Saturday, March 22, 2008

March Madness Day Two

11:50 PM
Just when I thought I was finally going to get a session where my bracket went 4-0, Villanova has come on strong and actually taken the lead, down 18 earlier, with under 7:00 to play against Clemson. It's been clockwork that I've lost one game every session to this point, so hey, why not?

The SESB bracket, should Nova hold on, will go 24-8 in the first two rounds, but is in relatively good shape for the future - I've got 12 of 16 Sweet 16 teams left standing, and 7 of 8 Elite 8 squads, with everything intact beyond that. So we'll see where this goes.

Arkansas and Mississippi State did a good job of repairing the damage caused by Vanderbilt to the SEC tonight, and the conference goes 3-3 through the opening round (slightly misleading from other years, with Kentucky an 11 seed and Georgia a 14). I'll say this for Vanderbilt - I do feel bad for Shan Foster, who had one of those Peyton Manning against Nebraska moments, where all of a sudden your collegiate career is over and it ends in a terribly opposite way than you imagined. Foster couldn't heat up and Siena couldn't cool down, and thus Kevin Stallings might not be getting any of those lucrative job offers. But with two young coaches in the conference set to take on one seeds on Sunday, if either pulls the upset, schools like Indiana could come knocking on John Pelphrey or Rick Stansbury's door.

But that's getting way ahead of ourselves. Here's a look at what you'll see over the weekend:

Second Round - Saturday
2:10 - West - 2 Duke vs. 7 West Virginia
4:20 - Midwest - 3 Wisconsin vs. 11 Kansas State
4:40 - West - 3 Xavier vs. 6 Purdue
6:40 - East - 4 Washington State vs. 5 Notre Dame
6:45 - South - 3 Stanford vs. 6 Marquette
6:50 - Midwest - 1 Kansas vs. 8 UNLV
9:10 - South - 4 Pittsburgh vs. 5 Michigan State
9:15 - West - 1 UCLA vs. 9 Texas A&M

Second Round - Sunday
2:15 - South - 2 Texas vs. 7 Miami
2:30 - East - 2 Tennessee vs. 7 Butler
2:40 - West - 12 Western Kentucky vs. 13 San Diego
2:50 - Midwest - 2 Georgetown vs. 10 Davidson
4:45 - South - 1 Memphis vs. 8 Mississippi State
5:00 - East - 3 Louisville vs. 6 Oklahoma
5:10 - Midwest - 12 Villanova vs. 13 Siena
5:20 - East - 1 North Carolina vs. 9 Arkansas

Some random observations...

- High seeds that struggled and didn't look good but still won their opener - Duke, Tennessee, and to a small degree Xavier - will face much stronger tests this time around, and it'll be interesting to see if any or all of them will be able to respond and play better. I think all three will still advance to the Sweet 16 no matter how they look.

- How far can individual superstars carry their teams? Michael Beasley and Stephen Curry face monumental tasks, while Luke Harangody will face an excellent defense against Washington State. Michigan State will need Drew Neitzel's very best game to beat Pitt, who's probably the hottest team in the nation right now.

- Tim Brando tells me that Villanova's impending win over Clemson marks the first time in NCAA Tournament history that all four lower seeds at the same site on the same day won their games, and these weren't 9 over 8 style upsets: if you had tickets in Tampa today, you saw 12 WKU over 5 Drake, 13 San Diego over 4 UConn (both in overtime classics), 13 Siena over 4 Vanderbilt in a stunning wash, and 12 Villanova climb all the way back (and survive an incredibly stupid technical on Jay Wright with under 3:00 to play) to beat 5 Clemson. So Sunday, my pick of Western Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks a little stronger (though so does Kentucky's loss to San Diego), Villanova - who shuts up people like me who said they didn't belong in the field - might also have an easier road to the Sweet 16 against Siena. And while 'Nova wouldn't really be considered one, you're guaranteed at least one true Cinderella playing into the second weekend.

- If the Vols survive Butler, the North Carolina-Arkansas game should be very telling. I'm not saying the Hogs are gonna win, though they are capable of really competing with anyone because they're good inside and out, but the level of competition should be high and you'll get a better idea exactly how good North Carolina is.

- And you've already heard it here once, but I like Mississippi State over Memphis.

Finally, Bruce Pearl once again proved he isn't afraid to tell it like it is, saying in the postgame today that he didn't feel like he could win a championship with Ramar or Jordan (who my heart goes out to as a senior who may never see the floor again), so JP Prince gets the look at point guard.

So...a few hours of sleep, and we're back at it again at 2:10 tomorrow.

7:23 PM
We should just go ahead and retitle this post "Why You'd Better Fully Respect Butler".

For my money, seeding for the Vols is now out the window. It certainly didn't help a whole lot today anyway, but from now on, I think you're going to see as many as five straight contests where the two teams on the floor are evenly matched. It's gotta be championship level basketball, right now.

