZERO field goals? It's a sign of McNamara's game. He's a long-range shooter, and a great one. But when the legs aren't there to shoot the jumper, he doesn't have a lot of other moves at his disposal. Note to Jim Boeheim: I said goat of the DAY. I'm still a fan of the kid.

Game of the Day: Lots of choices, but it has to be BC-Pacific. The momentum swings in the final five minutes of regulation and the two overtimes were incredible. It's the kind of first-round survival that can motivate a team, and I don't think BC needed to motivated in the first place. But GW-UNCW, Gonzaga-Xavier, Tennessee-Winthrop and Indiana-SDSU were terrific, too.

Conference Roundup: The SEC starts an impressive 4-0. The ACC, Pac 10, and Big Ten are all 2-0. The vaunted Big East? 0-3. Though they have two No. 1 seeds playing today, it's not a stretch to think that the nation's deepest conference could be 2-6 by Saturday morning.

Player to Watch: Morrison. He's the type of player that can carry a team a long way, and he showed why last night.

Second-Round Game to Watch: Gonzaga-Indiana. Mike Davis lives to coach another day.

On to Day Two. Not a lot of upsets jumping out at me, but watch out for the Missouri Valley. Wichita State had a nice debut in thrashing Seton Hall. Now two more Valley teams take on the Big East: Southern Illinois vs. West Virginia and Northern Iowa vs. Georgetown. Add Bradley and 7-footer Patrick O'Bryant going up against a young Kansas team, and you have the potential for the kind of breakout day a mid-major conference needs.


It's about to get VERY interesting

Word is the local football team will be signing Terrell Owens in the near future. Having moved here just six months ago, my investment is already paying off. It's going to be a fun season to sit back, watch and laugh.

Talk radio is aflutter with excitement. Many fans are calling in, overjoyed that the Cowboys might have the game-breaking wide receiver who can make the difference for them this year. The personality issues? Water under the bridge. I'm hearing things from the simple: "He can help us win," to the somewhat far-fetched: "We're only one player away and he's that player," to the downright ridiculous: "If T.O. wrecks the locker room, it was meant to be wrecked anyway."

Actually, I think Terrell Owens will be relatively quiet this year. During his first year in Philadelphia, he did everything that was asked of him. In fact he went beyond that -- he worked his way back from a serious ankle injury late in the season to play (and play well) in the Super Bowl. Eagles fans probably don't want me to remind them what happened next.

A few years ago, I referred to Randy Moss as the ultimate siren, because his talent made him attractive to any team looking for a difference-maker, but his personality and seeming ambivalence at times on the field made him a locker-room nightmare. Owens has far exceeded Moss in the past two years.

Owens complicates the picture even more. Not only is he a wonderful player, but he has kept his name out of the police blotters. There are no allegations of drug use or other improprieties in the newspapers. No, Owens simply ruins football franchises. He is the screaming child who bellyaches until he gets dessert, then when his parents give in, he finds something else to scream for.

I wouldn't want to be Drew Bledsoe right now. Owens has a history of making quarterbacks lives more miserable than anyone since Lawrence Taylor. He called Jeff Garcia gay and Donovan McNabb soft. (How funny that they're both on the same team now. Imagine those conversations.)

Oh, and coaches? Owens is a big fan of those. Just as long as they don't tell him what to do. Bill Parcells loved Keyshawn Johnson, who has a history of petulance, but Keyshawn also is a locker room leader and a warrior on the field. Owens is neither.

But, if he behaves, Owens can help the Cowboys win. They haven't won a playoff game since 1996, and fans are starved for success in a city that lives and dies with its football team.

For a franchise with the history and expectations of the Cowboys, the resources of a maverick owner often must be spent gambling. Jerry Jones has obviously decided to hit the track tonight. He'll worry about paying the debt later.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

A good start for the mid-majors

Are you believers now, Jim and Billy? (Sorry but these guys deserved to get ripped for their outburst.)

Wichita State soundly defeats a Big East team, proof that Seton Hall probably should have been left out of the field in place of fellow Big East team Cincinnati. UW-Milwaukee makes it two years in a row by beating Oklahoma. They've now knocked off Big East, SEC and Big 12 teams in the past two years. And Pacific nearly makes it three in a row by taking Boston College to double overtime.

