Saturday, March 26, 2011

03/27 (Butler!) Quickie

Congratulations, Butler. Huge, sincere congratulations.

Butler's that team that you root for... short of them playing your team. Especially with a Final Four ticket on the line.

I was talking about expectations this morning. Here's the thing: I'm much more disappointed that Florida lost a game it could have (should have?) won than if they had gotten rolled by Butler like Wisconsin did.

That said: In a way, it's easier for me to take because they pushed this incredibly talented and successful Butler team to its very limit before folding (somewhat predictably).

We can get into what Florida could have done differently -- say, not jack up terrible long 3s when going inside to Macklin or Tyus had been working all game for them. The game did turn on just a handful of bad decisions by Florida's players (and typically good decisions by Butler, whose fans had to be concerned for much of the game about Butler's uncharacteristically problematic play -- that the rest of us knew would eventually be corrected).

But the fact is that Butler earned it. Florida maxed out their potential -- Billy Donovan said that on CBS during the Arizona-UConn halftime, and it made me feel a bit better, because it's true. I had this team going out in the first weekend. The win over BYU was incredible. Taking Butler to the very end (and then some) was almost incredible.

I was trying to explain to my disappointed 4-year-old -- experiencing his first Tournament as a fan -- that, particularly in college basketball, there's always a winner and a loser. Someone has to be the loser, but it's OK, if your team did the best they could. (I didn't get into how that applies to epic underachievement by, say, Ohio State.)

I think Florida did the best they could. And, like the rest of the country (with the possible exception of Kansas), I resume rooting for this exceptionally likeable team and its exceptionally likeable coach, Brad Stevens.

Someone made the argument that this is the best two-year Tournament run in NCAA Tournament history. As a Florida fan, I am inclined to disagree, but the more I thought about it, the more I recognize the superlative in this Butler run over the past two years. (I'll settle for Florida having the best starting five in college basketball over the last 35 years.)

It's amazing. Again: Congratulations, Butler. Through what residual disappointment I have, it's impossible not to feel good for Butler, feel good for college basketball fans everywhere now celebrating this team together and feel good for the sport itself.

-- D.S.

Saturday 3/26 (Upset) Quickie

If you are a 1-seed -- let alone the No. 1 overall team of the Tournament -- and you don't even make it to the Elite Eight (let alone to the Final Four), your season is a failure. Period. Full stop.

That is Ohio State's burden today: Their season is a failure. Maybe that's why Jared Sullinger insists he is coming back next season.

As a Florida fan, I believe him: Remember when Lottery locks Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer all decided to come back after the first title? And that was after a title, not a Sweet 16 flame-out. Sullinger is right to feel motivated. Then again: If OSU couldn't crack the Final Four this year, it's hard to believe they will have a better shot next year.

What a win for Kentucky and John Calipari -- it was Cal's best win at Kentucky (and, arguably, the finest win of his career). He combined a bunch of talented freshmen and a couple of upperclass role players into a defensively focused, long, athletic ass-kicking machine. Given the way they took out Ohio State, I see them giving UNC all sorts of trouble.

Meanwhile: Congratulations to VCU for making it to the Elite Eight. A nation -- well everyone except Jayhawk Nation -- will be rooting for you on Sunday. I'm having trouble deciding whether this will be a replay of George Mason vs. 1-seed UConn in the East regional final in 2006 (a thrilling win)... or George Mason vs. Florida in the Final Four (a blowout loss). This VCU team is better than that George Mason team; I'm not sure this Kansas team is better than that UConn team. (It's meaner, which is a good thing for KU fans.)

To the vanquished: Marquette, Richmond, Florida State -- feel good that you got this far. They are the opposite of Ohio State: Teams where the Sweet 16 itself is an accomplishment worth savoring. For Ohio State, it is epic disappointment.

Looking ahead to today's regional finals, with a Final Four spot on the line:

4:30 CBS: (2) Florida vs. (8) Butler. Florida played its best game in four years on Thursday night and nearly didn't pull it off. Butler is better than BYU. A lot better. Strategically brilliant. Murderously lock-down on defense. Pick-your-poison options on offense. Matt Howard, who will toy with Florida's Vernon Macklin and Patrick Young inside (and outside). If I was a Butler fan and wanted to feel nervous, I would look at Florida's depth of size and keep a wary eye on my own Andrew Smith's gimpy knee. Still: Butler has been here before, a year ago. This team knows exactly what to do to win in the Tournament. I think Florida is still learning; unfortunately, this is the last lesson. As a Florida fan, there's no shame in an Elite Eight run and being KO'ed by a phenomenal tournament team like Butler. Pick: Butler.

