Surprise – Blowout City

Who saw this coming? After dismantling four teams in unprecedented fashion on it way to the school’s 16th Final Four, did anyone think the overall #1 seed in a Final Four of 1-seeds would trail 40-12 with under 7 minutes left in the first half. Thanks to an 18-0 Kansas run that’s exactly where North Carlina found itself when CBS analyst Billy Packer declared the game over. At one point in the half the vaunted Heels offense was shooting under 30%, while Kansas was shooting over 70%. Everything went the Jayhawks way early. They got every loose ball, Carolina rushed shoots, started to make mistakes leading to turnovers and easy baskets. It turned into an avalanche in the Alps, everything snowballed against the North Carolina.

Basketball is a game of runs – the old cliche goes. Well, Carolina made its run, cutting the lead to 17 by halftime, then outscored Kansas 23-8 in the first 9:44 of the second half, reversing the tables on Kansas. Suddenly Kansas, starting to feel the mounting pressure, rushed bad shots, turned the ball over and found a lid on the basket, as Carolina applied the pressure, aggressively attacking on offense, crawling back into the game on the hot hands of Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, and non-stop effort of Tyler Hansbrough.

Known for playing tight in big spots, lacking the one go-to guy that the other Final Four teams, it appears Kansas was about to fold like a chair. Off a timeout, junior Brandon Rush, who missed badly on two three point attempts during the Tar Heel blitz, answered the bell, taking hard to the basket for two to stop the bleeding. A Darnell Jackson layup off a Sherron Collins drive pushed the lead back to 8, which Kansas maintained until the 5 minute mark.

Rush answered the critics, taking over the game, scoring 7 points and dishing an assist, during a 13-0 Jayhawk run that put the game out of reach with under two minutes remaining. Stage three of this game resembled the first part, all Kansas all the time, closing the door with a 17-5 spree to win 84-66 going away.

This game never had continuity, it was marked by three prolonged one-sided stretches of play. Tempo was fast, as we expected, but both teams were sloppy, combining for 37 turnovers. Carolina shot a woeful 20% from 3-point land, only 35% from the field, and managed just 7 assists. Give credit to the Kansas defense, particularly Darrell Arthur and Sasha Kahn, who bumped and bruised Tyler Hansbrough out of the game. The Jayhawk guards managed to control Ty Lawson, something Louisville and many others failed to do. Rush, Chalmers, Robinson, and Collins forced numerous turnovers by playing aggressive defense, not allowing UNC to attack.

What promised to be an up and down, entertaining, high scoring affair, turned into an ugly battle meant more for the hardtop than the hardwood. Outside of that stretch bridging halves, the only thing worse than Carolina’s play was Roy Williams fluorescent tie. CBS may not like the ratings, but Kansas likes the result, on to Monday, where 19 turnovers will certainly not cut the mustard.

Memphis Guards Dominate

It’s official, John Calipari can no longer play the underdog, we get no respect card with this Memphis team. Following up on last weekend’s dominance in the regionals, Memphis overmatched UCLA with its athleticism, speed, and size, advancing to Monday;s Championship Game with a 78-63 win.

The backcourt matchup, pitting a pair of NBA bound players on each team, was the key heading into the game, and proved the difference. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose combined for 53 points, along stingy, aggressive defense to dominate the UCLA tandem of Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison. Douglas-Roberts got Memphis going early, finding ways to get to the basket anyway he could, mixing in a nice mid-range jumper, on his way to 13 first half points. More importantly, he got the Tigers over some early jitters single-handedly responding to UCLA’s 5-0 start.

Memphis took advantage of the diminutive Collison all evening. At 6′, 160 pounds he is too short to guard the 6’7″ Douglas-Roberts, and not strong enough to handle the freshman star Rose, one of the few guards in the country who can match Collison’s speed. WIth no choice but to use Collison on Rose, Westbrook, a noted defensive stopper, drew Douglas-Roberts, but CDR used his height advantage to easily shoot over Westbrook, and his strength to create space and get in the lane. At the point, Rose had his way with Collison, and anyone UCLA threw at him, driving into the lane with ease, finishing strong and creating easy opportunities for his teammates.