There's only one reason CBS doesn't want the little guys in the field. They fear that early round upsets makes the later round matchups less appealing. Here's a Sportsline columnist telling us once again that the high seeds winning is what we all want.

I'll take the early-round upset any time, even if it means we see a rout later. With the parity in college basketball, one of these years we won't.


To Read Today

You can get the stats and breakdowns of all 32 first-round matchups in many places, but where can you get the stories behind the stories? Deadspin, of course.

Check out Will and friends' tournament guide, featuring things you didn't know about the teams.

Another good story is Pat Forde's best and worst-case scenarios for each team.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How we got here: Five magical days

So college basketball fans have arrived again at our favorite day of the year. All the speculation is over, the picks have been turned in, and the commentators can finally begin to discuss actual games. By the end of today, the field of 64 will be trimmed to 48, then to 32 tomorrow, then to 16 by the end of the weekend. We die-hards know it doesn't get any better than these next four days.

And here are five days that got us to March 16, 2006, that made us the die-hard fans we are, in chronological order:

1) March 26, 1979 -- If March Madness were a human, this would be the date on its birth certificate. This was the day that the tournament became an event and the sport joined our national consciousness. No big domed stadiums for this game. It was played at a college arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, Michigan State defeated Indiana State 75-64 to win the national championship. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird staged a duel for the ages, with Johnson's powerhouse Spartans from East Lansing defeating Bird's undefeated but underdog Sycamores from Terre Haute. The game earned the highest TV ratings in NCAA history, and everyone who watched it knew we were looking at the future and the transformation of pro basketball, to be led by these two giants of the game (a third, Michael Jordan, would have his finals moment three years later). We loved Magic for his skill and artistry on the court and his smile off it; we loved Bird for his unique vision and sixth sense for the game. They played contrasting styles with only one element in common. Both knew how to beat you. Only one of them could win on this night, but in the end, these two future NBA champions made us all winners.

2) March 14, 1981 -- Every college fan should have celebrated the 25th anniversary of this historic day, when the tournament's top two seeds, DePaul and Oregon State, and defending champion Louisville were all eliminated in the second round. It's clearly the first two rounds, where you have multiple games competing for your attention and the network manically switches back and forth to keep you updated, that make this tournament the most special. It's when you see the teams that you haven't heard of, that you couldn't even find on a map, take their shot at glory. This isn't a best-of-seven; the winner moves on and the loser is out. And if an underdog can beat a top seed, it will be like their own national championship. Never was that more apparent than when St. Joe's upset DePaul 49-48 and, minutes later, Kansas State beat Oregon State 50-48. (Remember THIS Sports Illustrated cover?) Earlier in the day, Arkansas' U.S. Reed had taken out the champs with a halfcourt shot at the buzzer, 74-73. While none of the victors could be considered small-time schools, in a 48-team field, these were Davids slaying Goliaths, and for those that watched, it could hardly get any better.

3) April 4, 1983 and April 1, 1985 (TIE) -- The early-round upset is like a great salad or appetizer. The upset in the final is the most scrumptious dessert. And when North Carolina State took out Houston, 54-52, and Villanova stunned Georgetown, 66-64, they completed magical runs through the tournament and carried college basketball fans on our backs with them. Both coached by colorful Italians that you would have invited into your homes for dinner, and led by hard-working seniors who often played second-fiddle to conference rivals, the Wolfpack and Wildcats won our hearts along with the games. We didn't notice them eke out opening-round wins, over Pepperdine and Dayton, respectively. We started to watch after second-round upsets of UNLV and Michigan. We had joined the bandwagon by the time they dispatched titans Virginia and North Carolina to get to the Final Four. We never expected them to finish the job, given the virtual coronations awaiting their finals opponents. But in the end, Jim Valvano dashed around the Albuquerque court searching for someone to hug, and Rollie Massimino gathered his staff in a group embrace in Lexington while long-time trainer Jake Nevin, stricken with ALS, just grinned from his nearby wheelchair. Kansas completed the 1980s trinity of major upsets by beating Oklahoma in 1988, and by then, we were practically expecting it.
(Footnote: Villanova won their title against the first-ever 64-team field, which also paved the way for these fun little office pools we all don't want to admit we're in.)

