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Archive for January, 2010

YouTube – Wes Johnson Dunk Against Depaul 1/30/10 AMAZING!.

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An excellent week for the Big East in non-conference games as Connecticut scores a huge win at home against then #1 Texas and West Virginia beats Big Ten foe Ohio State.  My current power rankings:

  1. Villanova (8-0, 19-1) (Last week W @St. Johns 81-71, W ND 90-72)
  2. Syracuse (7-1, 20-1) (W Marq 76-71, W Gtwn 73-56)
  3. West Virginia (5-2, 16-3) (W OhSt. 71-65, W @DeP 62-46)
  4. Georgetown (6-3, 15-4) (W Rutg 88-63, L @Syr 73-56)
  5. Pittsburgh (6-2, 16-4) (L @SH 64-61, W St. Johns 63-53)
  6. Louisville (4-3, 13-7) (W Cin 68-60)
  7. Connecticut (3-4, 13-7) (W Tex 88-74, L @Prov 81-66)
  8. Notre Dame (4-4, 15-6) (W DeP 87-77, L @Vill 90-72)
  9. Seton Hall (3-5, 12-7) (W Pitt 64-61, L @USF 76-74 OT)
  10.   Cincinnati (4-4, 13-7) (L @Lou 68-60)
  11.   Marquette (3-5, 12-8) (L @Syr 76-71, W Rutg 82-59)
  12.   South Florida (3-5, 13-7) (W @Prov 109-105 OT, W SH 76-74 OT)
  13.   Providence (4-4, 12-8) (L USF 109-105 OT, W Conn 81-66)
  14.   St. John’s (2-6, 12-8)  (L Vill 81-71, L @Pitt 63-53)
  15.   DePaul (1-7, 8-12) (L @ND 87-77, L WVU 62-46)
  16.   Rutgers (0-8, 9-11) (L @Gtwn 88-63, L @Marq 82-59)

Weekend Preview

Main Event
Duke @ Georgetown, Saturday, 1:00 PM
This is an important game for Georgetown and the Big East.  Coming off a game against Syracuse in which they shot out to a quick 14-0 lead only to end up losing by 17 points, you have to worry about Georgetown’s confidence.  They will have to work hard on defense and hit their open shots to beat a Duke team that is coming off two good wins at Clemson and home against Florida State.  Georgetown should look to give Greg Monroe opportunities on the block to score or set up others.

Best Matchup
Marquette @ Connecticut, Saturday, 12:00 PM
Connecticut’s win against Texas was a huge one for the Huskies and the Big East.  They then proceeded to lose at Providence by 15.  UConn is a hard team to get a read on.  They rely almost completely on an aggressive defense to cause turnovers that create opportunities to score in transition.  Their other strong suit can be offensive rebounding and that is what can win this game for them.  Marquette is an excellent three-point shooting team but it may be difficult for them to get good shots behind the arc against the Huskies’ guards.  To win the game Marquette must slow Connecticut’s transition game and be efficient on offense.

Upset Alert
Louisville @ West Virginia, Saturday, 12:00 PM
Two teams that moved up in my rankings this week have a luncheon meeting on Saturday.  I think West Virginia has almost everything it takes to be a championship contender.  Right now their Achilles Heel is point guard play, although “Truck” Bryant has been improving throughout the year.  But shaky point guard play is the key to success for Louisville’s non-stop full court press.  If the Mountaineers take care of the ball and methodically beat the press they should be okay.  If they make careless passes and poor decisions against the full-court defense they could be in big trouble.

Rest of the Slate (in chronological order)
Syracuse @ DePaul, Saturday, 2:00 PM
Syracuse is coming off impressive wins over Marquette and Georgetown while DePaul lost to Notre Dame and West Virginia last week.  Hard to believe this one will be competitive, with the excellent 2-3 zone defense of the Orange controlling the game.