Not known for scoring, UCLA relies on Collison, Westbrook, and its own freshman sensation Kevin Love to create the offense. But Ben Howland’s crew met their match with the aggressive Memphis backcourt and rugged inside game. Rose bottled up Collison, holding the junior to a season-low 2 points on 1-9 shooting and matching a season-worst 5 turnovers – UCLA lost Collison’s other 5 turnover game – before fouling out. Westbrook held the Bruins together offensively with 22 points, but added 3 turnovers, UCLA had 12 as a team, contributing to decisive 14-2 fast break points advantage for Memphis, an area UCLA excelled defensively all season.

Hold your questions on the Tiger foul shooting, 20-23 should quiet the peanut gallery. In fact, analyzing the box score Memphis won the game on the free throw line, converting nine more than UCLA on 10 additional attempts. That discrepancy goes right back to the guards. Rose and Douglas-Roberts took all 23 Memphis free throws, nobody on UCLA had more than 4, further evidence UCLA had no answer for the dynamic duo in the backcourt.

UCLA needed a big performance from the All-American Love, instead the rugged Tiger forwards bottled up his inside game, limiting him to two second half points, finishing with 12 for the game. After establishing Love on the post early in the game, UCLA went away from him for an extended period of time. The uptempo flow of the game, and the physical play of Joey Dorsey, who battled Love hard inside for every rebound, sapped Love’s energy. In the second half, Love didn’t have the legs for his vintage jumper off the pick and pop that he canned in many recent UCLA comebacks. By controlling tempo and using Dorsey as a defensive weapon, Calipari took Love completely out of the game, and allowed his guards to shine.

Howland found a way to slow down Memphis midway in the second half, coincidentally when Collison’s foul trouble forced him out of the game. Mbah a Moute played solid defense on Douglas-Roberts, freeing Westbrook to play Rose. Forced to find contributions from other players, Memphis missed on six straight possessions, but UCLA could not answer. After two three pointers in the opening minutes, it looked like Josh Shipp had regained his confidence, but he only managed three points the rest of the game, missing  critical shots during  the Tiger drought. Love missed his share of jumpers, never getting the touches in the lane he’s accustomed to. UCLA missed its small window of opportunity.

Memphis is hot and they have a big-time player, who picked a good time to show his best. John Calipari called his squad a “Dream Team” after the game. It may not be the ’92 Olympics, but the Tigers blowing out formidable opponents in a similar fashion. One more to go.

Carolina Marches On Thanks to Hansbrough, First Half

Tyler Hansbrough never ceases to amaze. It’s no surprise he led Carolina with a vintage 28-point, 13 rebound performance in the most important game of year, and scored the two biggest baskets of the game. But how he did it – nailing back to back long jumpers from the top of the key with David Padgett closing in – that nobody saw coming. Two daggers from deep, extending the Heels lead to 9 points with under two minutes left clinched UNC’s first Final Four appearance since the 2005 championship team, an 83-73 decision over a game Louisville team.

Pitino needed to find the delicate balance between employing employing a full court press, yet not getting into an up tempo game with a deep, more athletic Carolina team. He failed to find that balance in the first half, the game was too fast for Louisville. Ty Lawson single-handedly dribbled through the Cardinal pressure, and Louisville failed to slow Carolina’s potent transition offense, getting beat down the court for easy layups multiple times in the first half. Hansbrough exerted himself in the paint, not about to repeat his two point first half from Thursday night. Lawson also took advantage of the man to man half court defense with dribble penetration that left hot-shooting Danny Green open, and setup Wayne Ellington for good links.

Each time Louisville garnered consecutive baskets, trying to claw back into the game, Carolina seemed to answer with an easy layup, or would draw a quick foul. But never count out Rick Pitino coached teams. The Cardinal came out in the second half with an improved offensive game plan, running offense off David Padgett in the high post, as they successfully did during conference play, and effectively pressuring Carolina by denying Lawson the ball on out of bounds plays. One way to measure the improvement in the Louisville press from the first half to the second was how long it took Carolina to inbound the ball after made baskets – with Lawson blanketed, the Heels teetered with 5-second calls a few times before going to the second or third option, playing right into Louisville’s hand.

