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Archive for March, 2010

This week I’m easing into the NBA.  I’ve already posted my surprises in the Eastern Conference, both good and bad.  Here are the teams I’m surprised by in the Western Conference:

Phoenix Suns

I fully expected the Suns to drop off this year.  They certainly have not, as with nine games left they have one more win than they had all of last season.  They currently are tied for the fourth best record in the West and impressively have the second best conference record.  Behind the steady Steve Nash, the powerful Amare Stoudamire and a solid cast of role players Phoenix has put together an excellent season.  I still think they may have trouble getting out of the first round of the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Wow…the Thunder have turned into an excellent team overnight.  With Kevin Durant turning in a near-MVP year Oklahoma City has already improved their win total by 22 with nine games left.  The continued evolution of Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green has also made a huge difference.  Ultimately, it has come down to defense.  The Thunder are allowing 6.5 fewer points per game this season than they did last season.

San Antonio Spurs

This team is the biggest surprise to me.  I certainly did not expect to see them in the last playoff spot in the Western Conference…I mean this is the Spurs.  With nine games left they already have one more loss than they did last season.  I guess they’ve had a number of injuries, but that should not be a big surprise with their stars getting up in age.  I expected the addition of Richard Jefferson to help keep them in the upper echelon of the West.  They are averaging 3.8 more points per game this season, but are also giving up 2.8 more points per game.  If the season ended today the Spurs would match up against the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs…talk about a huge first round battle.

Houston Rockets

With injuries to Yao and Tracy McGrady I figured the Rockets would be battling for the worst record in the extremely competitive Western Conference.  Somehow they have played their way to one game over .500 with nine games left.  This team must be all heart with excellent coaching.  Aaron Brooks has been a real find for Houston.  He’s averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 38.6% from three point range.

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As the college basketball season faces its final weekend it’s time to turn our attention to the NBA.  I’ve only occasionally looked at the standings, watched pieces of a few games, and read an article here or there.  It’s hard for me to take the NBA seriously until the playoffs start.  Prepping for the last month of the season I’ve started to catch up by taking a good look at the standings.  Here’s what teams surprise me in the Eastern Conference:

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have been improving nicely over the last few years, going from 26 to 30 to 37 to 47 wins.  With nine games left in the season Atlanta has already matched the 47 wins from last year, is solidly in fourth place in the East and have a chance to get third place.  They are the third highest scoring team and have the third highest scoring differential in the East.  An excellent, maturing starting five led by Joe Johnson, they have Jamal Crawford coming off the bench, and the Hawks will be a very tough out in the playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks

In his second year with the Bucks Scott Skiles has the young team playing surprisingly well.  The excitement started with the early play of Brandon Jennings but took full flight when they traded for John Salmons.  They are 20-7 since February 1 while fighting to secure the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Chicago Bulls

After an epic playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics I had figured the Bulls would maintain the momentum and take the next step this season.  That certainly hasn’t happened.  Amid constant rumors of his dismissal, Vinny Del Negro’s team needs to go 6-3 over their last nine games to match last year’s 41-41 record.  The game of Derrick Rose has improved but it’s possible that the loss of Ben Gordon had a bigger effect than expected.  I should say that the Bulls still could sneak into the playoffs.  They are currently one game out of the eight spot.

Philadelphia 76ers

This season has been a major disappointment for Philadelphia.  With a .500 record last year and a good showing against the Magic in the playoffs without Elton Brand one would guess a healthy Brand would lead to a solid season.  One would apparently be quite wrong.  The Sixers are just 26-47 and it appears their defense has let them down as they are allowing more 3.3 more points per game than they did last year.  They are also regretting giving Brand the big contract as he is averaging only 13.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

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So it’s been nearly 48 hours since the 2009-2010 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season ended.  I needed to give myself a cooling off period before writing my final words on the season.  Thursday night’s loss to Butler was incredibly frustrating…but before we go there, let’s give the boys their due. 

This season started with moderate hopes.  The Orange figured to be fighting for an NCAA tournament birth at the end of the season…an experience with which Syracuse University supporters are all to familiar.  But the season started and we quickly learned that this squad was much better than expected.  In sensational back-to-back evenings in mid-November the Orange dominated Cal and UNC to win the 2k Sports Classic.  We also discovered early that Wes Johnson was an incredible addition to the team.  The transfer’s athleticism, rebounding and shooting ability brought pure excitement.