Notre Dame @ Rutgers, Saturday, 6:00 PM
The RAC used to be the place that all Big East teams were scared of visiting.  Now Rutgers is more of a joke than anything.  Luke Harangody and the Irish should dominate this one.

Providence @ Cincinnati, Saturday, 8:00 PM
This is an intriguing matchup of two teams that are riding the roller coaster.  The Friars had a bad loss at home against South Florida last weekend, but then scored a solid win over Connecticut.  The Bearcats are coming off a loss to Louisville in which they started the game on fire before cooling off and not getting close.  Providence is an offensively focused squad while Cincinnati relies more on their defensive abilities.  Both teams are excellent on the offensive glass.  I think this game will go to the team whose superstar plays better – either Jamine Peterson for the Friars or Lance Stephenson for the Bearcats.

Pittsburgh @ South Florida, Sunday, 1:00 PM
The Big East basketball weekend will end with Pittsburgh playing at the suddenly hot South Florida Bulls on Sunday afternoon.  After a tough loss to Seton Hall last Sunday the Panthers got a hard fought win over St. John’s.  While the final margin was 10 the game was played much closer than that.  For the first time since joining the Big East the Bulls have won two conference games in a row.  A lot of the credit goes to Dominique Jones who scored 46 in the win at Providence followed by 28 in the win over Seton Hall.  Expect Pitt to bottle Jones up and get the win.

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For the last couple of years there has been much talk from college basketball coaches about expanding the tournament.  Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been beating the drum, and in December Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said this, “I don’t think we put enough value on the regular season.  By expanding to [96 teams], and not having the NIT, you reward everybody who wins the regular season.”  To clarify that, he means the regular season champion for each league. 

If this were to happen there would be some very clear winners and losers:

WINNERS

  • Coaches — You cannot blame this gaggle of coaches for trying to save the jobs of their peers.  To me that’s what this comes down to, because coaches are the group that would benefit the most from a tournament expansion.  More teams making the tournament means less pressure on coaches and easier goals to achieve.
  • NCAA — The only other group I see benefitting is the NCAA because they will get more money from the televison contract(s).  The NCAA is the body that controls the tournament and they can opt out of their contract with CBS after this season, change the tournament format and seek out tens of million more dollars in a new television contract with an expanded field. 

LOSERS

  • Fans — It astounds me that some proponents of tournament expansion say that good teams are getting left out.  Sorry, this is not true.  The quality of play would suffer greatly.  Also, the excitement of the first couple of days comes from real Cinderellas (12, 13, 14 seeds) having the chance to upset really good teams (3, 4, 5 seeds).  Seeing a small conference runner up beat a mid-major team will not hold anywhere near the excitement.
  • Major Conferences — Winning a major conference tournament would mean a lot less if more than half of your league was already going to be heading to the Big Dance.  In fact, it may be a detriment because of the commitment it takes to play and win three or four days in a row less than a week before the NCAA tournament starts. 
  • Small Conferences — An expansion to 96 teams would mean that the top 32 seeds (1-8 in each region) would get a first round bye.  Small conference programs would no longer have a chance to score a big upset, but would more likely be playing mid-major teams or poor performing major conference teams.
  • Networks — You may think that the network(s) that is awarded the contract will be a beneficiary of the expansion as well.  That may be true, initially.  But I think the expansion will do long term damage to the tournament, not to mention the conference tournaments, and eventually hurt the winning bidder(s). 

One last thing, contrary to the way it is often presented, every team in a league with a tournament does in fact have a chance to win the national championship.  They simply must win their conference tournament to earn their way into the NCAA tournament and then win every game there.  There is absolutely no good reason to expand the NCAA tournament.