Reverting to their aggressive 2-3 matchup zone was another important halftime adjustment by Pitino. It forced Carolina to shoot more contested jumpers, creating a few turnovers , slowing the offensive juggernaut enough to get back in the game. Louisville succeeded in finding the right tempo, patiently finding good shots on offense and pushing in transition at the right times, and found themselves back in the game thanks to the hot shooting of Jerry Smith, and inside prowess of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, pulling even with UNC midway through the second half.
Whenever Carolina needs a big basket, they look to Hansbrough, and the three-time All American delivered, scoring the next 10 Tar Heel points pushing the lead back to four, re-energizing the team and the crowd. As Hansbrough relished the pressure, Louisville wilted. Clark turned it over on consecutive traveling calls, two of his seven turnovers. After a clutch Ty Lawson three, his first basket of the second half, Hansbrough iced it with the two perimeter shots, starting the victory march to the foul line.

To beat North Carolina you need to play a full 40 minute game, get big performances from your star players, and hit clutch shots. Despite a valiant effort, Louisville failed to execute in the first half, and disappeared late in the game, nobody stepping up to hit a big shot. Palacios and Caracter were non-factors, and while the offense fed off Padgett for a stretch in the second half, he had a subpar offensive game. In the end, Carolina had Tyler Hansbrough and Louisville did not.

Sour 16 Sets Up Potential Heavyweight Regional Finals

Outside the West Region, no Sweet 16 game finished with under a 15 point spread and all six were well in hand by the early second half. Even UCLA led Western Kentucky big in the first half until a furious Hilltopper rally cut the Bruin lead to 4, coming within one shot of really scaring UCLA. Xavier and West Virginia kicked off the Sweet 16 slate on Thursday night with a tightly contested exciting overtime battle, though marked by foul trouble, missed free throws, and shooting droughts, this game was hardly a Picasso. Can you remember a less entertaining Regional Semi-Final round – amiss of any legit upset attempts or buzzer beater finishes? No, you say. Well, you’re right, it’s the first time ever that only one game in the Sweet 16 was decided by single digits.

CBS, widely scrutinized for what games it chooses to broadcast and when it decides to cut away from blowouts, had nowhere to turn the past two nights. At one point last night, the New York market watched what amounted to a Kansas pick-up game that was over before the first TV timeout because Memphis, the number one seed widely picked to lose in this round, secured a 30-point halftime lead over Michigan State. Thirty points!?!? You read it right, against a Tom Izzo team in the tournament. I think the Memphis critics have some apologizing to do.

Davidson provided the only Sweet 16 surprise, by not only beating defensive minded Wisconsin, but by blowing out the Big 10 regular season and tournament champs. The bright side, as chalk continues to prevail, it sets up three heavyweight battles and one darling Cinderella story in the four Elite Eight games, making the agony of sitting through Thursday and Friday nights games worth the wait this weekend.

UCLA continues to escape the claws of defeat, riding an unbelievable run of breaks and clutch last minutes finishes dating back to the final week of the regular season and the controversial call against Stanford. If your an optimistic UCLA fan you say maybe this is our year, those with the glass of empty view feel if they keep testing fate the Bruins will eventually crash. UCLA plays stingy defense and plays most games in the 60’s. Xavier can match the Bruins defensively with Senior stopper Stanley Burrell. With two strong defenses, expect a lower scoring, close affair from start to finish. The Bruins have more talent, they have experience in big tournament games with two straight Final Four appearances, to go along with unofficial home court advantage a few hours from Westwood. Most important, UCLA has the best player on the floor in Kevin Love. Xavier big man Josh Duncan has stepped up in the tournament, making for an interesting matchup in the frontcourt with Love, but expect the freshman star to lead the Bruins to San Antonio. Xavier needs to dominate the backcourt matchup to have a chance, and another no-show by Josh Shipp should also worry UCLA.

Along with Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina have been the three best teams in the tournament thus far, winning all three games in blowout fashion. You could easily mistake this game for a Final Four or even championship caliber game. A healthy Ty Lawson has Carolina’s offense clicking on all cylinders. They key to this game is if Louiville’s full-court press can slow down the UNC guards and take the Heels out of their offense. If Lawson and Wayne Ellington beat the press easily its points galore, but if the Cardinal force turnovers and force the guards to take bad shots they have a chance. David Padgett, Derek Caracter and the physical Louisville 2-3 zone should slow down Hansbrough, who scored only two points in the first half against Washington State before putting up 16 in the second. Carolina’s weakness is defense, Louisville has a cahcne if they use the press to neutralize the Heels attack and capitalize on offense. However, the Cardinal must protect the ball better and need stronger performances from the guards – notably Edgar Sosa – on both ends of the floor. Beating a good Tennessee team with 20 turnovers is as impressive as it is unlikely, beating an elite UNC team with 20 turnovers is out of the question. Smart money is on Carolina, but expect Pitino to have Louisville right there with a chance.

