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.

Buzzer Beaters at the Dinner Bell

No. 7 University of Texas Longhorns (22-11, Big 12)
No. 10 University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (22-10, Big 10)
Greensboro, North Carolina
7:10 P.M. EST

I never cared for Tubby Smith when he was with Kentucky. But I'll admit that I even found Ashley Judd tiresome after a while so maybe it's just that I never cared for Kentucky. Which is probably because the coach that they all pine for down there was named Adolph. Yup, that might have something to do with it. Regardless, all my Tubby aversion seems to have been washed away by the waters of the Minnetonka. Now, I find myself pulling for his Golden Gophers. And, they did beat Louisville in December, which means there is hope for them against the Longhorns. Right?

Over at the Worldwide Leader, NCAA hoops maven Andy Katz named Texas "the hardest team to figure" in the East bracket. He's talking about the way this team has beaten Villanova and UCLA but inexplicably lost to Nebraska. And the way that A.J. Abrams and company never really got to full speed en route to their 22 wins. I've also not been able to figure out Texas. But, not just this season. I've never been able to correctly gage how good they are. Ever. I'm not really sure how I feel about Rick Barnes. I don't really know what I think of him as a coach. I know that the team has been blessed with decent guard play (T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin) in recent years and that Kevin Durant was the cat's pajamas. But, I don't really know what I know about the program other than that they bring in good talent.

Ultimately, I could see Texas upsetting Duke in the next round and I can't fathom Minnesota hanging with Coach Kommercial's kids. So, if T > D and D > M then wouldn't T > M? Picking a first round game because of something having to do with the second round has to be the one of the top five of worst ways to fill out a bracket, but that's the way we do things around here. My heart says Minnesota (and one of the brackets I filled out) but my blog (and the rest of those brackets) will say Texas.

No. 7 Clemson Tigers (23-8, ACC)
No. 10 University of Michigan Wolverines (20-13, Big 10)
Kansas City, Missouri
7:10 P.M. EST

Whoever comes out of this game alive will get a lot of attention and be given a decent chance to advance through to next week. It's just one of those games. But's that mostly because the winner of this tilt plays an Oklahoma squad that people think can be had on any given night (but not consistently over time) like the Michael Beasley-led Kansas State squad from last year.

Through Feb. 24, the Tigers were 22-4. Their only losses were to Wake Forest, UNC, Florida State and in OT to Virginia. They were ranked. And they were good. From that point, though, they lost four of their next five. Which brings us up to date. I tend to think that they're more of a 22-4 club than a 1-4 one. And I think that they're up-tempo style could have tired them out at the end of a grueling ACC season. If that's the case then a few days of rest will have done them some good. If not, then they could be had by the Wolverines, who have beaten Duke, UCLA and Minnesota this year.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Manny Harris (17/7/4 per game) led Michigan to a win tonight but I'm going to take Clemson. I think they remember all-too-well the sting of losing to a lower-seeded team from a power conference. It happened to them last year when they got dropped by Villanova. And, I don't think they let it happen twice.

No. 2 Villanova Wildcats (26-7, Big East)
No. 15 American University Eagles (24-7, Patriot League)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
7:20 P.M. EST

This game is in Philly at the Wachovia Center. Where Villanova sometimes play home games. American's marquee win came over Holy Cross. Let's not waste words. I mean, normally I love wasting words. In case you hadn't noticed. But, not now. Not on this game.

No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-5, WCC)
No. 13 Akron Zips (23-12, MAC)
Portland, Oregon
7:25 P.M. EST

It would be far more ironic if Gonzaga's title hopes were dashed by the unheralded Zips of Akron than if I were to be dining and found myself with several spoons when all I needed was a knife. Mark Few and the Bulldogs reinvigorated the glass slipper business in the past decade. But, I think the Zags will be wearing steel-toed boots tonight. They've won 18 of their last 19 games (the loss being to Memphis) and are probably better off for not having an Adam Morrison-level superstar. They're balanced and have managed to go underreported this year. Which is an upset in and of itself.

Happy Hour Game

No. 4 University of Washington Huskies (25-8, Pac-10)
No. 13 Mississippi State Bulldogs (23-13, SEC)
Portland, Oregon
5:00 P.M. EST

Logic says that Washington will enjoy a meaningful home court advantage in this game. The Huskies only have to travel 144 miles from campus. The Bulldogs? Mississippi is way farther away. On the other hand, maybe familiarity will breed contempt at the Rose Garden. It's possible that local neutrals will go against their Pac-10 rival and get behind the hot Bulldogs, who just played their way into the Dance by running the table in the SEC tournament.