7:05 CBS: (3) UConn vs. (5) Arizona. Apologies to Jimmer, but this pits the two most sensational players in the Tournament this year -- Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams. I'm intrigued by this storyline that one of Arizona's assistants was Walker's longtime AAU coach (and Arizona's PG was Walker's backcourt mate in H.S.). That's not the same as stopping him, but at least they understand him. I've doubted Arizona since the first day of the Tournament. Not anymore. Pick: Arizona.

Enjoy the games today. Pop by Quickish for real-time analysis from all sorts of smart sources.

-- D.S.

Friday, March 25, 2011

03/25 (So So Sweet) Quickie

I'm not sure nights of fandom get much better for me than they got last night.

First, Florida beat BYU. You have to understand that I picked Florida to lose to Michigan State in the opening weekend. After they advanced and they were bracketed to play BYU, I was almost positive -- no Quickie reverse-jinx intended -- that BYU was going to win decisively. BYU is precisely the kind of team that gives Florida fits.

Let's pause there.

So much of fandom is simply expectations. One of the reasons I fell in love with being a Florida football fan is that every year, the expectation is to win the SEC (and, consequently, a national title). Anything less is a failure.

Back in 2007, when Florida basketball was the defending champs, there was no margin for error. It nearly made the Tournament run depressing, because the championship was EXPECTED. When they finally won it, it was: Of COURSE they did.

But this Florida team is different. The seniors came in after the back-to-back titles. Their first two years were horrendous. Last season was another dud; they backed their way into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round (to BYU).

This year was an improvement -- damn well better have been! -- but I had low expectations (see above). When they beat UCLA to make the Sweet 16, I was pretty happy (mostly figuring they would get throttled by BYU).

That's what made last night's win one of the most enjoyable of my Florida fandom: With no expectations, the fact that they won -- and the way they won -- made me as proud as I've been of the team since the 2006 national title.

Yes, BYU had Jimmer. But Florida had 5 good -- not great -- players, all playing well. That was the best game of Alex Tyus' four inconsistent years. The shooting -- by almost any of them -- makes me cringe. Every shot is "NO NO NO...YES!" (Until it misses badly; then I'm yelling and pounding pillows.)

Here's the crazy part: When the game was tied with 14 seconds to go and Florida was holding for the final shot, Gus Johnson got crushed for suggesting on-air that BYU should foul Florida. And yet... he was absolutely right. This isn't hindsight: BYU should have fouled Vernon Macklin -- an atrocious FT shooter -- away from the ball.

If he makes none, one or even both, at least BYU has a shot to win the game with the best shooter in basketball (even if he was struggling). You saw what happened in OT: BYU ran out of gas. They needed to play for the win at the moment. It would have been totally unorthodox, but it was their best chance to win. Anyway....

At this point, I can't imagine any Florida fan that isn't thrilled with making the Elite Eight. Would making the Final Four be even better? Yes, both in an absolute sense and because making it would mean that Florida would have beaten Butler, as tough an out in the tournament field as there is. But I'm going to stick with my expectations: Butler is more likely to throttle Florida than BYU. I'm wincing at the thought of the match-up.

But I'm totally comfortable. Florida has overachieved -- even if, technically, it has reached the potential of its seeding (they were overseeded) -- and they have their breathtaking signature win that almost entirely eclipses the past four years of frustrations. It was that big.


Meanwhile, I'm basking in Florida's win -- then Duke gets throttled. Duke losing in the Tournament is my favorite college basketball game of the year. It might be my favorite sports event of the year, period. When they get dismantled, it's even better than when they lose close. And last night was a dismantling. Amazing.


On to tonight's games:

7:15 CBS: (2) UNC-(11) Marquette. The way UNC barely survived Washington and the way Marquette handled Syracuse, I'm tempted to pick Marquette. It won't be an easy one for UNC. Pick: UNC, barely.

7:27 TBS: (1) Kansas-(12) Richmond. It's been fun, Richmond. Kansas is too big and too fast. Pick: KU.

9:45 CBS: (1) Ohio State-(4) Kentucky. I'm nearly ready to believe in this OSU team. Perfect timing, as Jim Tressel is going to lose his job, so I can offset my head-shaking buy-in with typical schadenfreude. I don't know why I ever doubted this team. Pick: Ohio State.