We’ll setup the Sunday matchups tomorrow. Here’s to some good games – they can’t possibly be worse than the Sweet 16, can they?

Davidson Stuns Badgers, Officially America’s Team

Stephen Curry carried Davidson through the first weekend with back to back performances for the annals, dropping 40 on Gonzaga then carrying Wildcats back from a 17-point deficit with 25 second half points to beat Georgetown. A one-man show, matched against one of the top defensive teams in the nation, surely Wisconsin would find a way to slow down Curry and end the Wildcats run. Of all the Sweet 16 teams, Davidson was the least likely to win, even less so than the pair of 12-seeds, Villanova and Western Kentucky. Simple, stop Curry and Davidson loses.

Well, maybe Curry is just that good. Another 33 point effort on 11-22 shooting, including 6 from behind the arc, another opponent in the dust. Curry, generously listed at 6’2″ 185 lbs., does not miss when he gets an inch of daylight. Wisconsin stuck Michael Flowers, the best defender in the Big 10, on Curry to no avail. Early on Davidson got their role players involved, particularly Lovedale and Jason Richards. Wisconsin failed to control the tempo, allowing Davidson to dictate the game. Even though the game was tied at the half, 36-36 was much a much higher score than Wisconsin wants to play at. Davidson and Curry came out in the second half and blew the doors open, delivering a knock out blow when Curry nailed back to back shots, the second an open trey off transition, after a defender flew by him.

Surprisingly, Davidson defended better than Wisconsin. The Badgers got out of their game as the deficit built, not getting ball inside, forcing three pointers, and allowing the Wildcats to push the tempo. Davidson outhustled the Badgers, forcing 11 turnovers, holding them to 37% shooting for only 56 points. More surprising than the Wildcats win, was how they won, by 17 going away, possibly the surprise of the tournament thus far, slightly edging a certain second half comeback against another solid defensive team from Georgetown.

A great story out of North Carolina, the small school from the Big South rented a bus to bring students all the way to Detroit for today’s game. Those students, joined by LeBron James in the student section, received a treat watching Curry. No matter where tiny Davidson ends this year’s run – no 10 seed has advanced to the Final Four and only one other, Kent State in 2002, has reached the Elite Eight – Curry’s tournament run will go down in NCAA lore. He seems to hit every time he gets an open look, and half the time he has a guy in his face, then throws in some highlight reel drives to the basket for extra measure. At one point in the second half, Curry had outscored Wisconsin by himself. If they hadn’t already, America will adopt Davidson come Sunday, as they strive to repeat George Mason’s miracle run. Be sure to tune in for the show.

Don’t Sleep on the 7-10 Winners

West Virginia struck on Saturday, driving the stake through Duke’s heart that Belmont put in place Thursday night. Three more two seeds take the floor today, don’t be surprised if another finds itself campus bound before the weekend is out. 15 times since 2000, and each year since 1996, at least one seven or ten winner lived to play on the second week. Bob Huggins Mountaineers already ensured the streak will continue, that does not put Georgetown, Texas, or Tennessee out of the woods.

The Volunteers, thought to have the toughest draw staring a path that includes Louisville and UNC in Tar Heel land, still has to get through Butler. AJ Graves and Mike Green form one of the top five backcourt tandems in the nation to lead a veteran Bulldog team, arguably under-rated as a 7-seed. Butler dismantled South Alabama Friday, and have the moxie to stand up to the Volunteers high tempo pressure attack. Before preparing for arguably the best #3 and #1 seeds in this year’s tournament, Tennessee has to deal with the best 7 seed, with a chip on its shoulder.