4) March 18, 1990 -- Most fans without an allegiance pull for the underdog, particularly in college basketball. But the tournament hasn't had a little guy as beloved as Loyola Marymount. This wasn't a lower seed that had just happened to come from a major conference. This was a previously obscure school from Los Angeles, with two outstanding players -- one of whom was taken from them tragically, 11 days before the start of the tournament. When Hank Gathers collapsed and died during the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals on March 4, it not only ended the life of a promising basketball talent, it left his team in uncertain shape for the NCAA tournament. Gathers and teammate Bo Kimble had lifted the Lions into the nation's elite, playing a manic style of full-court pressing and 3-point gunning that was both fun and effective. Ranked in the Top 20 for most of the year, Loyola was dropped to an 11th seed in the West region by the loss of Gathers, a wonderful post player who complemented Kimble and his teammates' outside games. Kimble paid tribute to his friend by shooting (and making) his first free throw left-handed in every game, starting with the Lions' opening-round win over New Mexico State. Then they took the court against defending champion Michigan in the second round, exactly two weeks after Gathers' death. Kimble made the free throw again, and that was just one of many Lions shots to find the net that day. Loyola made a record 21 3s, 11 by Jeff Fryer, in a high-octane 149-115 victory that will likely always hold the tournament record for most points. The Lions then beat Alabama before losing to eventual champion UNLV in the Elite Eight. No one would care if they had busted our brackets.

5) April 6, 1992 and April 5, 1993 (TIE) -- The Wolverines were back in the national picture two years later. Steve Fisher, who had led Michigan to an unexpected title as an interim coach in 1989, had now recruited the most famous college basketball class in history. Maybe they weren't the best recruiting class ever, but no one transcended the game like the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The quintet started the 1992 final against Duke as freshmen, and the 1993 final against North Carolina. They lost both times, but their playground swagger and their knee-length shorts became staples of the college game, for better or worse. Even the most fundamental-loving fan among us still gets a little excited when we see an athletic, creative play, and no group played the game with more flair than these five. Both times they faced veteran teams coached by men who favored a bit more structure in their teams, and the contrasts made for two compelling finals. The Fab Five hung with Duke for a little more than a half, before wearing down as the Devils marched to their second consecutive title, 71-51. The second time around, Michigan had UNC on the ropes, but the Tar Heels took a late 73-71 lead behind Donald Williams' shooting. We all can still visualize what happened next: Webber dribbling the ball up court, dribbling into the corner, realizing he's trapped, and calling a time out. But his team has none. Technical foul. The Heels make the free throws and win 77-71. The fundamentalists snicker. Didn't Webber know his team was out of time outs? Well, maybe in the back of his mind, but on this stage, it can be hard to think the game. Many before and since have failed, too. When Webber left for the NBA at the end of his sophomore year, it was the end of one era, and the beginning of another. For better or worse.

OK, so I've cheated and picked seven days. If you asked me to list my 10 most memorable tournament games, I'd give you 12. Or 15. Last year alone produced some of the best basketball we've seen. And I'm sure I'll have a few games to add to the list again.

The point is: It's here. It's the day we get ready for all year. Come noon Thursday, we'll be watching. Jimmy V, Jake and Hank will be, too.


My bracket

A few changes from my initial picks (though it's never wise to do that). Namely, I took UCLA in the Oakland region and Texas in the Atlanta region. I still believe that someone will take out Duke before the Final Four, and Texas has the revenge factor in play. Memphis can get to Indy, but if there's a school that will take them out, it's one that can play defense and frustrate their young players. That's the Bruins. Given Allan Ray's seemingly clean bill of health, I'm sticking with 'Nova.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

First-round picks

Of course I'll be entering a few of those online pools where you pick all the teams in your brackets right up until the final. But on here I want to go round-by-round as the games happen, just to be able to see how much difference there is in having the luxury of knowing the matchups each round.

