Saturday, March 21, 2009
That took -- what? -- like three days? Couldn't even get out of the second round.
UCLA losing (so so badly) to Villanova was the start.
Texas losing (barely and ugly) to Duke was the finish.
Oh, sure my Final Four is still alive (including my final "big bet" -- Syracuse over UNC), but I won't be winning any bracket contests.
At this point, all I can hope for is to finish ahead of last year's 18th percentile. We'll see.
For the record, after 1.5 rounds:
*Dan Shanoff: 350 points (40th percentile).
*Barack Obama: 350 points.
*"Higher Seed Wins" method: 360 points (54th percentile).
*"National Bracket": 380 points (80th percentile)
By the way, after UCLA lost -- effectively imploding my bracket -- and I was sitting there bored and stunned through the late-afternoon blowouts, I actually had an epiphany:
I realized why my bracket picks this year -- perhaps every year -- are so flawed.
I'll explain tomorrow.
For now, I'll take advantage of the (relatively) early ending to the evening after the late-night first rounds and re-charge for tomorrow.
(1) West Virginia to the Elite Eight. FAIL YESTERDAY.
(2) UCLA to the Elite Eight. FAIL TODAY.
(3) Texas over Duke. NOT FEELING GOOD ANYMORE.
(4) Syracuse over UNC. HOLLOW RESIDUAL VALUE.
(5) The Big Ten will suck, uniformly. BLIND STUPIDITY.
As I watch UCLA get throttled by Villanova, I'm not thinking "What was I thinking?!?!" in not picking Villanova than in affirmatively believing in UCLA. I was swayed by the past three years' Final Four trips -- that they retained a regional champion's DNA. Wow, was I wrong.
That's not to avoid giving credit to Villanova -- this is the best I have seen them play, not just this season but in recent memory (particularly in a big game, like one in the NCAA Tournament). To be fair, this is the worst game I have seen UCLA play in 4 years of Tournament excellence. (Again: Credit Villanova as much as disparage UCLA for playing absolutely horribly.)
I think that -- despite West Virginia screwing me over with their flaccid performance -- the Big East re-affirms its mojo with this decisive ass-kicking. (Although yesterday, my Louisville-over-Pitt pick for the finals -- while hardly an unconventional bet -- seemed plenty shaky.)
My big bets are blowing up in my face -- 72 hours into the Tournament.
Not a great feeling.
Meanwhile: Obama's first round was...yeesh. He went 19-13, good for a sub-10th percentile in the statistically significant Daily Quickie Readers group. (Still has 14 of 16 Sweet 16 teams left.)
Meanwhile, this tournament needed a signature upset: 13 over 4 qualifies, although it didn't FEEL like an upset during the game itself-- if only because the Vikings dominated from start to finish. Honestly, I'm kicking myself for not recognizing that Wake had been totally slumping recently.
And the late-evening games yesterday were terrific -- I know that the 8/9 game is sort of vestigial (won't the winner lose to the 1-seed anyway?), but the Siena-Ohio State game was terrific. I actually think the Saints will give Louisville a hell of a game.
You know my biggest bracket bust-up of the day: West Virginia ousted by Dayton. I took WVU to the Elite Eight -- who knew the 'Eers would decide to simply not show up for the first round?
In the first round, I went 25-7. At this point, the "How's your bracket?" shifts to how many Sweet 16 teams you have remaining (I have 14). For the record, Barack Obama went 19-13. Yikes. (To his credit, he still has 14 of 16 Sweet 16 teams remaining.)
My biggest games of the day are the first one -- UCLA-Nova (I have UCLA winning) -- and the last one -- Duke-Texas (I have Texas winning).
By the way, my whole "Big East will rule" theory sort of fell apart yesterday. West Virginia didn't show up. Pitt was nearly upset by a 16-seed (and certainly didn't look like a team that can/will win 6 straight).
If there was a big winner of the first round, it's the Big 12: Wins by Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Texas A&M. Obviously, we need to see how many teams from each league make the Sweet 16 to really gauge strength, but the Big 12 could land up to 4 of the spots.
I think the 2nd round is going to be a great slate of games. Even if Thursday was mostly drama-free, I think the difference between the 32 teams playing today and tomorrow just isn't that big -- I expect unpredictable results. What more can you ask for?
Friday, March 20, 2009
Meanwhile, you have to feel for East Tenn St fans -- that was as close to a 16-over-1 upset that late in the game as we had seen in a long time (maybe since UConn-Albany in '06?) Tell you one thing: It doesn't bode well for a long run for Pitt.