Georgetown and Texas face two of the most prolific scorers in the tournament, each coming off vintage opening round performances. Stephon Curry will be hard pressed to mimic Friday’s shooting performance against the defensive minded Hoya defense, who will throw a trio of more athletic guards geared to stop the one man wrecking crew. Davidson gave a number of big name teams all it could handle earlier this season, and has the talent to hang with Georgetown, but someone other than Curry must step up.  Expect JT III to have Curry marked all game. Relying on one player more than any other team, Davidson appears the least likely to pull the trick.

Out of the ACC, Miami is no stranger to playing big games, facing DUke and UNC twice a year every year. As with Curry, another 38-point effort from Jack McClinton is asking too much for the ‘Canes star, but if the supporting cast steps to the plate they have more weapons to spread the attack with than Davidson. Texas finished strong, DJ Augustin and AJ Abram are both big-time players, but Rick Barnes checkered tournament past leave question marks in the back of everyone’s mind until he proves otherwise. A Final Four trip this season goes a long way to quieting the critics. McClinton proved anything’s possible in one game, but if the same Miami team that Virginia Tech blew out in the ACC tournament shows up, Texas rolls into the regionals with  home court advantage. If I’m a betting man, look to Butler for the upset.

It’s hard to see UNC or Memphis tripping up today. A pair of 12-13 matchups in Tampa will produce two Cinderalla stories for next weekend. Villanova’s resume reads 12-seed, the talent and Big East presence does not. Expect the ‘Cats to end Siena’s magical ride, while Western Kentucky played better Friday in its win than San Diego, who benefited from the AJ Price injury and an inconsistent UConn performance. Brazelton and Lee give the Hilltoppers a formidable scoring duo, probably too much for the Terrero’s to contend with.  Bluegrass state basketball fans still have an interest in the tournament, just not Ashley Judd.

Perplexing CBS TV Schedules

CBS, who annually gets criticized for what games they put on in local markets and how quick they leave blowouts for better games, makes decisions based on viewership and revenue. With the success of March Madness On Demand, not to mention the countless local bars that have every game on, few viewers are tied to the one game on local television. However, the one area CBS still deserves criticism is when they put the games on.

Saturday coverage starts with a stand-alone game, CBS needs a big name team to showcase in that time slot. Duke’s the obvious choice on the Saturday slate, though they almost did not make it, but if the plan is for Duke to play early on Saturday, why have the Blue Devils play the night session on Thursday? Fans aside for a second, is it fair to the teams, especially West Virginia, who beat Arizona in the night cap on Thursday, to play the last games one day, then the early game on Saturday with about 36 hours rest, while Purdue and Xavier get almost two full days of rest? Faced with the same situation on Sunday, CBS takes the same route, opening the day at noon with Siena-Villanova, who won in the night session on Friday. At least Duke and West Virginia benefit from a later Saturday start time of 2:10. These decisions boggle the mind.

CBS has a lot to work with on Saturday, mixing and matching between games featuring marquee names, mainly Duke, Kansas, and UCLA, and interesting matchups more for the basketball purist regional fans. The big three names each play at different times, while Pitt-Michigan State, Stanford-Marquette, and Notre Dame-Washington State are each paired up in the same time slot as the top seeds. A smart move to keep both the casual fan looking for the big names and the purist in need of quality basketball both engaged the entire day. Only the 4:40 slot lacks the notoriety, though Freshman phenom Michael Beasley of Kansas State, the lone double-digit seed playing Saturday has a nice story line.

With less to work with on Sunday, CBS fails by putting both Memphis and UNC on in the late slot, while three #2 seeds play at 2:40. They risk ending the day with blowouts and losing the audience, especially on a holiday where viewers may have a quick trigger finger. Maybe its nitpicking, but historically a 7-10 winner is more likely to knock off a two seed than an 8-9 winner over a top seed. This decade, of the 20 teams seeded 7-10 to advance past round two, 15 come from the 7-10 game, and the last season not to see a two-seed fall by the end of the first weekend was 1996. Absent the noticeable match-up, fans love the upset. CBS left itself open for ratings disaster on Sunday afternoon.

It’s hard to screw up the first few days, since so many games are exciting and a lot of it comes down to luck. One gripe, however, was opening with only three games and putting a 1 vs. 16 among the three, leaving only two match-ups, neither ending competitively after Xavier took control.  No matter how you slice it, if you love college basketball, or sports in general, CBS can detract from the enjoyment, but can’t ruin it.