My fiancee, who readers of this blog last heard from in January when she said of Nick Harper's wife, "You don't stab someone the day before a big game!" came up with another prescient point on Sunday night. She asked why all the pools require you to pick the entire tournament bracket at once, because "someone could get hurt or could get caught with a stripper" during the tournament.

Fair point. So in the event that an injury or an indiscretion hampers a team from playing at full strength, I'll present my picks for the first round only.

Washington Regional
UConn over Albany
Kentucky over UAB
Utah State over Washington
Illinois over Air Force
Michigan State over George Mason
North Carolina over Murray State
Wichita State over Seton Hall
Winthrop over Tennessee
Comments: I like Kentucky to get back at UAB for their early upset two years ago ... Utah State plays great defense and shoots the ball well ... Illinois and Michigan State get the nod against two of the shakiest at-large entries ... Seton Hall is too streaky to get by a solid Missouri Valley team ... By now, the Vols have to be incredibly upset to be hearing critics say they were seeded too high, but I don't like a team who plays mad ... UConn and UNC should roll.

Atlanta Regional
Duke over Southern
UNC-Wilmington over George Washington
Syracuse over Texas A&M
Iona over LSU
West Virginia over Southern Illinois
Iowa over Northwestern State
NC State over Cal
Texas over Penn
Comments: It's a far fall for the Colonials, but without a healthy Pops they're in trouble against a well-schooled Seahawks squad ... Syracuse won't go out in the first round two years in a row ... Every year someone's chic Final Four pick goes out early, and I'm picking it to be LSU in my upset special ... I'm sticking with WVU one more time but they've got a battle on their hands ... Northwestern State is a trendy pick but I think Iowa has the experience to go a long way ... Cal doesn't have a good nonconference win, and NC State plays very disciplined ... Duke and Texas are clear favorites.

Minneapolis Regional
Villanova over Monmouth
Wisconsin over Arizona
Montana over Nevada
BC over Pacific
UW-Milwaukee over Oklahoma
Florida over S. Alabama
Georgetown over Northern Iowa
Ohio State over Davidson
Comments: The hardest region to pick even in Round 1 ... See my NC State pick for the Wisconsin rationale ... Montana pulls the upset because I don't like Nick Fazekas' defensive play ... UWM has another upset in it, but that's all ... Florida vs. South Alabama is like looking in the mirror with their up-tempo styles and Kentucky-trained coaches ... Northern Iowa has great non-conference wins but Georgetown has the best of all (Duke) ... Villanova, BC and Ohio State stay true to form.

Oakland Regional
Memphis over Oral Roberts
Bucknell over Arkansas
Pitt over Kent State
Kansas over Bradley
San Diego State over Indiana
Xavier over Gonzaga
Marquette over Alabama
UCLA over Belmont
Comments: No, a No. 16 won't beat a No. 1 this year ... Bucknell's savvy overcomes the 'Hogs virtual home-court advantage ... Pitt and KU carry over momentum from conference tournaments ... SDSU is an underrated team and no one knows how Indiana will play in Coach Davis' final tournament with them ... Boy, have I fallen off the 'Zags bandwagon -- watch them make a huge run this year (if they can find a defense) ... Marquette and Alabama both played tough schedules, but I like Steve Novak to score big in this game ... UCLA should roll.

Full bracket predictions posted tomorrow, then round-by-round picks as the tournament goes on.


Kudos to Dave Calloway

Congratulations to Monmouth for their 71-49 victory over Hampton, making me officially 0-1 in my tournament picks. Special kudos to their coach Dave Calloway, who in his postgame comments to Erin Andrews, referred to the game three times as the "play-in game," which it is, then went out of his way to praise his opponent and cite his own team's unfair advantage.

The Pirates had to play four games in four days, concluding with their upset win over Delaware State in the MEAC final on Saturday. Monmouth, meanwhile, took out Fairleigh Dickinson on Wednesday night in the final of the NEC tournament. Calloway was gracious to point out that his team was able to rest longer and then congratulated Hampton for making the NCAA tournament. It's nice to see a coach call it like it is.