Syracuse entered 2010 undefeated.  They would quickly lose though, during the second day of the new year at the Carrier Dome to Pittsburgh.  They would then regroup and win their next 11 games.  We watched Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson mature before our eyes.  All three became the players we could not have imagined they’d be.

This team was selfless and hard-working and having fun.  They ascended to a #1 ranking – the first time Syracuse had done so in 20 years.  What more could you ask for? 

Two late season losses and a first round exit (officially quarterfinals) from the Big East tournament cast doubt on this squad that had defied the odds.  As a result they were chosen as the fourth #1 seed in the NCAA tournament instead of the third #1 seed as expected.

But faith was restored on the first weekend of the Big Dance when the Orange safely eliminated Vermont in the first round and then blitzed Gonzaga in the second round even without the services of Arinze Onuaku.  The team we knew was back and so was Wes Johnson, apparently healed from the many injuries he had been battling.  He scored 31 points against the Bulldogs, pulled down 14 rebounds and dominated the beginning of the game.

Unfortunately it was not meant to be, as on Thursday night in Salt Lake City the Orange played their worst game of the year.  They looked like a bunch of nervous teenagers on the floor.  They threw the ball all over the place, they hurried shots and with the exception of a stretch in the second half they were not hustling on defense the way they had for most of the season.

Who’s to blame?  For me the answer is the coaching staff.  Here’s why:

1/ The players did not look ready to play in the first half.  It is the responsibility of the coaching staff to make sure that doesn’t happen.  All people are motivated by different things and the same is true for teams.  Whether it’s a “win one for the Gipper speech,” calm encouragement or individual pep talks, coaches need to know what their players respond to and certainly employ those tactics in the biggest games of the year.

2/ The players did not look prepared to play against Butler’s suffocating man-to-man defense.  They should have been completely prepped for that by the coaches.  There is no excuse for the players not being able to respond to Butler’s defense.  Syracuse plays in the Big East, they face teams that play that type of defense at least once a week if not twice a week during the regular season.

3/ The younger players do not receive enough in-game development.  Would it really hurt the team to go nine or ten deep and give some of the younger, depth players five minutes each a game?  With Arinze Onuaku going down this weakness was glaring.  DaShonte Riley was really not ready to play meaningful minutes.  He was just out there during the Gonzaga game and was pulled as soon as possible during the Butler game.  I love what Rick Jackson was able to do this year but let’s be honest, his play was awful against Butler.  He really hurt the team.  Kris Joseph was a ghost in that game.  In fact he wasn’t much better in the Gonzaga game.  He scored 11 points total in the last two games.  But was there really a single option to replace either of those guys?  No.  And why?  Because they were never developed.

Being that this is my last planned entry, I do want to thank the players that we will  no longer see wearing orange who made a sizable contribution while playing for Syracuse – Andy Rautins, Wes Johnson and Arinze Onuaku.  It was a pleasure to watch you gentlemen play.  And I also want to say that I am really looking forward to the offseason progress and watching the 2010-2011 team take the floor.

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So my NCAA Tournament bracket projections were not too stellar.  Two of my Final Four picks, Kansas and Villanova, let me down.  Plus I got a whole bunch of other games wrong.  Oh well, it’s time to move on…

On the eve of the Sweet Sixteen I’m taking a different approach to projecting the Final Four – I’m going to break it down by percentages.

West Region

Syracuse is definitely the favorite here.  I think Xavier and Kansas State are even at this point.  Xavier has been impressive in the tournament.

Syracuse 75%
Xavier 10%
Kansas State 10%
Butler 5%

East Region

I may be way off here but I think that Kentucky is going to struggle with Cornell.  The Big Red have been one of the most impressive teams in the NCAA Tournament so far.  With the loss of Truck Bryant West Virginia’s chances to advance have dropped greatly.

Kentucky 60%
Cornell 20%
West Virginia 10%
Washington 10%

Midwest Region

This region features the war of attrition.  Kansas is gone.  Georgetown is gone.  Kalin Lucas is gone.  The chips have fallen and Ohio State is left smiling.  I think the main reason Northern Iowa was able to beat Kansas is because of the two day turnaround after the first round.  They will not be able to sneak up on Michigan State.

Ohio State 65%
Tennessee 20%
Michigan State 10%
Northern Iowa 5%

South Region

This one is wide open.  Playing in Texas Baylor has a home-court advantage.  Duke seems to be hitting their stride when they need to be, although Jon Scheyer’s shooting issues are a concern.  Purdue has played much better than expected without Robbie Hummel and I think they have a good shot to beat Duke.  And, as Villanova learned, you can’t sleep on St. Mary’s.

