Thursday, March 19, 2009

Open All Nighters

No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (28-6, ACC)
No. 15 Binghamton Bearcats (23-8, America East)
Greensboro, North Carolina
9:50 P.M. EST

My glibness regarding the Villanova/American contest seems to have tempted fate earlier in the evening. So, I'll tread lightly (or rather more thoroughly) here.
The Bearcats leading scorer, D.J. Rivera, who also led the America East in scoring at 20 per game. He's good. And he's got a chip on his shoulder. Not a blue chip (or else he wouldn't be playing for Binghamton). He was left off the all-conference ballots and not named America East Player of the Year (which apparently he was) by the conference's coaches as some sort of asinine boycott. You see, Rivera wasn't forced to sit out a year after transferring from St. Joe's. This was not his decision. But don't tell that to the coaches. They know what they're doing. Because there is no better way to teach the NCAA overlords a lesson than to punish a youngster. Works 60% of the time every time.
If Rivera can have a Stephen Curry against Georgetown sort of game then Binghamton could upset Duke, who has had a penchant for letting lower-ranked teams hang around in the tourney (see one-point win over Belmont last year and loss to VCU the year before). And, there is no single result in the first round (besides a BC win over USC) that would bring me as much joy as a Bearcat over Blue Devil result. But, it ain't going to happen. Just like most things that would bring me joy.

No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners (27-5, Big 12)
No. 15 Morgan State Bears (23-11, MEAC)
Kansas City, Missouri
9:55 P.M. EST

On Valentine's Day, Oklahoma beat Texas Tech. They were 25-1. They were the No. 2 team in the nation. And everyone was in love with them. And, then all-world forward and future No. 1 pick of the NBA draft Blake Griffen was concussed during the next game against Texas. The Longhorns edged the Sooners with Griffin on the bench during the endgame. With the 21/14 superstar sidelined, the Sooners dropped the next game to Kansas. And no one loved them anymore. They were officially a one-man show. Just like last year's Kansas State club with Michael Beastley. And like last year's KSU club, the Sooners will roll to a first round win in the dance.
Although I have no big picture confidence in Oklahoma in the Big Dance, I just can't see how the Bears can win this game. They did beat Maryland early in January and DePaul late in 2008 but I don't see it tonight. They've only got two guys who can shoot better than 35% from beyond the arc and you know that Griffin is going to dominate in the paint.

No. 6 University of California, Los Angeles Bruins (25-8, Pac 10)
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth University Rams (24-9, CAA)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
10:00 P.M. EST

Being stuck in the office during the opening day of the NCAA tournament is a terrible thing for a certain sort of guy. Like, for example, the certain sort of guy that one day might use copious amounts of free time to write a sports blog when he is fairly certain that no one is reading. It's worse than being in the office on your birthday or on Christmas eve. Like way worse. And having to work a moment past 5:00 P.M. on the first day of the tournament actually constitutes legal grounds for most low-grade acts of inter-office violence. At least in this state. Two years ago, I was stuck at my old job late on the day the tournament opened. I was slaving away on something that would ultimately yield little reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done (which apparently VISA does not accept as payment). And, then I had to commute home. Meaning I not only missed the lone 5 o'clock game entirely but I missed the start of the 7 o'clock games too. I was none too pleased when I walked in the door of my apartment. But then VCU rescued my day. Thanks to a last-second shot in the lane, by point guard Eric Maynor, they upset No. 6 Duke. The Rams outscored the Blue Devils 9-6 in the final two and half minutes. And in that small amount of time they undid hours and hours of frustration. Moments like that are why I love the tournament. It's about the unexpected. It's about forgetting your troubles. It's about schadenfreude. It's got it all. And, I'll always think on VCU and Maynor fondly.
And, so will lots of other people. Which is why they are the trendy pick to upset the UCLA Bruins. I think this game will be a battle and I think VCU can win it. But, I'm not ready to write off the Ben Howland-coached club that has made three Final Four appearances on the bounce. I think that Darren Collison (unlike Greg Paulus) is just the point guard to cancel out Maynor. And I think that will mean the difference.
As I wrote earlier, I tend to overrate UCLA just as much as I tend to give short shrift to clubs from the Big 10 (except for Purdue this one time). There is no doubt that the 2008-09 Bruins are not in the same class with previous incarnations of the team. They're not going to the Final Four. But I think with Collison and Howland (whose Big East meets Pac 10 style is like the college hoops version of peanut butter cups) that UCLA is not ready for a first-round exit.
Also, I don't want to ruin what I already have with VCU by opening the door to disappointment. If I pick them and they let me down then the luster might come off our one shining moment together in 2007.

No. 5 University of Illinois Fighting Illini (24-9, Big 10)
No. 12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (24-8, Sun Belt)
Portland, Oregon
10:18 P.M.

After an unexpected choice of Purdue earlier, we are now returning to our regularly scheduled Big 10 bashing. The Illini will not have enough fight in them for this game. It's the Hilltoppers here. And, I'm not even sure if it's close. Illinois has lost 4 of its last 7 games and has nothing on its regular-season resume that impresses me. The Hilltoppers meanwhile, have won 15 of their last 17 and were perfect at home this year. It's true that the competition in the Sun Belt isn't the stiffest but that record shows me that these guys are TCOB. Most importantly, the Hilltoppers aren't just happy to be here. They advanced to the Sweet 16 last year. So, after passing on VCU - and lamenting the trendiness of that pick - I'm keeping up with the Joneses and making the popular upset pick in this one.
5/12 is the new 4/13. And the Big 10 still sucks. Tell your friends.

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