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Impressively, the Big East goes into the weekend with five of the top 12 ranked teams in the RPI.  And with a third of the conference season behind us, it is now safe to say that we have a pretty good idea of where the teams stand.  Here are the teams as I currently rank them:

  1. Villanova (6-0, 17-1)
  2. Syracuse (5-1, 18-1)
  3. Georgetown (5-2, 14-3)
  4. Pittsburgh (5-1, 15-3)
  5. West Virginia (4-2, 14-3)
  6. Seton Hall (2-4, 11-6)
  7. Cincinnati (4-3, 13-6)
  8. Connecticut (3-3, 12-6)
  9. Notre Dame (3-3, 14-5)
  10.   Marquette (2-4, 11-7)
  11.   Louisville (3-3, 12-7)
  12.   Providence (3-3, 11-7)
  13.   St. John’s (2-4, 12-6)
  14.   DePaul (1-5, 8-10)
  15.   South Florida (1-5, 11-7)
  16.   Rutgers (0-6, 9-9)

Weekend Preview

Main Event
Texas @ Connecticut, Saturday, 4:00 PM
Any time you have a shot at the #1 team in the country it is a big deal.  Even if they’ve already lost once this week.  Connecticut is .500 in league play and has not been overly impressive.  They need to force turnovers and score in transition.  They really struggle to score in the half-court.  Stanley Robinson has taken his game to the next level and Jerome Dyson has been mostly steady.  This would be a huge win for the Huskies, but they’ll need a full team effort to get it.

Best Matchup
Ohio State @ West Virginia, Saturday, 2:00 PM
This will be a tough match up for West Virginia.  The Buckeyes have been hot since Evan Turner fully returned from injury.  He’s a threat for a triple double in every game.  Da’Sean Butler has led the Mountaineers to a strong record so far this season.  They could really use a signature win, having lost their three biggest tests – at Purdue, at Notre Dame and home against Syracuse.  West Virginia needs to hit the boards hard on offense and defense if they hope to pull it out.

Upset Alert
Pittsburgh @ Seton Hall, Sunday, 2:00 PM
The Panthers are coming off a home loss to Georgetown.  However, they do have spectacular road wins against Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut.  Of course, coming into the season not a lot was expected from Pitt, but like usual Coach Dixon has his players giving  maximum effort.  The Pirates have had the most challenging Big East schedule in the league.  The are coming off an important home win over Louisville.  Seton Hall seems to have integrated Herb Pope and Keon Lawrence into their game after missing them earlier in the season.  You have to expect Pitt to be the favorite here but I would not be surprised of  Seton Hall gets the win.

Rest of the Slate (in chronological order)
Villanova @ St. John’s, Saturday, 12:00 PM
Villanova has been extremely impressive so far this season, led by Big East Player of the Year candidate Scottie Reynolds.  They currently have five players averaging double figures in scoring.  After showing early promise, St. John’s has struggled in league play.  They are working Anthony Mason Jr. back into the rotation.  I can’t see this one being close.

Rutgers @ Georgetown, Saturday, 12:00 PM
This game has blowout written all over it.  Rutgers has been awful.  Georgetown has steadied the ship after an early season loss to Old Dominion and is coming off a big win at Pittsburgh.

Marquette @ Syracuse, Saturday, 2:00 PM
Despite starting league play 1-3 Marquette had looked good.  The three losses came at West Virginia and twice to Villanova by a total of 5 points.  But this week they inexplicably lost to DePaul.  Lazar Hayward has led the Golden Eagles all season but he only had 14 points, all in the first half, against DePaul.  Syracuse has been one of the most impressive teams in the country.  They are coming off strong road wins at West Virginia and Notre Dame and should not have a lot of trouble handling Marquette.

DePaul @ Notre Dame, Saturday, 2:00 PM
Here’s another matchup that shouldn’t be very competitive.  DePaul can only hope that the Marquette win and some inspiration from interim coach Tracy Webster can carry over to this game.  While not in the upper echelon of the Big East, Notre Dame still has a quality team led by Luke Harangody (24.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and steady point guard Tory Jackson (5.7 apg).

South Florida @ Providence, Saturday, 8:00 PM
Providence is 3-3 in league play and has beaten all the teams they should and lost to all the teams you’d expect them to.  In their last effort, their leader Jamine Peterson was ejected early in a loss at Marquette.  South Florida has suffered while one of their best players, big man Gus Gilchrist, has been injured.  The Fryars still have a chance to have a decent season and need to win this one.

