Saturday, March 30, 2013

3/31 (Syracuse! Wichita! Who Else?) Quickie

For the record, my 4-year-old son Jonah -- who picked a complete bracket entirely on his own this year (proud dad) -- had Syracuse winning the East region. (Meanwhile, 6-year-old Gabe is beating 80 percent of the country, so there's that.)

Syracuse -- which has busted so many brackets in the decade since Carmelo (pound-for-pound, the single most impactful player in college hoops history) led them to a title -- is a great example of a really good team playing exceptionally well at exactly the right time.

Wichita State is a wonderful story -- in a region that was supposedly "busted," the Shockers beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeded teams in the region. For all their close calls the past two weeks, Ohio State was particularly tough. That's earning your way in. There is nothing fluke-ish about Wichita.

Teams seeded in the bottom half of each region almost never make the Final Four -- only three teems seeded higher than Wichita State's 9th have made it (LSU '86, Mason '06 and VCU '11, all 11-seeds). That makes Wichita State's accomplishment all the more special. They are a worthy addition to the exclusive club of Absurdly High Seed Final Four Teams.

Florida is going to beat Michigan, because as good as Michigan's offense is, Florida's defense is better than anything Michigan has seen this season, which includes two losses to Wisconsin and a tough split with Ohio State, both defenses ranked in KenPom's Top 10. For what it's worth, Florida is No. 2, but spent some time at No. 1.

While Michigan's offense falters, Florida's offense -- also ranked in the Top 5 nationally, just like Michigan -- will find Michigan's 45th-ranked defense to be not quite as challenging as, say, Florida Gulf Coast.

It's not that Michigan isn't a really good team -- it's that this match-up particularly favors Florida, including an ideal match-up with Trey Burke (Scottie Wilbekin, one of the Top 3 defensive guards in the country) and Mitch McGary (Patric Young provides the muscle and Erik Murphy's shooting will draw McGary away from the basket).

Louisville will beat Duke, and it won't be close. Duke barely beat Louisville in the non-conference schedule, and that was with UL not having Dieng in the post. Seth Curry -- arguably the best shooter in college basketball -- isn't at his best on a two-day turnaround. And Louisville is playing like a team obsessed with not just making the Final Four, but winning it all.

*Steve Alford to UCLA: Meh. And kind of a jerk. I don't begrudge him leaving for a better job; I begrudge him signing a 10-year extension 10 days ago.

Quick self-indulgent story: A million years ago, I accepted a job offer from to be an editor. The night before I was supposed to start, ESPN came to me with an awesome role at ESPN Magazine. It was something I probably would have enjoyed even more (in fact, a few years later, my boss ultimately left to take the ESPN job I was offered.) But I had committed to SI and there was no question I was going to honor that commitment. It's not quite the same -- again, let's put the emphasis here on self-indulgent story -- but the point is that Alford is an asshole, if a very rich one having the last laugh as he takes over a plum (if not Top 5) college hoops coaching role.

*Kevin Kolb to Buffalo: Not quite the missing piece.

*The MLB season starts tonight: World Series title or bust for my Nationals.

-- D.S.

3/30 (Florida) Quickie

First of all, after Florida's win last night (paired with Duke's win, which I begrudgingly picked), my bracket is in the 96th percentile nationally.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for the last six years knows that, historically, my bracket is anywhere between mediocre and horrible. This is my best performance ever. It basically comes down to this: If Florida wins it all, I'm in great shape. If they lose Sunday to Michigan -- or in the Final Four or title game -- I'm going to plummet.

But I feel pretty good about my pick, and last night's game displayed why: Florida has the best defense in college hoops this year -- start with that, and you will always stay in games. They also have a Top 5 offense, nationally; what that means is that even if they have their worst offensive game of the season (as they did last night, because of nerves or FGCU's defense or whatever), it is enough to pair with the elite defense to scratch out a win.

In fact, I was more nervous about a black swan like Florida Gulf Coast than I am about Michigan or the Syracuse-Marquette winner or even Louisville.

In the end, the game was sort of close -- not close close, but nothing I was comfortable with under there was less than a minute remaining in the game. And the first five minutes had me freaking out. But the last 10 minutes of the half -- when Florida stifled FGCU's offense almost entirely (FGCU hurt themselves with turnovers, too) -- I felt like a non-existent offense might not kill them.

And so it's on to the Elite Eight -- for the third straight year -- and Michigan, a team that pulled off one of the greatest comebacks I have seen in the Tournament in years. Michigan's offense is as better than any in the tournament (again, Florida's is Top 5, so hardly a slouch), but Michigan's defense is mediocre; Florida should have a much better time against it than they did against FGCU.

In short: Florida has been through its tournament crucible; Michigan has never seen or played a defense as good as Florida's. The closest proximation -- Michigan State -- yielded a 1-point win in Ann Arbor and a 17-point loss in East Lansing, with Michigan averaging only 54.5 ppg in both, well below its season average. Against Wisconsin's Top 5 defense? Two losses for Michigan, and a 60.5 ppg average.