9:57 TBS: (10) Florida State-(11) VCU. FSU plays great defense, but they can't score. VCU is on a hot streak. How can anyone NOT be rooting for VCU at this point? Pick: VCU.

More later. Visit Quickish -- great day-after analysis, preview commentary and real-time reactions tonight!

-- D.S.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

03/24 (Sweet 16) Quickie

I've kind of given up on being able to correctly predict the outcomes of NCAA Tournament games. Like many, I'm now just looking for great performances, exciting finishes and Cinderella storylines. Let's get to it:

7:15 CBS: (2) San Diego St vs. (3) UConn. It is irrational to pick Kemba Walker and UConn. San Diego State is as athletic as any team UConn has played this season -- and is playing in their backyard (not sure how much that matters, but presume it has to matter a bit). Then again, SDSU played like crap against Temple. At least one Big East team has to get through to the elite Eight, right? Pick: UConn.

7:27 TBS: (2) Florida vs. (3) BYU. I cannot properly talk about this game, because I am rooting so much for Florida. BYU won this game last year in the NCAA first round, but both teams are much different (and much better). I don't trust Florida's defense; Jimmer may score 30 -- the goal will be to make him take 25 shots to get there. Then again, Florida has two NBA-quality post players (Macklin, a fringe NBA player, and Young, a Lottery pick in 2012), plus senior Alex Tyus. That doesn't even count SEC player of the year Chandler Parsons, NCAA first-weekend hero Erving Walker or hobbled scorer Kenny Boynton. I'm picking BYU because I actually think they will win and because if I pick Florida, I can almost assure myself the Gators will lose.

9:45 CBS: (1) Duke vs. (5) Arizona. Derrick Williams is the best player Duke has seen all season. Then again, Nolan Smith (and, arguably, Kyrie Irving) is the best player Arizona has seen all season. Despite Duke's lackadaisical win over Michigan and Arizona's penchant for keeping themselves in games, I see a Duke rout, led by the Smith-Irving combo. You can have Ohio State and Kansas; I still feel very good about my pre-tourney pick of Duke to win it all. (Quickie Jinx Alert.)

9:57 TBS: (4) Wisconsin vs. (8) Butler. Oh, will this be a grinder. I don't know why I doubted Wisconsin in my original picks (damn you, Belmont). They are perhaps the toughest matchup for Butler in the entire field, because the way Wisconsin plays will never let the game get out of hand. This game will make last year's Duke-Butler final look like jackrabbits. I know better than to pick against Wisconsin at this point, but there's something about the way this Butler team is executing that makes me think my original pick to take them to the Elite Eight was right. Pick: Butler.

However it goes, it looks like four awesome match-ups tonight -- with a night that starts at 7-ish and goes all the way past midnight. Buckle up.


*Be sure to catch this great clip from the NFL capturing the entire 2010 season in 6 minutes. (Right up until you remember the league is ready to shut down the 2011 season, if necessary.)

*Knicks go under .500: I'll stick with what I said yesterday -- acquiring Carmelo was never about winning titles; it was about being relevant, which is the next best thing. Anyone who thought the Knicks would seriously contend for a title -- either now or any time in the next five-year window with Melo and Amare -- is delusional. On the plus side, the Knicks matter (which is really kind of all that matters).

*NIT: I guess it was too much to ask that Northwestern make the NIT Final Four.

Enjoy the games tonight. Quickish will be going straight through the day (with terrific preview recommendations) and into real-time updates throughout the night. Give it a try!

-- D.S.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

03/23 (Nearly Sweet) Quickie

My fantasy baseball draft is tomorrow afternoon and I couldn't be less prepared. "Median Draft Position" spreadsheet to the rescue. Any other advice you have for good broad-swath resources, let me know.

My 4-year-old's first-time enthusiasm for the NCAA Tournament and his bracket is one of the most enjoyable moments I've had as a parent. I'm dreading the inevitable interest in the Yankees.

After two days without college hoops (3 counting today), I'm ready for the Sweet 16. So ready. Thursday night -- with 4 legit toss-ups (perhaps not Duke-Zona, although Derrick Williams feels like the Wildcats' equalizer) -- will be terrific. Be sure to check in on Quickish throughout the night.

Carmelo: I think people are missing the larger point. Carmelo in New York was always about relevance and was never about championships. It doesn't matter if they are winning or losing because they were NEVER going to compete for a championship with Carmelo. The best they could hope for -- the desired outcome, actually -- was mattering. Wins were never part of it.