Cincinnati @ Louisville, Sunday, 12:00 PM
The key to this game will be the health of Cincinnati’s freshman sensation Lance Stephenson.  He sat out their Wednesday win over South Florida.  Louisville has three wins against the lower end of the league.  They don’t seem to have the talent they have had in the past.  If Stephenson plays, the Bearcats should have a good shot to win this game because the hard-pressing Cardinals defense should not bother Cincinnati senior point guard Deonta Vaughn as much as it will most others.  When Louisville has the ball the Cincinnati athleticism should keep Samardo Samuels in check.  If Stephenson misses the game, the Bearcats are not likely to find enough offense to win.

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After starting the weekend with promise and nailing my first two picks on Saturday, I took a steep fall and got both predictions wrong on Sunday.  I wasn’t that surprised by the Vikings win over the Cowboys.  However, I was absolutely shocked that the Jets beat the Chargers.  The Jets hung in there long enough to give themselves a chance, and again Mark Sanchez did just enough to win while the defense made the Chargers offense look average at best.  Nate Kaeding’s bad field goal misses certainly helped the cause as well.  Hopefully this weekend will bring two hard-fought, entertaining games.

New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts

This will be a “rematch” of the infamous week 16 game in which the Colts sat their starters while up 15-10, enabling the Jets to win 29-15 and push their way into the playoffs.  Popular opinion is that the Colts would have won that game if they kept their starters on the field.  Will they end up deeply regretting the decision to rest them?

Keys for the Jets
Even as they continued to struggle for yardage in the first half against the Chargers, the Jets stuck to their game plan – managing Sanchez’s pass attempts and relying on the running game.  It paid off in the fourth quarter when Shonn Greene broke off a 53 yard touchdown run against a worn down San Diego defense.  This week the power running game will again be key for the Jets.  They’ll need their big offensive line to maul the smaller Indianapolis defense and neutralize their quickness.  Defensively the Jets will need to mix up their blitzes and get to Peyton Manning.  Manning is unmatched in his ability to read a defense pre-snap and know exactly where to go to beat the blitz.  But if the Jets can get to him early and make him have happy feet in the pocket, the Colts rhythm-based passing game will not be as effective as usual.

Keys for the Colts
While not great, the Colts offense was effective enough to get a win last week.  That’s understandable against the Ravens.  This week they will face a defense with a similar scheme, but one that will be relentless in its effort to hit the quarterback.  For the Indianapolis offense to move the ball successfully Manning will have to continually find Dallas Clark in the middle of the field.  San Diego was effective in finding Antonio Gates early in the game last week but then seemed to go away from that strategy.  You can bet that Manning and the Colts will stick with Clark in the middle of the field if it continues to work.  On defense the Colts must beat the Jets blockers at the point of attack to slow down the power rushing game.  They need to continue to use their speed to their advantage just like they did against the Ravens.

Prediction
Colts 23-10.  The Jets have been a great postseason story but it will end in Indianapolis.  The Colts just have too much experience on both sides of the ball and too many weapons in the passing game.

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

Both of these teams are coming off extremely impressive wins last week.  The Vikings beat the very hot Cowboys and the Saints blew out the Cardinals.  This matchup has all the makings of a classic…let’s hope it delivers.

Keys for the Vikings
The Minnesota offense looked spectacular last week, well at least the passing game did.  Brett Favre showed some old magic and Sidney Rice made some special plays.  However, for the Vikings to win this week they will need to get Adrian Peterson back to being the best runner in the game.  The real key to doing that is to get a much better performance from the offensive line.  The linemen need to drive out the Saints defenders right from the snap.  When the Saints have the ball the Vikings defense will have to get the same extremely high level of play from their front four as they did last week.  Ray Edwards and Jared Allen were especially dangerous off the edge.  If they can get to Drew Brees this week it will prevent him from hitting the deep pass that the Saints love to rely on.