Baylor 35%
Duke 35%
Purdue %20
St. Mary’s 10%

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The first weekend of the 2010 NCAA Tournament was not a pretty one for the Big East.  Based on seeding alone, the conference should have had five teams heading to the Sweet Sixteen.  But after some monumental collapses only two will be continuing play this week.  Syracuse and West Virginia both had a pair of excellent wins to advance in the big dance.  But before we get to the positives, let’s address the negatives, or as I like to call them – the six levels of disappointment:

Georgetown Hoyas – Unbelievably Disappointing

Wow…what can you say about this one.  Georgetown got run off the court by an Ohio team that was 7-9 in the Mid-American Conference.  After the first 10 minutes the game was essentially over.  Georgetown had the sixth best scoring defense in the Big East but gave up 97 points and allowed the Bobcats to shoot 58% from the floor.  As a 3 seed the Hoyas lost by more points to a 14 seed than any other 3 seed in history.  This was basically a complete no show.  But in hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised.  The Hoyas had a trio of bad losses during the regular season – at home against Old Dominion and South Florida, as well as at Rutgers. 

Villanova Wildcats – Incredibly Disappointing

Maybe it was the 2 seed that the committee saw fit to give the Wildcats that blinded us.  After starting the season 20-1 Villanova sputtered to a 4-5 regular season finish.  Then they lost to Marquette in the first round of the Big East tournament.  But Villanova is a tourney team and Jay Wright is a tourney coach so they earned back faith as more college basketball fans picked them to win the South region than any other team.  Those that did, myself included, had to sweat out a first round win over Robert Morris.  They would not be able to come back against St. Mary’s, as poor shooting (less than 37% FG in both NCAA tournament games) and the inability to stop St. Mary’s big man Omar Samhan doomed them.

Louisville Cardinals – Awfully Disappointing

It wasn’t the fact that Louisville lost to California that was a huge letdown, after all they were the 8 seed and Cal the 9 seed.  It was the way they lost.  They were down 12-0 immediately and never could recover.  They barely challenged the Golden Bears.  They shot horribly from three point range (26%) and Samardo Samuels was the only starter in double figures.  Hard to believe that this is the same team that beat Syracuse twice.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish – Wastefully Disappointing

Heading into the NCAA Tournament Notre Dame was going in the opposite direction of Villanova – they had strong positive momentum.  With their backs absolutely against the wall they rallied to win their last four regular season games and then two important Big East Tournament games.  They lost by only two in the Garden to West Virginia in the Big East semis.  But their luck ran out on the day after St. Patrick’s Day as a couple of last second attempts bounced out of the basket and they lost to Old Dominion 51-50.  Don’t cry for the Irish though – Luke Harangody was spotted in the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street after the game.

Marquette Golden Eagles – Marginally Disappointing

After losing to a much improved Washington Huskies squad on a shot with 1.7 seconds left the Golden Eagles have nothing to be ashamed of.  The athletically-gifted Huskies are exactly the type of team that Marquette had trouble with this year.  Not to mention that Washington did go on to dominate New Mexico.  Nonetheless the season did end on a disappointing note for a team that showed a lot of heart throughout.  Some times the matchup just doesn’t work out your way.

Pittsburgh Panthers – Mildly Disappointing

Sure Pitt was the higher seed against Xavier, but they gave an excellent effort two days after dominating Oakland.  In the last 10 minutes the Panthers continued to rally but every time they closed the lead down the Musketeers would answer.  When it came down to it Pittsburgh just could not make enough shots to win.

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As the year started to come to a close it seemed clear that there were three solid NCAA championship contenders – Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse.  That is still the case, but I think there are six other teams that are capable of winning the title – West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown, Ohio St., Kansas St. and Duke.  After you get past those nine teams I think almost anything could happen in the tournament.