Headlines: North Dakota State earns a moral victory against the defending champs -- but not a real one... I miss yet another 8/9 game (WTF?)... Big 12 continues its hot streak with Oklahoma State... Big East rolls on, with Marquette surviving Utah St -- a win is a win... Who's ready for the James Harden Show?
I go back and forth about the whole "Do I really care about YOUR fantasy team?" (I generally like hearing about it.) But about brackets, I can't get enough: I'll ask anyone, and I really want to know.
I went 13-3. As usual, I am kicking myself for the misses more than congratulating myself for the hits.
Picking Butler over LSU? (But didn't Butler nearly lose at home to Northwestern? Should have been my tip-off.)
Picking BYU over Texas A&M? Seduced by the MWC at-largeness and discounting -- wrongly -- the Big 12.
And, yeesh: I might not be big on the Big Ten this year, but since when is Clemson EVER a clutch Tournament team? (As opposed to savvy Tournament coach John Bielein.)
But missing 8/9 games is forgiveable -- who expects them to last past the weekend? Same with the Clemson-Michigan winner; that team was losing tomorrow to Oklahoma anyway.
Now, all week I have been bemoaning the UCLA-VCU quandary. I'm in the tank for both teams. I ended up picking UCLA, based on the three straight Final Fours. Picking them to the Elite Eight, actually. So a lot was on the line.
It turned out to be the best game of the day -- a nail-biter. I cannot think of a better way for it to end than Darren Collison -- the epitome of the "three Final Four" experience -- forcing VCU superstar Eric Maynor into a game-breaking miss at the buzzer. Fitting.
I feel bad for VCU. I said this in the column, and I believe it: It was a very very very tough match-up for them. I think VCU could/would have beaten ANY team seeded 2 through 10 in this field. Sometimes, the draw is everything.
Meanwhile, I hesitate to preen, but after watching the Philly appetizer -- Villanova wearing down fiesty American -- I think folks who assumed Nova would waltz through their hometown into the Sweet 16 might be mistaken.
And I think Gonzaga -- if they get by Western Kentucky, obviously -- will give UNC a hell of a game. The Zags play with a sizeable chip on their shoulder; they are kind of d'bags, actually. Not in the Duke way, but more in the "We know we're good" way. See Pargo's posterizing.
Of the games today, the one I'm watching most closely is West Virginia vs. Dayton. I have the 'Eers going to the Elite Eight, but they may not make it out of Round One. Mizzou-Cornell should be a fun one.
Speaking of which: Did you check out Nate Silver's projections? He bases them on Pomeroy's gold-standard analysis and a few other CBB quant guys. What is interesting is that it seems to bear out my bullishness on both West Virginia and UCLA making the Elite Eight. (And I think if Gonzaga wasn't matched up with UNC, they would be in the Elite Eight, too. Who knows: As I said above, the Zags have the swag to KO the Tar Heels. But it's nice to know the stats back up my "gut.")
And the Big Ten can salvage a very positive first round if Wisconsin beats Florida State, which I think they will. Why? Tempo. Wisconsin's system is very hard to prepare for -- Bo Ryan is a Top 10 "Tournament coach" -- and the Badgers will dictate the tempo.
What happened when Florida State played another Big Ten team that played a slow-it-down tempo like Wisco? Northwestern clocked them by 14.
Complete SN column here. Mid-day check-ins coming based on game results.
Just remember: It really doesn't matter how many wins you rack up over these first two days. What really matters is how many Elite Eight (and presumably Final Four) teams you have left standing, both after today and on Monday morning.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
The entire early-evening session is shaping up as 4 close games, including this whopping upset brewing in Philly. Not just a 14 over a 3, but AU beating Nova in a virtual home game for VU.
Meanwhile, the afternoon was sort of a joke: Who made the decision to have two 1-seeds play at the same time? You might as well put 1-seeds at the No One Watches 5 p.m. game.
Maryland-Cal was interesting -- and, technically, an upset. (No more questions about Maryland's fitness as an at-large pick, right?) Purdue was mildly interesting, late. Good start for the Big Ten.
Tonight feels like it's going to be a fun one.
*Like everyone else, I got Memphis; like everyone else, I would have given up all the points associated with my prediction for Memphis (Final Four) to see them lose.
*The SEC is acquitted...
*Butler is no longer has any Cinderella cachet...
*Obviously, the Big 12 was better than we thought...
*Who was peddling the inanity that BYU was a classic MWC Tourney-tough team?
And finally: As long as the Selection Committee was only going to give out 4 at-large bids to non-power-conference teams, it would have been nice for half of them (Butler, BYU) not to choke the hell out of the opportunity in the opening hours of the Tournament.