After eschewing the 5/12 upset pick earlier, I could see myself tapping Mississippi State here. Mostly because I'd like to see Jarvis Varnado play through the weekend. Partially because his last name sounds like a weather phenomenon. And partly because he is the leading shot blocker in the country, with 4.7 rejections per contest, and stands just 6-9. It's hard to overlook Washington's resume, though. They've beaten UCLA, USC, Oklahoma State and Arizona State. Those are nice wins. But, this club finished last year 16-17. And, I'm having a hard time trusting them.

As the day progresses, I've been able to unburden myself of some long-standing prejudices. It's been cathartic. Another is that I can never trust a non-elite team from the Pac-10. Just like in football, I think this conference is top-heavier than Barb Wire-era Pam Anderson. I'll almost always pick against the mid-seed dance entrants from out West while tending to overvalue the top-seeded UCLA and Arizona clubs.

For me, this game is all about Mississippi State. Are they too tired from the travel? Are they happy just to be here? If the answers to these questions are "No." Then I think they take this. I think that Varnado is unlike any other player in the game and that the Bulldogs defeat a Pac-10 foe in the first round of the NCAA tournament just like they did last year (when they vanquished Oregon).

There figures to be a few upsets in Day 1 and I think that Mississippi State is hot enough (coming off SEC tourney wins over LSU and Tenn) to get one of them. Oh, and 4/13 is the new 5/12. Tell your friends.

Midafternoon Games

No. 5 Purdue Boilermakers (25-9, Big 10)
No. 12 Northern Iowa Panthers (23-10, Missouri Valley)
Portland, Orgeon
2:30 P.M. EST

Just as you're sobering up from your illicit lunch beer, we've got a 5/12 game featuring a team out of the little-thought of Big 10. Upset alert, right? Meh. These Northern Iowa Panthers are no Wildcats. And, by Wildcats, I don't mean hoopcats I mean 2008 Davidson Wildcats, who went all the way to the Elite Eight last year. The Panthers got hot after a slow start (and were co-champs of the MVC regular season with Creighton) but still needed to win the MVC Tournament - topping Illinois State in OT - to assure themselves a place in the CBS Invitational (Creighton, with a better overall record, didn't get in).

The Boilermakers topped Illinois (who, if my math is correct, is better than Illinois State) to reach the title game of the Big 10 tourney. They lost to Ohio State in a close game, but still earned an at-large bid. They were runner up in the regular season to Michigan State, who they did beat once this year. They also beat Boston College (and Ohio State and a bunch of other Big 10 also-rans). And they went to overtime with Oklahoma. But, it's that win over BC - which I witnessed at Madison Square Garden during an early-season tournament - that is probably pushing me the Purdue way. Normally, I pick against the Big 10 when filling out a bracket. I believe in that strongly. Against long-held Big 10 prejudices, I'm going to tap Purdue to fight off the upset-minded Panthers and their big 7-1 center. They've got the superior wing players and have far more experience.

According to, the No. 12 seed edged the No. 5 seed in 13 of 32 games since 2001. Another way to look at this is to say that the No. 5 seed has won 19 out of 32 times. I'm a glass half full sort of guy. Especially when that glass is half full of beer and and contains a shot of whiskey.

No. 1 University of North Carolina Tar Heels (28-4, ACC)
No. 16 Radford Highlanders (21-11, Big South)
Greensboro, North Carolina
2:50 P.M. EST

Apparently the Highlanders have a 6-10 center of Belarusian extraction. His name is Artsiom. That's his first name. He'll be battling America's (non-Tebow) golden child Tyler Hansbrough in the paint. Few things would make me happier (today) than Arty taking over this game and going for 25 and 20 (he averages 16 and 11). I don't anticipate this happening, though. Just like I don't anticipate many things that could make me happy today happening.

No. 1 University of Connecticut Huskies (27-4, Big East)
No. 16 University of Tennessee - Chattanooga Mocs (18-16, Southern)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
3:00 P.M. EST

The big news pertaining to this game is that UConn coach (and noted altruist) Jim Calhoun was rushed to a hospital today. He won't be coaching the Huskies this afternoon. Still, I don't think if Artsiom Parakhouski was called upon to coach UConn, sans translator, that Chatanooga could take these guys. The Mocs entered the Southern Conference tournament with a sub .500 record. The Huskies, meanwhile, have the best paint presence in the nation (but not the best shot-blocker, that's Mississippi State's Varnado) and four players scoring 13+ points per game. Maybe if UT- Chattanooga comes out 5 for 6 from behind the arc (if this were to happen it would probably be thanks to 5-11 senior guard Stephen McDowell, who shoots 43% on three-pointers) and things get a little harried right away then Calhoun's absence could become a problem. Maybe. Otherwise, I think not. Huskies advance.