Monday, March 13, 2006

The Play-In Game

Forget that the NCAA calls this the “opening round” game. The loser of the Tuesday night game between the Monmouth Hawks and the Hampton Pirates won’t get to experience what the winner and 63 other teams go through. Those teams get to join seven of their peers at a subregional site, in arenas packed with fans and media, and play before a network television audience.

God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio, which has hosted this game since the NCAA instituted it in 2001. Monmouth and Hampton will, I’m sure, get the best treatment their fans have to offer. Dayton is a great basketball town, and the Oregon District certainly a nice diversion, but it won’t have the same atmosphere or draw as the subregional sites. (Coincidentally, one of those sites this year is Dayton – though the winner of this game will travel to Philadelphia to meet Villanova.) The game is on cable, and ESPN doesn’t have a history of sending its top announcing tandems to the game.

A little history about this game: The NCAA added a 65th tournament team in 2001, when the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences were formed by the split of the old WAC. Rather than take away an at-large bid from a presumably more marquee school, they expanded the field to 65 and created this awkward arrangement in which all 65 teams technically qualify for the tournament but the two deemed the weakest have to play an elimination game.

The concept is OK, but the wrong two teams are in the game. Instead, the NCAA should have the last two at-large teams play their way in. First, it would have two more recognizable teams. Second, it would be fair to the kids from these smaller schools whose dream is just to make it to the NCAAs. They deserve to see what all the hype and hysteria is about. If Air Force, supposedly the last team into the field, wanted to complain about having to meet, say, Bradley in Dayton on Tuesday night, I’d have three letters for them: N-I-T. The Falcons should have Craig Littlepage’s picture emblazoned on their jerseys after making the field at all.

So while the rest of the college basketball world might forget about these two teams, I won’t. Here’s a quick capsule on each of them:

Hampton Pirates (16-15, champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). Located in Hampton, Virginia.

This is the third NCAA appearance for the Pirates, who posted one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, in terms of seeding. As the 15th seed in 2001, they shocked No. 2 Iowa State, 58-57, one of only four times a No. 15 has won a tournament game. The postgame scene of coach Steve Merfeld being lifted, spread-eagle, by one of his players is an image that defines how special it is when schools such as Hampton get to play the top teams. Merfeld has moved on to Evansville, and the Pirates are now coached by Bobby Collins. Their top scorer is forward Jaz Cowan (13.1 points per game), a transfer from George Washington. The Colonials might wish he was still there, given the injury to their own big man, Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

Monmouth Hawks (18-14, champions of the Northeast Conference). Located in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Monmouth has an NCAA tournament history as well, though it isn’t as successful as Hampton’s. The Hawks last made the field in 2004, losing in the first round to Mississippi State. They also fell in their other two NCAA appearances, to Duke in 2001 and to Marquette in 1996. Monmouth is coached by one of its alumni, Dave Calloway, who has turned the program around in his nine years there. The Hawks won five games in his first full season, 1998-99, after winning four the previous year when Calloway took over in midseason as interim coach. They’ve now won 109 games in the past six years. Monmouth is led in scoring by two juniors, Dejan Delic (12.2 ppg) and Marques Alston (12.0 ppg), and also has one of the field’s tallest players, the aptly named John Bunch at 7-foot-2.

Other interesting facts about this game: The winner of the first play-in game was Northwestern State, which beat Winthrop. Both teams are now chic picks for upsets in the first round – with the Demons facing Iowa and the Eagles going against Tennessee. Northwestern State is also the only team to win this game after entering it with a winning record. Siena, UNC-Asheville, Florida A&M, and Oakland have won the last four play-in games after compiling below-.500 records.

Neither of these teams has a losing record, but I’ll follow the trend and go with the school with the worse record. The pick here is Hampton. And I’d pick them to beat Air Force, too.


Play-In Game History

2006: Monmouth vs. Hampton

2005: Oakland 79, Alabama A&M 69

2004: Florida A&M 72, Lehigh 57

2003: UNC-Asheville 92, Texas Southern 84

2002: Siena 81, Alcorn State 77

2001: Northwestern State 71, Winthrop 67

Sunday, March 12, 2006

It’s that time of year again

Time for March Madness. Time to look at the brackets, think you know what you’re talking about, then watch some basketball neophyte clean house in the office pool because they pick teams that have cool names.