Can we get St. Mary's and San Diego State back?
Last chance! Join the Daily Quickie Readers group of the Tournament Challenge. Just a smidgen outside the Top 100 most popular T.C. groups on all of ESPN.com. You all rule.
Meanwhile, today's SN column is loaded with First Thursday goodness: An analysis of both the afternoon and evening schedules, plus a lot more.
And I am sure of this: It will be a defining day for Twitter, at least among sports fans. Follow along at @danshanoff (or just look on the right side, but that's only my last 3 tweets).
Today is the day when you read all the glowing profiles of scrappy would-be Cinderellas like American, and you suddenly wonder if they can pull off an upset. It's what makes the day great, even if it ruins your bracket.
I, of course, will wait for the Game of the Day, tonight: UCLA vs. VCU. Three-time defending Final Four team vs. the most popular bandwagon upset pick in the country. Should be amazing.
Complete SN column here. Sign up for the Daily Quickie Readers group. Buckle yourself up for 12:20 and all afternoon.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
"It's all chance?" Did I really say that? Or even imply it? Crap!
Dan Shanoff...said gut feeling is more important than statistics, but taking a look at the numbers can never hurt.
In the end, he said, it's all chance.
"You think you know everything about college basketball and then all of a sudden your mom is finishing ahead of you [in a tournament pool], which happens every year to me with my mom," he said.
If my picks bomb out this year as badly as last year (18th percentile in the Daily Quickie Readers pool), I am giving up on my "gut" and going long on the quants in March 2010.
Ken Pomeroy, John Gasaway, Kevin Pelton: You all know I remain the hugest of fan. (And that's just college hoops analysts -- not even counting Neyer, Silver, Ma et al across other sports.)
Oh, well. At least the quote made my mom happy.
12 years ago, when I was running ESPN.com's NCAA Tournament coverage, I changed the "top story" on the front page of the site an average of every 6 minutes, from noon until 5, on those first two days of the Tournament -- when the majority of fans were relying on ESPN.com (front page and scoreboard pages) to follow the Tournament from work.
I rewrote the blurb of information that led the site -- over and over -- depending on the developments in the games themselves and how that was impacting the bracket.
It was almost like a live-blog. Or a Twitter stream. The front page of ESPN.com wasn't your gateway to the original content -- the front page itself WAS the original content.
I'm not along in thinking the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are the greatest weekdays of the year. There is nothing like the at-work (or skipping-out-of-work) attention from sports fans, all day long, plus the non-stop action of the games.
PS: That first round of the '97 Tournament offered the opportunity for the greatest headline ever displayed on ESPN.com, coming just after 15-seed Coppin State upset 2-seed South Carolina:
"Coppin' a Feel: Cocks Get Blocked"
At this point, I'm not even sure if it actually happened or merely ALMOST happened. I could swear I have a print-out of it -- from being live on the site -- in a file somewhere in my house.
That's a lot more intrigue than he has in the rest of his bracket, which seems pretty chalky. Looks like he was high on Clemson before thinking better of it, and somehow got sold on Florida State.
Most of all, wasn't it refreshing to see him with all the cross-outs and question marks? JUST LIKE THE REST OF US FANS. (Really: Read this. It's like talking about the bracket with your friends.)
Wednesday 03/18 A.M. Quickie:
Obama Bracket Analysis, Plus Why Coach K Must Destroy His Soul If He Wants To Win
His bracket will be revealed on ESPN at noon today, but I actually found the complete versions of his East and South brackets, and so I led today's SN column with an analysis of his early-round picks, in addition to his conventional Final Four.
The upshot: Very pragmatic, as expected. Few upsets. A blind spot for Illinois (obviously) and perhaps a little over-enthusiasm for Florida State (politically smart, given the state's value in the 2012 election?)
Notably, he picked VCU over UCLA. Most folks are riding VCU as an upset pick. I have gone over, ad nauseum, my issues here. I am picking UCLA. I actually feel OK about it.
Make no mistake: I feel BAD that VCU won't move on. I feel BAD that I couldn't pick them to the Elite Eight, as I wanted to. But I don't think my pick will be wrong. (Ack! Jinx!)
I also don't feel bad about picking Syracuse to upend UNC in the South:
First of all, I think UNC -- even if they win the region -- won't beat Pitt. So my exposure is limited. Second, I think that Ty Lawson's status is iffy enough -- and UNC is affected enough by his iffy status -- that it's no lock to pick them.