No. 7 University of California Bears (22-10, Pac-10)
No. 10 University of Maryland Terrapins (20-13, ACC)
Kansas City, Missouri
3:00 P.M. EST

Ah, finally something worth really considering. As I mentioned earlier, going away from the Big 10 (just not today) is something I do this time of year. It's one of my bracket strategies. Just like siding with senior guards and experienced coaches when possible. And not putting too much faith in hoopsters from Belarus. Another strategy is follow the best players, at least through Round 1. And Maryland's General Greivis Vasquez the best player in this game. He recently registered a triple double in an upset win over UNC. He can win this game for his team. Unfortunately, if he doesn't win this game for his team then his team won't win this game. I'll pick Maryland in more brackets than I'll pick the Bears. Technically this would be an upset, but it's hard to think of a 20-win ACC team really being that much of an underdog on the first day.

UPDATE: WWOD is still perfect on picks through seven games. And has officially put the kibosh on later selections.

Pencils Down. Brackets to the Front of the Room.

No. 9 Butler Bulldogs (26-5, Horizon League)
No. 8 LSU Tigers (26-7, SEC)
Greensboro, North Carolina
12:20 P.M. EST

And, we’re off. Out to jump the opening tip of the opening game of the 2009 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will likely be 6-11 Chris Johnson from LSU and 6-8 Matt Howard from Butler. It’s the 8/9 game, which means that there is no true upset here.

Butler has knocked off Xavier, Ohio State, UAB and Davidson this season and edged the Green Bay Phoenix and the Cleveland State Vikings for the Horizon league regular-season title. They were upset by Cleveland State in the conference tourney and entered the Big Dance thanks to an at-large bid. Any school that feels they should’ve been in the field of 65 should feel free to blame Butler for dropping that last game. The Bulldogs drubbed South Alabama in the opening round of last year’s tourney before coming up five points shy of Tennessee in the second round. The two top scorers from that team were seniors. I don’t know what they’re up to right now.

This dancing experience may be why Butler is only a 1.5-point underdog to the regular-season champs of the SEC. Like the Bulldogs, the LSU Tigers also lost in their conference tournament after sewing up their league’s regular-season crown. LSU’s best win is probably their road triumph at Tennessee. Looking over their schedule there aren’t too many marquee wins. And someone over at Sports Illustrated wrote that they mailed it in after clinching the SEC regular-season title. Nevertheless, I took the boys from the power conference in most brackets that I filled out. They play a lot of upper classmen and should have the horses (or Tigers) to win this one against Butler. And they’re better than Cleveland State. For sure.

No. 2 Memphis Tigers (31-3, Conference USA)
No. 14 Cal State Northridge Matadors (17-13, Big West)
Kansas City, Missouri
12:25 P.M. EST

The Matadors are getting 20 points in this game. And, I don't think that I can take them. This season the team's leading scorer was arrested for armed robbery, the senior point guard was in a car accident that killed someone else in his car, and the coach (whose son was also implicated in that robbery) was nearly killed in a separate traffic accident. They've got issues. Is this a what-doesn't-kill-us-makes-us-stronger group? Maybe. Probably. But I still don't think they're strong enough to knock off (and maybe not even to cover the spread) a 31-win Memphis club that thinks they should have been a No. 1 seed.

No. 8 Brigham Young Cougars (25-7, Mountain West)
No. 9 Texas A&M Aggies (23-9, Big 12)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
12:30 P.M. EST

These teams met in the opening round of the tourney last season. The Aggies won that mathcup. But here we are again. Weird. BYU is favored by 3 points this time around. The school is located in Provo, Utah. And composed of 98% Mormon students. Although I wouldn't be shocked if 76% of that non-Mormon 2% played on the basketball team, I can't pick a team whose out-of-bounds plays may have been revealed on a set of golden plates that was dug up somewhere in New York state during the nineteenth century. And, I'm not saying that isn't a perfectly reasonable way to uncover information. I'm just saying that the game has evolved so much. Right. Aggies are the pick.

UPDATE:All three WWOD picks are looking good as these three games head into their respective halftimes. The one surprise is the Matadors of Cal State Northridge. They trail by just three points, 34-31, to Memphis and look solid.

UPDATE #2: Butler is out the gates hard in the second half. They've got the lead, 44-43, from LSU.

UPDATE #3: WWOD is 3-0 in picks.