It’s always difficult to make predictions on the night the pairings come out, but here’s a gut reaction after looking at the brackets for the first time and working through them a bit.

Before I discuss the regions from east to west, here’s a sure-fire award for Jim Nantz as Ogre of the Year. After looking at the brackets, Nantz proceeded to lash out at tournament selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage for not putting enough teams from the power conferences into the bracket.

Attaboy, Jim. Way to show how much basketball you watch. Nantz, who just finished calling NFL football games in late January and is probably looking past the whole tournament so he can scratch Hootie Johnson’s back at the Masters, maybe has called 10 college basketball games this year. And I’m guessing none of those games featured members of the Missouri Valley or the Colonial Athletic Association. And how about Billy Packer announcing teams from the Minneapolis bracket before CBS did? The Final Four is best watched with the mute button on if these guys are going to keep up this act. Give me Dick Vitale, who for all his "flat-out, sensational" hyperbole, still shows he knows something about a mid-major team like UAB besides how to spell it.

OK, I’m past that. Let’s move on to the regions.

Washington Region

The Top Seed: UConn – Still the best team in the country when they’re engaged and interested. After losing in the Big East quarterfinals, here’s betting they will be. Their frontcourt is the best in the country, and when Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson are making outside shots, they can’t be stopped.

Who Can Beat Them: Illinois – A well-coached team that has key players back from last year’s runner-up and a terrific leader in Dee Brown. Michigan State – Another team that seems to play in only high and low gear. Tom Izzo took them to the Final Four last year and the Elite Eight in 2003 from a five seed and a seven seed, respectively. North Carolina – Once their freshmen learned how to play the game, my, did they play it well. Roy Williams has the monkey off his back and his team will play loose.

Best First-Round Games: Kentucky vs. UAB – The Blazers upset the No. 1 seeded Wildcats in the second round two years ago. Wichita St. vs. Seton Hall – The classic battle of a good team from a mid-major conference and a middling team from a power conference. Tennessee vs. Winthrop – Bruce Pearl’s reputation (or his orange attire, a la Bruce Weber) must’ve gotten the Vols a No. 2 seed, because they haven’t played like it of late. The Eagles won’t be an easy out.

First-Round Upset: Utah State over Washington. The Huskies bowed out early in the Pac 10 Tournament. Meanwhile, the Aggies played their way into this tournament by taking Nevada to the wire in the WAC final. And their best shooter, Jaycee Carroll, wasn’t on his game. This could be the perennial No. 12 over a No. 5.

Bracket Champion: UConn – I just can’t pick anyone else, despite the Huskies inconsistency.

Atlanta Region

The Top Seed: Duke – So, the Blue Devils and J.J. Redick were tired. Through. Finished. Not so fast. They won their seventh ACC tournament championship in eight years and did it with Redick hitting the type of shots that make everyone love – or hate – him. They beat a very good Boston College team and they’re a deserving No. 1 overall seed.

Who Can Beat Them: Syracuse – Wouldn’t we all love a Redick-Gerry McNamara matchup in the Sweet 16? Iowa – A very disciplined, senior-dominated team led by a fellow Bob Knight disciple. Texas – Duke won the earlier matchup by 31, but the Longhorns play the physical style that could wear Duke out.

Best First-Round Games: George Washington vs. UNC-Wilmington – A curious 8-9 matchup because the Colonials were ranked in the Top 10 most of the season, but they must get healthy. The Seahawks came out of a very good mid-major conference and have great guards in T.J. Carter and John Goldsberry, and you know how I feel about guards in March. West Virginia vs. Southern Illinois – About three weeks ago I would have put the Mountaineers in the previous group, but they’d better get their act together and they’d better do it fast against a solid defensive team like the Salukis.

First-Round Upset: Iona over LSU – A senior-dominated Gaels team is led by Steve Burtt, the type of player who can put a team on his back in a first-round game. LSU needs Tyrus Thomas healthy and must take advantage of its size up front.