Here are my 2010 NCAA Tournament predictions:

Midwest

First Round
#1 Kansas v. #16 Lehigh
#8 UNLV v. #9 Northern Iowa
#5 Michigan St. v. #12 New Mexico St.
#4 Maryland v. #13 Houston
#6 Tennessee v. #11 San Diego St.
#3 Georgetown v. #14 Ohio
#7 Oklahoma St. v. #10 Georgia Tech
#2 Ohio St. v. #15 UC Santa Barbara

Second Round
#1 Kansas v. #9 Northern Iowa
#4 Maryland v. #5 Michigan St.
#3 Georgetown v. #6 Tennessee
#2 Ohio St. v. #10 Georgia Tech

Sweet 16
#1 Kansas v. #5 Michigan St.
#2 Ohio St. v. #3 Georgetown

Regional Final
#1 Kansas v. #3 Georgetown

West

First Round
#1 Syracuse v. #16 Vermont
#8 Gonzaga v. #9 Florida St.
#5 Butler v. #12 UTEP
#4 Vanderbilt v. #13 Murray St.
#6 Xavier v. #11 Minnesota
#3 Pittsburgh v. #14 Oakland
#7 BYU v. #10 Florida
#2 Kansas St. v. #15 North Texas

Second Round
#1 Syracuse v. #8 Gonzaga
#4 Vanderbilt v. #12 UTEP
#3 Pittsburgh v. #11 Minnesota
#2 Kansas St. v. #7 BYU

Sweet 16
#1 Syracuse v. #12 UTEP
#3 Pittsburgh v. #2 Kansas St.

Regional Final
#1 Syracuse v. #2 Kansas St.

East

First Round
#1 Kentucky v. #16 East Tennessee St.
#8 Texas v. #9 Wake Forest
#5 Temple v. #12 Cornell
#4 Wisconsin v. #13 Wofford
#6 Marquette v. #11 Washington
#3 New Mexico v. #14 Montana
#7 Clemson v. #10 Missouri
#2 West Virginia v. #15 Morgan St.

Second Round
#1 Kentucky v. #8 Texas
#4 Wisconsin v. #12 Cornell
#3 New Mexico v. #6 Marquette
#2 West Virginia v. #10 Missouri

Sweet 16
#1 Kentucky v. #4 Wisconsin
#2 West Virginia v. #6 Marquette

Regional Final
#1 Kentucky v. #2 West Virginia

South

First Round
#1 Duke v. Play-In Winner
#8 California v. #9 Louisville
#5 Texas A&M v. #12 Utah St.
#4 Purdue v. #13 Siena
#6 Notre Dame v. #11 Old Dominion
#3 Baylor v. #14 Sam Houston St.
#7 Richmond v. #10 Saint Mary’s
#2 Villanova v. #15 Robert Morris

Second Round
#1 Duke v. #9 Louisville
#5 Texas A&M v. #13 Siena
#3 Baylor v. #6 Notre Dame
#2 Villanova v. #7 Richmond

Sweet 16
#1 Duke v. #5 Texas A&M
#2 Villanova v. #3 Baylor

Regional Final
#2 Villanova v. #5 Texas A&M

Final Four

So that leaves three one seeds and a two seed in the Final Four.  Also, while I didn’t pick a lot of upsets along the way there were a lot of early games I could have gone either way with, and will not be surprised if they go in the opposite direction.

Kansas v. Syracuse
Kentucky v. Villanova

I think the Jayhawks will find a way to beat the Orange zone by moving guys in and out of the free throw line and block areas, and then finding the open man.  They also have the big bodies down low to challenge Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson and force the Orange to rely on the outside shot.  Kentucky has a lot of talent and certainly speed, but against Villanova I think their big guys, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, will make the difference.

National Championship Game

Kansas v. Kentucky

I think the Wildcats will score the mild upset victory in this great battle and be the ones cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.  I think Coach John Calipari will be very determined to beat Kansas and Coach Bill Self in this game after losing to them a couple of years ago.  I like Kentucky’s quickness, of course with John Wall, and their ability to match the Kansas frontline.

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In the next few days I will post my full bracket prediction for the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Below are my quick reactions to the bracket unveiling by region.  Of course, I do reserve the right to change my mind.

Midwest Region

Early pick – Kansas
If not, then – Ohio State
Sleeper – Tennessee
Double digit seed that could cause trouble – Georgia Tech

West Region

Early pick – Syracuse
If not, then – Kansas State
Sleeper – Gonzaga
Double digit seed that could cause trouble – UTEP

East Region

Early pick – Kentucky
If not, then – West Virginia
Sleeper – Marquette
Double digit seed that could cause trouble – Cornell

South Region

Early pick – Villanova
If not, then – Baylor
Sleeper – Texas A&M
Double digit seed that could cause trouble – Siena

Who do you like to make the Final Four?  Add your comments below.

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