Friday, March 16, 2012

Day One Thoughts

Long day. Caught all the action, and at least a minute or two of every game. Let's go region-by-region, starting with the big story/non-story of the day: the Historical 16/1 Upset That Kinda Sorta Almost Was.

Here's the background. Sixteenth-seed UNC-Asheville led top-seeded Syracuse for most of the first half and a chunk of the second, despite the fact that their best player, Matt Dickey, was struggling through an afternoon that ultimately saw him shoot 1-for-13. But Syracuse came back, the way top seeds inevitably do in these games, and up 3 with 1:20 to go, sent Scoop Jardine to the line for a one-and-one. Jardine missed the front end, but a Bulldog player was whistled for a lane violation -- specifically, for coming across the foul line from the outside before the ball hits the rim. This is a rule that apparently no one who covers basketball for a living knows about, as no one on the broadcast or in the studio defended the officials on the call. (Incredibly, as of this writing, the AP story on misstates the rule as well, saying the Bulldog player was early because he came in before Jardine released the ball.)Given a reprieve, Jardine hit both free throws.

Then, with 25 seconds left and the Orange again up by three, an inbounds pass in the backcourt deflected off Jardine's hands a split-second before an Ashevilleplayer crashed into him. The officials gave the ball to Syracuse, Triche hit a couple free throws and Syracuse hung on.

The call was an obvious error; the play was either a foul on Asheville or out-of-bounds off of Syracuse. And the contact was substantial -- there'd be no hand-wringing if the officials had called the foul. So while this play is the kind of thing the responsible refs should be reprimanded for, it was not the kind of mistake that cost Asheville the game.

The discussion of the officiating and all the publicity surrounding the absence of Fab Melo is masking the real takeaway from the game: Syracuse is having a tough time scoring, going back several games now. Keep the Orange out of transition and lock them up in a 2-3 zone, and they fall in love with the three-pointer, where they aren't that effective (they have several guys who can hit the deep shot, but no one you'd really consider a weapon from behind the arc). SU coach Jim Boeheim said after the game that his team's struggles had nothing to do with the center position, and he's right. In fact, if not for Syracuse's 15 offensive rebounds, they might actually have lost.

Syracuse will have to sort itself out before the game against Kansas State on Saturday. The Wildcats squeeze by Southern Mississippi behind 30 points from Rodney McGruder. Syracuse's own 2-3 zone should slow down Kansas State's initial offense -- the Wildcats rely on penetration from McGruder and Angel Rodriguez, and they don't shoot the three that well -- but they may really miss Melo, as K-State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Most importantly, though, the Orange will have to figure out how to generate offense against a defense that has performed pretty well against some good offensive teams in the Big 12.

In other East action, Wisconsin got off to a torrid start against Montana and never cooled off, rolling to a 73-49 victory. After a Big Ten season that was painful offensively at times, the Badgers have had a couple recent games where they've really found their touch from the three-point line (they were 10 of 19 from deep against Montana). Wisconsin will play Vanderbilt, who shook off early jitters to take down Harvard, snapping a string of three consecutive first-round exits starting in 2008 (they missed the tournament in 2009). Expect the Commodores to play more confidently now that they have a win under their belts.

In the bottom half of the region, Ohio State rolled over Loyola (Md.) and Gonzaga made quick work of West Virginia.


The only two upsets of the first day occurred in the South. #12 VCU, one of last year's tournament darlings, got the party rolling in the first game of the evening session by hanging on to beat Wichita State. The Rams were leading very comfortably until the Shockers ratcheted up the defensive pressure as a last resort. There's a saying in basketball that "teams that press don't like to be pressed," and while I kind of hate that saying because there doesn't seem to be a logical explanation for it and the better saying is probably "no one likes to be pressed," it rang true once again. Wichita State actually took a late lead during an exchange of big shots from both teams, but squandered some late opportunities (Garrett Stutz missed a couple of bunnies and there were some bad turnovers) and took a disappointing end to their season.

