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When the NCAA first announced that they would be expanding their basketball tournament to 68 teams, many people, college coaches excluded, let out a big sigh of relief.  After much talk that the NCAA was looking to expand to 96, a smaller jump to 68 was much easier to digest.

However, their announcement Monday about the format change that will accompany the expansion left me disappointed for a number of reasons:

  1. Play-in games should feature at large teams.  Small conference tournament winners continue to get penalized as now four of them will be playing in the “first round” games.  These are teams that have earned their way into the big dance by winning their conference tournament; they should be included in the main field.
  2. A lost opportunity for excitement.  I was not in favor of any type of expansion.  Let’s be honest, none of the bubble teams that missed the tournament were threats to cut down the nets.  But, once the decision to expand was made, the NCAA should have proceeded in a way that would draw maximum interest and attention.  The way to do that would have been to match up the last eight at large teams in the field.  They could then schedule back-to-back evening doubleheaders on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights before the real first round starts Thursday.  This would really drive the excitement and buzz around the tournament expansion.
  3. As expected the committee gave in to big conference interest.  I’m sure the big six conferences were pushing hard to avoid the format I mentioned in #2 in order to preserve their standing and participation in the tournament.  But I see that as being shortsighted.  Ultimately that scenario would have increased the interest in the schools that were participating, especially if one made a run into the sweet sixteen.  I also think that format would maximize the revenue from the expansion.

I will be real curious to see who the selection committee chooses as the last four at large teams.  Will they slide mid-major teams into these seeds and force them to play each other?  Will they choose schools from the big six conferences to maximize the interest?  Or will they be equitable, without an agenda?

What do you think?  Did the NCAA get the new 68 team format right?

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It’s always fun to look back on predictions and see how they compared to the final results…especially if you were not the one that made the predictions.  I did not put any preseason college basketball predictions in print so instead of looking back at my predictions I will look at the predictions of the Sports Illustrated team.  First, I’ll give credit where it’s due:

Hit the Bullseye

  1. Kansas – SI picked the Jayhawks at #1 and although they did not achieve their ultimate goal they did have a wonderful season that was worthy of the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
  2. Michigan St. – Chosen by SI at #2 the Spartans rallied from a challenging season to make the Final Four and had a solid chance to beat Butler.
  3. Kentucky – Maybe dead on, SI picked the Wildcats in the #5 slot. 
  4. Washington – While the Huskies did not have the best regular season, they made a nice mini-run to get to the Sweet Sixteen.  SI picked them at #9.

Hit Below the Bullseye

  1. Butler – SI wasn’t way off on this one – they picked Butler at #14.  Doubtful that anybody would have picked the Bulldogs at #2.  Although they should be picking them there for next season.
  2. Syracuse – The #1 seed and Big East regular season champions were picked at #35 by SI before the season.
  3. Kansas St. – Right below the Orange SI picked the Wildcats at #36.  Kansas St. played their way to a #2 seed in the big dance.
  4. Baylor – The Bears’ excellent season was a surprise to many, including the writers of SI who did not pick them to make the tournament in their college basketball preview.

Overthrew the Target

  1. Texas – Picked #4 by SI the Longhorns were never able to pull all their talent together in a way that resulted in a lot of wins.
  2. North Carolina – Many were surprised by the poor performance of the Tar Heels this season.  SI picked them at #7.
  3. Connecticut – The Huskies played like a group of individuals instead of a team throughout most of the season.  They did not live up to expectations, including those of SI who picked them at #10.
  4. Michigan – I personally expected a lot out of this team coming into the season and so did SI who picked them at #15. 

The team that most outperformed my expectations was Pittsburgh.  I did not expect anything from them but they really had an excellent season built on the foundation of high effort and defense that they’ve been exhibiting for quite some time.  Michigan is the program that most underachieved when compared to my expectations.  With the return of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims along with the three other starters from the previous season I thought the Wolverines would be really good – they certainly were not.

What teams surprised you most, both positively and negatively?

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Butler’s run to a near NCAA championship raised a lot of eyebrows.  Duke cutting down the nets should have raised just as many.  The 2010 NCAA tournament was crazy.  The sure things – Kansas and Kentucky – did not make it to the Final Four.  High 2 and 3 seeds – Villanova, Georgetown, New Mexico and Pittsburgh – missed out on the Sweet Sixteen.  Two 5 seeds made it to the Final Four.

Get used to this craziness because in my opinion it is going to continue.  The college basketball world is much different now than it was even five years ago.  What has changed?

  1. The One and Done Rule – When the NBA changed their rules to say that a potential draftee had to wait a year after his high school class graduated before entering the draft it changed college basketball in a big way.  Now the 5-10 players who would have entered the draft are going to play for a college team for one year.  Notice I didn’t say “go to college.”  As a result the talent factories, like Kentucky now is, will continue to add top talent but will have very little continuity and even less upper class leadership.  The programs with the most talent will have little experience and the programs with the most experience will have less talent.  This factor levels the playing field.  Duke is by no means the most talented team in the country.  But they had three senior leaders playing huge minutes.  That is why they persevered while the big boys fell and were the ones standing on the ladder when all was said and done.
  2.  

  3. Televison Exposure – This has been happening for a while but has exploded even more in the past few years.  ESPNU, ESPN3 (formerly 360), CBS College Sports, Fox Sports, Versus and probably even more cable channels are carrying college basketball in addition to ESPN and ESPN2.  Almost every Division 1 program gets a good amount of TV time.  No longer does a top recruit have to go to a major program and sit behind an upperclassman for a year or two before getting quality playing time.  They can go to a quality mid-major program, get immediate playing time and have a chance at earlier stardom. 
  4.  

  5. Coaching – In college basketball the coaches are really the stars.  The players come and go but it’s really the head coach that represents the program.  I believe that the innovation in college basketball coaching is starting to match that of college football.  In the past the head coach would implement their offensive and defensive systems and leave the players to run both.  A new generation of head coaches is taking a different approach.  They are analyzing the matchups and planning accordingly.  I read that Butler coach Brad Stevens has a ridiculous number of plays in the playbook.  This group of coaches is also very smart about recruiting.  They are finding the best fits for their system and going after those players.

So prepare for more unpredictability in the NCAA tournament.  Of course, once the NCAA officially makes the big money grab and expands to 96 teams everything will change again.

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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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