Keys for the Saints
The Saints offense did almost everything right last week with a balanced attack and no turnovers.  Reggie Bush showed the all around explosiveness that has been expected of him since he entered the NFL.  This week the Saints must focus on their protection schemes.  They must keep the Minnesota pass rushers off Brees and allow him the time to find the open receiver, even if it means keeping a tight end and/or a back in to block.  Defensively the Saints must go after Brett Favre the same way they did Kurt Warner last week.  They need to hurry Favre and make him constantly think about getting hit, forcing him to throw too early and increasing their chances for interceptions.

Prediction
Vikings 27-24.  The Vikings D will allow points but ultimately their front line will slow down the Saints enough to allow Favre and Peterson the chance to pull out a win in the final two minutes of the game.

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To make my divisional round playoff picks even more interesting I have decided to rank them by how confident I am in the picks.  So here they are in order from most confidence to least (see previous blog post for more analysis):

  1. San Diego Chargers 26 New York Jets 17
  2. Indianapolis Colts 27 Baltimore Ravens 17
  3. Dallas Cowboys 24 Minnesota Vikings 21
  4. New Orleans Saints 38 Arizona Cardinals 35

 I feel very confident in my AFC picks but can really see both NFC game going either way.  Who are you picking and how confident are you?

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Well what can I say.  Going 0 for 4 is really quite special.  Last weekend did not go as I expected.  I give a lot of credit to the four winning teams.  The Jets offensive game plan worked perfectly.  The Cowboys looked especially tough on defense.  The Ravens started strong and never stopped.  The Cardinals showed a great deal of heart.  Will any of it translate into continued momentum?  Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Arizona Cardinals @ New Orleans Saints

After finishing off last weekend pulling out the most exciting wildcard matchup, the Cardinals will open up this weekend in what promises to be a highly entertaining game against the #1 seeded Saints.

Keys for the Cardinals
Arizona was an offensive juggernaut last week, rushing for 156 yards and passing for 379 against the #2 defense in the NFL.  The Cards are capable of getting hot on offense but I certainly did not think they would be able to do so against the Packers.  Kurt Warner is a master of taking advantage of the matchups.  If the Cardinals are going to win this week, Kurt will have to exploit the matchups and not lock onto any specific receiver.  He’ll have to take what the defense is willing to give and work the ball down the field.  Arizona’s defense is going to have to be much improved this week or they will not have a chance to win because they will not get a single stop against the high-powered Saints offense.  The Cardinals need to get pressure on Drew Brees with their front line guys like Bertrand Berry and Darnell Dockett.  Both will have to be disruptive forces.

Keys for the Saints
The Saints were cruising through the season undefeated until that ill-fated Saturday night game with Dallas in Week 15.  They lost that game and their last two.  If they can’t shake the rust off early Saturday afternoon they are going to find themselves down by a lot quickly.  Offensively they must get off to a quick start.  They must take advantage of a weak Arizona secondary and mix in the run.  Defensively they should be helped by some time to heal.  They need to be able to depend on their corners and nickel backs to free up Darren Sharper to play center field.  If the corners cannot cover, Sharper will have to resume more coverage responsibilities, greatly diminishing his effectiveness.

Prediction
Saints 38-35.  Hard to pick against the Cardinals again, but I think the homefield advantage and one more defensive stop will give New Orleans the advantage.  I do think both teams will effectively mix in the run eating up more clock and keeping this game in the 30s, as opposed to an all out pass attack game in the 50s.

Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts

The Ravens were very impressive last week in a win at New England.  Of all the games that one shocked me the most.  These teams did meet in Week 11, with the Colts pulling out a hard fought 17-15 victory in Baltimore.

