Monday, March 16, 2009

From the Weekend That Was

The NCAA Tournament and its plagues of workplace non-productivity, laziness, sloth, couch-sitting and general lack of contact with the outside world are upon us. If you’re lucky enough to be sitting at home on Thursday and Friday, then let me go ahead and say I hate you. Easily the best two afternoons of the entire year. However, like many Americans, I’ll be doing my best to slow down the Internet speed for everyone else at the office as I watch streaming video of the games. But if that fails, I’ll at least get my low-level fix of basketball by constantly refreshing ESPN’s scoreboard or gamecast features.

As for the Tournament itself, like every year, some teams got in that probably shouldn’t have and some teams were stupidly left out. At this point, I’m sure you’ve heard exhaustive arguments for and against all teams, so discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of Arizona or St. Mary’s amongst yourselves. And while you’re there, feel free to discuss whether the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

A few thoughts I do have on the Tournament:
-I think we’ll find out that the Big Ten stinks in more than just football. Seven teams? Do we really need a field containing seven of the exact same teams? If I wanted to watch slow, plodding, poor-shooting offenses that make defenses seem better than they are, I’d re-watch the 2008-2009 SEC basketball season.

-I know this isn’t a new argument, but why would the NCAA not want to make the “play-in” game as interesting as possible? An Alabama State/Morehead State game is about as unappealing a game as you’ll find. Why not make this game between the two teams up for the last at-large bid? An Arizona/St. Mary’s matchup would not only be a much better game, but hype, television ratings and ticket sales would be higher, which is all the NCAA really cares about anyway.

I have a problem with either Alabama State or Morehead State not getting into the field of 64 when they won their conference tournaments, which allegedly means they’ve earned the right to play in the round of 64. The Arizonas of college basketball did no such thing. Yes, they did play a tougher schedule and are most likely a better basketball team than ASU or Morehead State, but they should be made to earn their way into the tournament as ASU and Morehead State have already done.

-I know John Feinstein is like the early 2000s Ryan Adams of authors because he pumps out like eight books a year (which hurts the overall quality of each book), but I just finished reading his profile of the 2005 Final Four called Last Dance. Really interesting book in that it gives a pretty good history of the Final Four and what it meant and still means to the coaches and players who experience it. If you find it somewhere for under ten dollars like I did, I recommend picking it up.

Mississippi State produces one less turd than Tennessee. It wasn’t pretty, but the Bulldogs managed to win their fourth game in as many days to become SEC Tournament Champions. It was without a doubt, in terms of quality basketball played, one of the most painful games I’ve ever watched. And to compound that, the last minute was one of the most poorly officiated I’ve ever seen. That’s not to take anything away from State because they deserved to win, but those were the best basketball officials the SEC had to offer? I should think of a game in terms of great plays made at crucial moments, not for officiating tomfoolery.

And I hope everyone appreciated the delicious irony of Rick Stansbury coaching his team to a championship in Tampa, a place that he denounced earlier in the week as having nothing positive to offer. I’m sure his comments, then winning the tournament, ruffled some starched shirts at the SEC offices, an act of which I can never get enough. You know, fight the establishment and shit.

Ole Miss, with help from Kentucky, ends its season. After losing in the first round of the SEC Tournament, all Ole Miss could hope for in terms of postseason play was an invitation to the NIT or the CBI. I don’t have any clue what the CBI is, but it sounds suspiciously like it’s played somewhere like Grand Rapids or Sioux Falls over the course of a weekend. Whatever the CBI is, they extended an invitation to Ole Miss, who, mercifully, declined. Thankfully, the NIT saved us the formality of declining their invitation by not inviting us at all. It was much more efficient that way.

After all the injuries before Christmas and players starting to break down at the end of the year, it was for the best this season got shut down. While it was a pretty painful year as far as records go, it was nice to see this team not roll over and die, while dramatically improving from the first few games without Chris Warren to the end of the season. That act alone should give you an idea of what type of coach Andy Kennedy and his assistants are. They were going to get a free pass for this year because of the players lost, so their final record really didn’t matter to fans and the administration, but they didn’t quit and convinced the players not to do so either.

Next year should be Kennedy’s first year to really take off with his (healthy) players, meaning he’ll be on the hook for next season’s results (no more Rod Barnes’ players). He’ll have a young team that has shown they can play with just about anyone, plus two key members in Warren and Polynice will be coming back (if Gaskins is an emotional leader, that’s fine, but I’ve never seen him do consecutive positive things in his career). Let’s not forget, this team pre-Chris Warren injury was tied with Louisville at 67 with five and a half minutes to go, and that was before we discovered Terrico White was capable of being an all-SEC player. If we can find one more forward that can contribute in even the smallest positive fashion, I really, really, really like next year’s team.

So how will the three SEC teams do in the NCAA Tournament? I’m so glad you asked. First, let’s start with Tennessee. At best, I see the Vols losing in round two to Pittsburgh. But I don’t think they’ll make it out of round one. They’re too inconsistent on offense and teams that are patient on offense against them can score. Not necessarily a lot of points, but they don’t have to when Tennessee isn’t going to score much. Other than their ability to play defense when severely prodded, there’s not much to like about this team.

Next, LSU. I really thought this LSU team had the potential to make a run in the Tournament. That was until they dropped a stinkbomb against Mississippi State in the SEC semi-finals. However, I think they’ll overwhelm Butler in round one because they’re so much more athletic and have two really good scoring options in Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton. I’m really interested in their game against North Carolina because Carolina has gone through massive defensive lapses throughout the year, causing them to lose to teams they should never lose to. LSU can certainly match Carolina’s athletic ability, but they’re not the better basketball team, which means they’ll need tremendous games from Mitchell and Thornton. I think both of those guys can score and lockdown the Tar Heel guards, but down low LSU is overmatched. I see a tight, Duke/Miss. State game from a few years back where North Carolina holds on to win.

And finally, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs played outstanding defense in the SEC Tournament, allowing 60, 68, 57 and 61 points. To have a chance against the Huskies, they’ll need to keep that up because while Jarvis Varnado is a great defensive player, he isn’t a dominant force on offense (note: this does not mean he’s not good on offense. He is good, not great) and State has to get scoring from its guards, who can best be described as streaky.

The good news for State is that the Huskies aren’t very big up front, which means Varnado, barring foul trouble, should be able to limit their ability to score. And when the perimeter defenders know they don’t have to worry about giving up drives, a defense can be very good. Plus, State’s guard-oriented offense could force Washington to go small, which gives State another advantage.

While I lean toward picking State here, I am reminded of two things: One, the SEC isn’t very good. And two, just nine days ago, this State team needed David Huertas to miss most of the second half in order to pull out an 82-80 win over Ole Miss. I like Washington to move into round two.

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