At full strength, UNC would be tough to beat. The fact is: They won't be at full strength. And if they play Syracuse? Good luck to Lawson keeping up with Jonny Flynn, who has emerged as the most dynamic PG in the country -- even more dynamic than Lawson.
No, the only pick I feel weird about -- the one that could derail my bracket most -- is Duke. I have Duke losing to Texas in the 2nd round.
There are a few problems with this: (1) The game is in Greensboro. (2) Duke this year is better -- a lot better -- than the previous two years' chokers. (3) Texas isn't that good. (4) Greg Paulus doesn't really play much anymore.
And No. 4 is the crux of it: I am blinded by my loathing of Duke and my schadenfreude to see them lose early, yet again. Greg Paulus kind of typifies that -- he may be the least likeable Duke player of all time, which is saying something.
But Paulus isn't really playing anymore. In fact, he has been benched into oblivion. And, did you notice, Duke got a lot better once Paulus stopped getting starter's minutes.
Here is an unknown: When it comes down to crunch time, will Coach K -- no great Xs and Os tactician -- give Paulus important minutes because Coach K has a blind spot for his seniors and for his gritty favorites?
(See the '99 title game, when he put the ball in Trajan Langdon's hands; he promptly bungled what would have been the game-winning play. Oh, and Coach K sat freshman Corey Maggette for extended minutes, even though Maggette was the only player on the Duke roster able to dominate UConn, as he proved in the game's opening minutes. This decision-making formed the basis of my argument that Coach K is not a great game coach. Calhoun schooled him.)
So here it is: If Coach K cares more about winning than his leadership, he will keep Paulus out of the game -- and Duke will win. If Coach K cares more about leadership than winning, he will play Paulus out of some irrational loyalty -- and Duke will lose.
I am betting on the latter.
But if Coach K uses the former strategy and he destroys a little piece of his soul in the process -- doing whatever he needs to get the win (particularly given the pressure he and the program are under after the last two season-ending debacles) -- it's a win for Duke-haters, even if Duke wins.
Complete SN column here. More later.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I am fairly unrepentant (for now) about picking UNC not to win the South -- instead picking Syracuse.
I am fairly unrepentant (for now) about picking Duke to lose in the opening weekend -- they are a better team this year than the past two, but still: Unproven as anything but March chokers.
I am also fairly unrepentant (for now) about picking Villanova to lose in the opening weekend, despite the Wildcats playing the game in Philadelphia.
Where I am stuck is over which team will be the one to beat Nova: UCLA or VCU? For now, I have UCLA beating VCU -- and even advancing to the Elite Eight.
(Click here for a full rundown of my picks from my Wall Street Journal column yesterday.)
I have no problem picking the winner of that game to the Elite Eight. If they weren't playing each other, I would probably pick both teams to the Elite Eight.
Where I am stuck is picking UCLA over VCU. The Bruins were my favorite to win it all last year, and I obviously remain awestruck at their three-years-running Final Four streak.
(I'm not trying to crawl inside my head too much here -- although, again, that's the annual tradition today -- but I wonder whether I keep picking UCLA as some sort of fading reflection of the Florida title teams in 2006 and 2007, who faced UCLA in those Final Fours.)
But, as I wrote a two weeks ago, I'm in the tank for Anthony Grant, who I think is the best young coach in America. I think Eric Maynor is awesome, and they have this young center who could dominate -- don't forget the way they dispatched Duke two years ago and nearly beat Pitt.
Against virtually any other team (outside the No. 1 seeds), I would pick VCU and not look back. But against UCLA -- Ben Howland is the best Tournament coach in the country -- it's the one match-up where I pick against VCU. I don't buy this UCLA-travels-2700-miles thing.
So it's UCLA over VCU for now, although I may kick myself about it on Thursday -- when the team I don't pick in that game streaks to the Elite Eight, I will try to find a way to enjoy it anyway.
More in today's column: Jay Cutler soap opera... Thunder rising... Vols recruiting coup... WBC gets even more ludicrous... and More.
Monday, March 16, 2009
VCU -- a strong contender for a Sweet 16 run -- got three-time defending Final Four participant UCLA, then Villanova... in Philadelphia.
Siena -- which won a Tournament game last year -- was "rewarded" with a 9-seed, putting it up against Louisville in Round 2. (BYU got similar treatment, stuck in an 8/9 game, then UConn.)
Western Kentucky? Gonzaga? If they win their first-round games, they play... each other, ensuring that one mid-major won't advance.
When you look at the bracket -- from the seeding and placement to who they DIDN'T include (lowest-ever 4 non-power-conf at-large bids) -- you see a Committee favoring power leagues.