Bracket Champion: Iowa – Redick and Shelden Williams didn’t stick around four years for anything less than a Final Four. But watch the Hawkeyes, exactly the type of rugged Big 10 team (Michigan State 2005, Indiana 2002) that has taken the Blue Devils out before.

Minneapolis Region

The Top Seed: Villanova – The great mystery with the Wildcats is Allan Ray’s health. The good news is, after a horrifying injury, he has his vision back. ‘Nova will need his shooting and quickness in the most difficult bracket in the field. Fortunately, of all the top teams, Villanova displays the most consistent tenacity and effort. They’ve lost when they haven’t shot well. This is the team with the best chance of beating UConn – if they get to face them.

Who Can Beat Them: Boston College – Jay Wright couldn’t have enjoyed seeing the Eagles in his half of the bracket. BC showed Duke and the rest of the ACC how good they are. It’s a veteran team with a nasty streak, and it certainly knows Villanova well from its days in the Big East. Florida – Another inconsistent team but the Gators put it together to win the SEC Tournament and beat South Carolina after losing twice previously. ‘Nova beat them in the second round last year. Georgetown – The Hoyas potentially beating Villanova in an NCAA tourney upset? The world has been turned upside down. Georgetown is young but athletic. They’ve played ‘Nova (a 75-65 loss in Philadelphia) and they’ve beaten Duke. Ohio State – Before next year’s ballyhooed freshman class arrives, this senior class can send them a message. Kudos to Thad Matta for picking the Buckeyes up from the specter of probation and forging a Big Ten champion.

Best First-Round Game: Arizona vs. Wisconsin – Interesting battle between contrasting styles. Oklahoma vs. UW-Milwaukee – The Panthers wouldn’t surprise anyone with another trip to the Sweet 16.

First-Round Upset: UWM over Oklahoma. But also watch out for Montana over Nevada, if Nick Fazekas’ defense against Montana big man Andrew Strait is as bad as it was in the WAC title game. And if Florida isn’t ready, a deep South Alabama team could spring a surprise.

Bracket Champion: I’ve written more about this bracket because it could go about 10 different ways. Thus, a qualifying pick – Villanova moves on if Ray is healthy. If not, Ohio State goes from one Big Ten city to another for the Final Four.

Oakland Region

The Top Seed: Memphis – Say what you will about the Tigers waltzing through the remains of Conference USA. But they did everything asked of them – play a tough non-conference schedule, dominate their conference and win their conference tournament. Memphis practically played an NCAA tournament before 2006 was a week old – UW-Milwaukee, Alabama, UCLA, Duke, Gonzaga, Texas and Winthrop. Toss in a road win at Cincinnati and this young, athletic team is ready for its close-up.

Who Can Beat Them: Pittsburgh – A tenacious defensive team that tries to frustrate its opposition. Memphis is young and therefore susceptible to frustration in this setting. Kansas – Playing as well as any team right now and yearning to forget last year’s opening round loss to Bucknell. Gonzaga – The Bulldogs must prove that they can play in this tournament as a favorite. They’ve played their best as an underdog. But in Adam Morrison, they have Danny Manning with a bad mustache. UCLA – Again, go with the guards. Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are a formidable tandem.

Best First-Round Game: Arkansas vs. Bucknell – The Razorbacks get a short trip to Dallas. The Bison are looking for another first-round upset. The winner has a decent chance to beat Memphis. Marquette vs. Alabama – The Tide played one of the toughest non-conference schedules, and the Golden Eagles showed coming up with a school nickname was tougher than playing in the Big East.

First-Round Upset: San Diego State over Indiana – The Hoosiers will play win-one-for-Mike Davis, but the Aztecs have frontcourt players, in Mohamed Abukar and Marcus Slaughter, who can neutralize Marco Killingsworth.

Bracket Champion: Memphis – Though the Tigers are vulnerable, no one in this bracket is as complete.

Again, a gut reaction. Look for more as the week goes on. I'm now starting to prep for Monmouth-Hampton on Tuesday night.


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