Damn, the Bulls are good. I'm not sure they beat the Lakers in the Finals, but they absolutely could beat the Celtics to win the East. Already.

College hoops jobs: If Mike Anderson would rather be at Arkansas enough to negotiate with them, he should just go there. He'll be happier -- the money's all basically equal anyway.

Video: If you haven't seen the Trebek/CFB mash-up yet, it's a must-see.

-- D.S.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

03/22 (Is It Still Tuesday?) Quickie

Apologies for the light posting since the weekend. Will be back to it tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you haven't yet today, pop over to Quickish to catch up on what's been going on all day.

(Slow day, frankly, which means we're recommending some really good reads that might not be entirely off the news. I actually love digging those up, and I'm always looking for more. If you see something awesome, always feel free to send it along.)

-- D.S.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Quickie Jinx: VCU Edition

From my Wall Street Journal bracket-picking column:
Coming off a get-the-blood-pumping win in the “First Four” round against USC, VCU gets a jump on slow-starting Georgetown and pulls off the upset – then turns around two days later to stun 3-seed Purdue to land the Rams in the Sweet 16.
Oh, but wait! Cut to the bottom of the column:

The single pick that scares me most is the one I more cavalierly assumed away: Southwest No. 3 Purdue losing on Sunday to VCU, rather than – say – thumping VCU, then beating Notre Dame, then giving Kansas all it can handle...

And so let’s make this modification: In the Southwest, scratch out VCU beating Purdue on Sunday in the Round of 32, then push the Boilermakers past Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 before Purdue loses to Kansas in the regional final. There. I feel better now.
No. I don't feel better now. I feel much worse now. Much, much worse.

(I also picked George Mason to beat Ohio State -- if GMU had their best player available, it might have been more of a game. I knew it was going to be a reach, but I thought I had a hedge, because I had Syracuse winning the East anyway. Oh, and I had them beating Washington in the Sweet 16, because I had the Huskies beating UNC. And yet: I am most annoyed I wussed out on the VCU-over-Purdue pick, rather than annoyed at having over-reached with Mason or Wash.)

For the record: My bracket is now in the 38th percentile. My 4-year-old son, picking his own bracket for the first time, is in the 70th. If I had used the "National Bracket," I would have been in the 86th. If I had simply gone with all higher seeds, I would have been in the 96th percentile (alongside my wife, whose bracket is in the 96th percentile). Barack Obama, of course, continues to taunt everyone from the 99.9th percentile.

-- D.S.

03/19 (Sweet 16) Quickie

I want to talk about Butler-Pitt, but first let me say that I've made some really stupid predictions in my time -- jinxes and otherwise -- but it's the one I didn't talk about that ranks among my best/favorite predictions ever:

Butler over Pitt.

The rest of my bracket may be a shamockery. I have George Mason over Ohio State. I have BYU winning the Southeast region. I even have Duke winning it all, which made me want to retch.

But calling a 1-seed getting KO'ed in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is a rare and wonderful thing. I'm going to appreciate it, even if the rest of my bracket is mediocre. It may not be as good as President Obama's bracket, but then again, he picked Pitt to his Final Four. Checkmate, Shanoff.

I appreciate that the two fouls were fouls. But given that the score was tied, I think the ref shoud have swallowed his whistle on that ticky-tack call of Nasir Robinson fouling Matt Howard with 0.8 seconds to go and let the teams battle it out in OT. I get it that Robinson was stupid enough to foul Howard, but it wasn't the right way for the game to end.

(And, believe me, I wanted Butler to win. In fact, I wonder if we'd have this kind of universal "Hey, it's OK the way that ended!" if it happened to eternally considered Cinderella, rather than to the 1-seed.)

All in all, the first half of the Sweet 16 is a healthy mix of chalk (Florida had the exactly the struggle I thought they'd have), good star power (Jimmer and Kemba) and teams outside first four seeds (Richmond and, obviously, Butler). In the Southeast, particularly, I think you can make the case for all four teams to win the region.

I think today sets up for a lot more of a seed shake-up: You know OSU fans are at least a little nervous about George Mason. If I was a UNC fan, I WOULD be nervous about Washington -- like Butler, underseeded. VCU has momentum; so does Marquette. Even Illinois is coming off its best game of the season. Should be a great day.

But, almost by definition, it can't possibly be as crazy as it got last night.

-- D.S.