Keys for the Ravens
Scoring first may be the biggest key for Baltimore.  And with the Ravens that could mean on offense, defense or special teams.  They are not a team that is built for comebacks and have struggled all year when playing from behind.  They need to find success in the running game, whether it be with Ray Rice or Willis McGahee.  Supporting the run game with short, quick read passes should help limit the possessions and give the Ravens a chance to win.  On the defensive side of the ball the Ravens need to put the pressure on Peyton Manning.  If you give Peyton the time he will carve you up but if you can get to him early you can throw off the Colts’ rhythm.

Keys for the Colts
When the Colts have the ball they are going to have to spread the passing game around to different receivers.  Peyton helped develop some new weapons this year and he’ll have to use them for Indianapolis to win this game.  They need to beat the blitz early by dinking and dunking and then look downfield for the kill.  Defensively the Colts have to stop the Ravens’ running game on first and second down.  They need to put Joe Flacco in third down situations where he cannot rely on a run or the short pass, but must drop back and risk getting mowed over by Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. 

Prediction
Colts 27-17.  I think the Colts will take advantage of a Ravens secondary that is depleted by injury.  The Ravens will be a popular pick, especially after the way they played against New England, but the Colts just have too many weapons.

Dallas Cowboys @ Minnesota Vikings

Of the four games this weekend this one is the most interesting to me.  The Cowboys are coming in hot while it is really hard to get a read on Minnesota after the last few weeks of the regular season.  These two teams have not met since October 2007.

Keys for the Cowboys
Offensively the Cowboys have to be able to run the football.  Minnesota has a dangerous pass rush that can make QBs pay for even thinking about passing.  The Dallas running game has been strong recently and they need to keep it going to win.  The Dallas defense has been even more impressive than the running game.  They absolutely dominated Philly two weeks in a row after shutting out the Redskins and holding New Orleans to 17 points in that critical Saturday night win.  This week the defense will have to stop the run.  Adrian Peterson is the best runner in the game and Dallas will have to focus on slowing him down.

Keys for the Vikings
Protecting the ball is the most critical area of concern for Minnesota.  Adrian Peterson must hold on to the ball and Brett Favre cannot force throws into coverage.  Like the Cowboys, the Vikings have to stop the run on defense.  Over the course of the season they were excellent at doing so, only allowing an average of 87.1 rushing yards per game.  However, in three late season losses they allowed more than 100 to the Cardinals, Panthers and Bears.

Prediction
Cowboys 24-21.  All of the Vikings’ ills will catch up with them in this game.  As it was in the last part of the regular season, the loss of E.J. Henderson will really be felt in this game as Dallas will be able to move the ball and score touchdowns.  A couple of Vikings turnovers will make the difference.

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers

The Jets are coming off an impressive performance against the Bengals while the Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL, having won 11 straight to close out the regular season.

Keys for the Jets
Just like last week the Jets must get good yardage on first and second down to enable Mark Sanchez to have manageable distances to attain on third down.  The Jets coaching staff executed an excellent offensive game plan last week that set Sanchez up for success.  The two-headed monster of Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene carved up the yardage against the Bengals, that will need to continue in this game for the Jets to have a chance to win.   On defense they must mix up their coverages and blitzes to slow the dynamic Chargers passing game.  They must make Philip Rivers think an additional second or two, giving the pass rushers enough time to make him uncomfortable.

Keys for the Chargers
Getting the ball to Antonio Gates, and a variety of screens and draws to the running backs, will be the keys to the Chargers offensive success.  Darrelle Revis is going to shut down Vincent Jackson but the Jets blitzes should allow windows for throws to Gates, Darren Sproles and LaDainian Tomlinson.  Also, the Bengals were very succesful in draw-type runs.  Defensively it will be all about stopping the run for the Chargers.  Utilizing a variety of run blitzes in their 3-4 scheme should help keep the Jets running game off balance.

Prediction
Chargers 26-17.  I like the heart and intensity of the Jets but I think their season will end in San Diego.  The Chargers have a playoff savvy team with a lot of confidence and an excellent offense…too much for New York to overcome.

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