Against common opponents, don't be fooled by Michigan's 2-0 record against Kansas State and Arkansas, who combined to go 2-1 vs. Florida -- Michigan played K-State in Ann Arbor; Florida played the in Manhattan, Kansas. And Michigan also played Arkansas in Michigan (Arkansas was awful on the road and a completely different team in Fayetteville, where they beat Florida).

The point is that Florida is precisely the kind of team gives Michigan problems. It is unclear that Michigan is the kind of team that gives Florida problems.

Regardless, the stakes for Florida are much higher: In their third straight trip to the Elite Eight, it is break through or bust-- Final Four or failure.

As for the rest of the regionals, I'll take absurdly confident Wichita State over Ohio State (on my bracket, I had Gonzaga over Ohio State) and Syracuse over Marquette (I had Indiana over Marquette) today, then Louisville over Duke (which I had on my bracket) and Florida over Michigan (I had Florida over Kansas). Should be a great four games over the next two days. Enjoy it.

-- D.S.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

03/28 (Sweet 16) Quickie

It's a good set of games tonight, but in today's USA TODAY Sports column, I'm focused on expectations.

For Indiana, if they lose tonight, the season is a failure. It's harsh, but true. It doesn't take away from Tom Crean's rebuilding job, but they are past the point of "happy to be good again!" and squarely in the "this team can/should win a title" zone. The same goes for Louisville -- maybe even more, which makes a Louisville-Indiana title game so interesting. One team will crap out, guaranteed.

As you roll down the field, expectations change: Because college hoops has this quirky thing where being a national semifinalist is nearly as meaningful as winning it all, simply making the Final Four is the expectation for the other 1-seed Kansas, the 2-seeds Ohio State and Duke, the 3-seeds Michigan State and Florida and the 4-seed Michigan.

Florida is a unique case: Because they made the Elite Eight the past two years, it's "Final Four or fail" for them, even if their seed doesn't quite justify that expectation. For Michigan State, it's the remarkable Izzo streak of every four-year player getting to at least one Final Four. For Michigan, it is simply that they are unlikely to have a team this talented in the near future. Again, that makes a Florida-Michigan regional final absolutely amazing, as it does for Michigan State-Duke.

Miami is an odd case: By seed, it should be "Final Four or bust." But because the program is so nouveau riche -- literally, this season -- you get the sense that getting to the Elite Eight will still be considered pretty good, albeit disappointing for those who thought this team was good enough to get to the Final Four.

As for the rest, it's pretty much all gravy. Oh, Arizona fans can/should be ticked if they don't get to the Elite Eight, but there isn't a huge shame in losing to a strong 2-seed.

Wichita State-LaSalle is fascinating: One of those teams is going to the Elite Eight -- bringing with it a puncher's chance at making the Final Four and earning college hoops immortality that would come with it. Both teams have to be saying to themselves: Why not us? In that case, losing tonight will be hugely disappointing to the loser, even if making the Sweet 16 at all should be cause for celebration.

Give the column a read -- this tension between "win or failure" and "just happy to be here" is a long-standing fascination of mine. Tons more in the column, too. Enjoy the games tonight.

-- D.S.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

3/27 (US Soccer) Quickie

It's funny -- I just got an email ripping me for this morning's USA TODAY Sports column that led with a celebration of the US's huge tie with Mexico last night.

Make no mistake: I am only a casual soccer fan. But the point of the take was that in a month dominated by "survive and advance" and "win or go home," it was refreshing to be reminded that we can enjoy thrilling sports and have the result be... a tie.

In this case, the old adage "a tie is as good as a win" (is that an old adage? maybe I'm thinking of "a walk is as good as a hit") really makes sense -- particularly in that stadium for this US team.

There is a ton of other great stuff in the column today: Brittney Griner! Dirk! Florida Gulf Coast! (Obviously!) And an amazing moment starring Mr. T!

Please give it a look. We're into week 2 on this experiment, and I'd like to know what you think.

Tons of Sweet 16 goodness coming tomorrow.

-- D.S.

Monday, March 25, 2013

03/25 (FGCU!) Quickie

Is Florida Gulf Coast the greatest Cinderella in NCAA Tournament history?

It is hard to measure up to NC State '83 or Villanova '85 (both champs) or George Mason 2006 (which made it to the Final Four).

But I would argue that even if they lose to Florida on Friday night, FGCU is in the conversation for Greatest Cinderella Ever, because of their unique confluence of factors.

Start with the unprecedented: They are the first 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16.

They play a highly telegenic style. They have amazing backstories. The program has no history except for this. They don't come from a major (or even mid-major) conference. They are a GIF industry unto themselves.

And there is no reason to believe that it will stop now.

If you asked me heading into the Tournament if there was a team that I thought would beat Florida, I'd say no -- after all, it's why I picked Florida to win it all.

But that didn't account for the "black swan" scenario -- the entirely unforeseen competitor that is a mix of moxie, motivation, method and manpower.

At this point, I am extremely nervous that Florida will lose to FGCU -- even with five days for Billy Donovan to prepare, even with the idea of "regression to the mean," even with Florida's history of smashing Cinderella's slipper (they beat George Mason in the Final Four in '06).

All I know is that what FGCU is doing is unprecedented (way beyond the 15-seed stuff), and that alone qualifies them for NCAA tournament immortality.

Check out the column here.

-- D.S.