VCU will face Indiana in the second round, which handled New Mexico State a bit more comfortably than many expected. The Hoosiers shot 59 percent for the game, which they'll never achieve against VCU.

#11 Colorado pulled the other upset of the day, squandering all but two points of a 20-point lead against UNLV before hanging on. The Buffaloes shot out to that lead by getting red-hot from deep early in the second half, but as they did multiple times in the Pac-12 tournament, went on an extended field goal drought -- almost seven minutes this time. They committed turnover after turnover against the Rebels' pressure D, and missed shot after shot. Fortunately for Colorado, UNLV got cold again, and they made enough stops -- and enough free throws -- down the stretch to prevail.

This formula of playing exceptionally for stretches and terribly for others, coming together just in the nick of time, may have worked against a mediocre Pac-12 tournament field, and it may have survived over a Vegas team that fell in love with the three-pointer early, but it's not going to work as the competition gets better. Baylor, CU's next opponent, is a good offensive team, scoring 68 points against South Dakota State despite getting only two points from Perry Jones III (the talented sophomore did have 11 rebounds, so he wasn't a total no-show). The Bears, who got off to slow starts in both halves against the Jackrabbits, have multiple weapons inside and out. I think Colorado has a decent shot to win this game, but they absolutely must avoid the long cold stretches they've had in several recent games. (This game takes on an added level of intensity because these teams are old conference foes; this is Colorado's first year out of the Big 12).

In other South action, Kentucky handled Western Kentucky easily and Iowa State took advantage of an uninspired beginning from Connecticut to knock the defending national champs out of the field. This means that the much-anticipated matchup between UK's Anthony Davis and UConn's Andre Drummond won't materialize, but ISU's versatile Royce White may be more Davis' equal. To beat the Wildcats, the Cyclones will need great games not only from White but from Michigan State transfer Chris Allen and Marquette transfer Scott Christopherson, each of whom hit three three-pointers against the Huskies.


The biggest disappoint of my day was that Long Beach State faltered late and lost to New Mexico. I've been predicting that the 49ers would have a successful tournament run since the season's very first game, and as I said in my preview post I really thought the bracket opened up for them for a trip to the Sweet 16. But the Beach isn't deep, and while Larry Anderson tried to play through the sprained knee that caused his to miss the Big West tournament, he couldn't really go. Freshman Mike Caffey stepped in and made a couple big plays, but he made some mistakes, too, and Anderson's absence was noticeable. Long Beach might've won, anyway, if not for an uncharacteristically cold shooting game from Casper Ware, who left jumpers short all game and just never found his rhythm.

The Lobos were led by Drew Gordon, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds against Long Beach's undersized front line. Sophomore Kendall Williams struck the biggest blow, however, sticking an NBA three-pointer following a late timeout after LBSU had taken a one-point lead on the previous possession. Freshman Hugh Greenwood, an Aussie, played a strong floor game and made big free throws down the stretch.

My sense, though, is that New Mexico is going to need a stronger effort to beat Louisville. The Big East champs knocked off Davidson despite foul trouble to Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva for two reasons: 1) the Wildcats could not keep Siva and the other Cardinal guards out of the lane, and 2) Louisville's halfcourt defense forced turnovers and difficult shots. Dan Bonner, the color analyst on the game, noted that Davidson had to work hard not only to get shots, but to even get into position to run its offense. New Mexico had trouble with the odd man-fronted zone that LBSU threw at it for stretches, and Gordon won't be able to lord over the paint against Dieng and Chane Behanan the way he did against Eugene Phelps and Edis Dervisevic. It's hard to see where New Mexico will get the offense to beat Louisville.

The day kicked off with Murray State's 58-41 win over Colorado State. The Racers blew open a game that was close at halftime with some outstanding pressure defense, forcing the Rams into 21 turnovers and holding them to just 33 percent shooting from the floor. Next up for Murray State is Marquette. I didn't see too much of the Golden Eagles' pounding of BYU, and I still really haven't seen them this year, but I saw enough of Murray State to know that the Racers have a real shot at making the Sweet 16.

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