If this is truly the "Year of the Big East" -- and I confess my bracket goes long that it is -- the Committee did what it could to help push that along.
Last year's "all 1-seed" Final Four was, in my opinion, terrible for the sport and terrible for the Tournament. (The only thing that saved it was the novelty that it had never happened before.)
I am stunned at how few upsets I have predicted, particularly in the first round. (I don't think I have any beyond the non-upset 9-over-8, 10-over-7 and 12-over-5.)
Let's hope that at least a few non-power-conference teams defy the bracket and create some unexpected drama. "Chalk" is not what anyone wants from the NCAA Tournament.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
I'll reiterate what I said below:
That UCLA-VCU first-round match-up single-handedly nearly ruined the entire bracket for me -- put VCU as the 11-seed in the Midwest or West, and I would have both the Rams and the Bruins marching deep into the Tournament.
That one of those two necessarily has to exit on Day 1 seems ridiculously unfair. That I have to choose which one that will be is nearly as bad.
The National Bracket already has some statistically significant results: America picks UNC to beat Louisville for the national title, with the Final Four a repeat of last year -- all No. 1 seeds advance.
(The Elite Eight is all 1 and 2 seeds, which you KNOW ain't gonna happen.)
Most contentious N.B. picks: UConn-Memphis, which was predictable... Syracuse-Oklahoma... one other notable result so far: Florida State over Xavier by a 60-40 margin. Surprising, given Xavier's recent proven excellence in the NCAA Tournament -- and FSU's lack of it.
So here's my dilemma: Back in November, I picked Louisville to win the national title. Do I try to maintain epic integrity and pick them to win it all this year?
(I did that last year with UCLA, and fell short -- it wasn't the reason my bracket sucked last year; that was all the OTHER wrong picks.)
Here's the thing: I'm naturally disinclined to pick the No. 1 overall team to win the national title -- certainly not this season.
That said: I like the idea of maintaining my pick from November til now. I just had figured that Louisville would finish the season as a 2- or 3-seed and I'd be making a novel bracket pick, not picking the damn No. 1 overall team in the field.
I'm also nervous about Louisville winning too many close games -- scoring margin should be a big factor in picking winners to go 6 straight. Close games means too much is left up to random chance. (And, as Pitt fans reminded me, L'ville played a much easier schedule than Pitt.)
So: Do I get ANY credit for picking Louisville in the preseason to win the national title if they do go on to win the national title -- but I have picked another team (say, Pitt) to win it all on my actual bracket?
My suspicion is that you all would say: Umm...no. No credit at all. You can't have it both ways. (And you'd be right, as much as I hate to say it.)
And so I'm torn: I actually do think that Louisville COULD win the national title -- I give them as much of a shot as Pitt (and an even better shot than UNC, who I think will fold early this season...again. Of course, Pitt has its own tradition of choking in March.)
But I really do hate taking the paper favorite. It seems so uninspired.
And, more importantly, feels like it will be inevitably wrong.
(Also: I'm absolutely sick to my stomach about UCLA-VCU in the first round -- I very well might have picked both to the Elite Eight... if not further. I still think UCLA has all the ingredients to be a Final Four team...yet again. And I think VCU is good enough to make a 2- or 3-game run. Of course, either will have to play Villanova in Philly -- again, WHY SELECTION COMMITTEE WHY?)
Just filed my column to Sporting News. Hope to have a URL for you shortly.
USC had little chance of making the NCAA Tournament without winning the Pac-10 tournament. Arizona State was already an NCAA Tournament lock.
In the end, the Sun Devils had little or no incentive to actually win the Pac-10 Tournament. Pride, maybe. But pride isn't enough to counter desperation -- that's what USC brought.
If Arizona State was playing for its Tournament life, I suspect the result would have been different. Same thing with UNC vs. Florida State. Same thing with Wake vs. Maryland. Same thing with Oklahoma or Kansas or Texas or Xavier or Dayton... the list goes on.
More than anything else these past few days, what has been exposed is what a sham the "power conference" tournament structure is: NCAA "locks" have little reason to play to win -- NCAA Tournament seeding? Feh: Pitt will probably be a 1-seed anyway; same with UNC.
The point is: There is no way that the "lock" teams are playing their hardest -- or, at least, playing as hard as teams with a lot more to gain from the system. Plus: The experts seem to reward Bubble teams for wins over "name" teams in the conference tournament, even though these name teams aren't playing nearly as hard as they were in the regular season.
Look, I'm sure the top teams protest that they are trying their hardest -- but it simply doesn't hold water: You're telling me they care as much in an ultimately meaningless now as they will next week, when each game mean literally everything? No way.