Last year, the good folks at the Preseason NIT set up the first and second rounds to produce an MSG Final Four of Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana and Gonzaga. One problem: Butler. The Bulldogs went to Indiana's region...

(...small break to give props to whoever's calling the Mississippi State-Oregon game for the "OOOOHHH, that's a MAN's jam!" call on the first bucket of the game, a Charles Rhodes throwdown)

...and beat Notre Dame and Indiana on consecutive nights to make their way to Madison Square Garden. They met the young Vols in the semis. I didn't see any of this game, but the final score - 56-44 Butler - tells much of the story. Then they beat Gonzaga to win the tournament, and would later make it to the Sweet 16 last March, and played the National Champion Gators closer than anyone else did last March before eventually losing 65-57.

You see a defensive theme in the scores, but what's also frightening is their ability to do what they did to South Alabama, a good team in a friendly Birmingham environment, who they busted 81-61. This team is experienced, deep, smart and good. And they're going to be a confident handful on Sunday.

When the brackets came out, I was both stunned and anxious about this matchup. Anxious because of what happened last year, where the Vols shot 25% from the field and turned the ball over 23 times, and Butler didn't even play that well offensively themselves, and simply carved up what we gave to them.

Stunned, because Butler's win today makes them 30-3 this year, and I didn't think there was any way they'd be seeded that low, especially the way they played in this thing last year and with so many returning players. They're #11 in the AP Poll. This year, Butler won the Great Alaska Shootout by beating Michigan, Virginia Tech and Texas Tech. They play really well in tournaments. They somehow convinced Ohio State to play them at home and then beat them by 19 - the Vols beat them by 3 in Knoxville. They also smoked Florida State in their non-conference schedule. Their losses - at Wright State and at Cleveland State in Horizon play, and then the stunner at home to The Drake on BracketBuster Saturday, which ended up unfairly killing them in the seedings (#11 in the AP Poll and #7 in the East Region, cause that makes sense) - are by a combined 12 points, and again, there's only three of them.

The Bulldogs hit 15 threes today. Pete Campbell was 8 for 10. Yikes. AJ Graves had another 18 points and generally runs the show. And all of these guys have been down this road before.

When you look at the postgame AP release from today's game with South Alabama, you can see lots of things jump out at you to further this frightening argument - that Butler is and has been for years the best mid-major program in the country, as Drake and Gonzaga are now one and done and Butler plays on. That Butler coach Brad Stevens - all 31 years of him - says all the right things, like "We'll have to be at our very best on Sunday to compete" in reference to the Vols. And that the Vols are, as the AP story says, "seemingly vulnerable".

For the Vols, Bruce Pearl in the postgame press conference said he was trying to get better point guard play and went with Jordan, who struggled, and then JP a lot, but felt like due to Jordan's struggles he needed to go back to Ramar in the second half. Brian Williams, he points out, had zero points and five fouls against Arkansas, so Ryan Childress got another look in the first half. I'm okay with both of those answers and I trust Pearl, and the Vols still played well enough to win.

But understand this - the B+ game on Sunday gets us beat. Tennesee is good enough to go the distance, but from this point on, they're not so much better than anyone they'll face - including and especially Butler - to beat anyone with talent alone. The Vols are deep and they need quality from all that depth - off days from one or more guys could kill us. If you still feel like you haven't seen Tennessee's best basketball so far this year, you'd better see it Sunday. Butler is for real. We're about to find out if the Vols are too.

3:47 PM
At one point during the opening session of games, Tennessee, Miami, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky were all up 10 points, and I was thinking about having my first 4-0 session of the tournament, and hanging onto three of my Elite 8 teams, two of them the dangerous outsiders in Gonzaga and WKU.

The Vols ended up winning in a game that was closer than the score, The U held on. Then Gonzaga gave up 30 points in the second half to sophomore Stephen Curry and Davidson took it away.

And Western - up 16 at one point in the second half - almost gave it away to The Drake, and ended up playing one of the best March Madness games we've seen in a long time.

BUT - and this should be noted - this game never should've gone to overtime, or at least Drake should've never had the last possession with a chance to win in regulation. With WKU with the ball in a tie game playing for the last shot, the baseline official blatantly ignored a Drake player grabbing a jersey, then made a four-letter word call on a charge that was beyond absurd. All is forgiven, because we got overtime and a sensational ending, with WKU draining a 35 footer to win 101-99 that you're sure to see about a million times in the next 48 hours (and rightfully so).

So, as Butler and South Alabama are ripping down the nets early, let's talk about the Vols. It seems to be mysterious about Ramar Smith and Brian Williams getting no playing time in the first half and Ryan Childress and Josh Tabb getting the extended minutes - and playing JP Prince at point does put our best five on the floor, but it's the chemistry therein that you just haven't seen together before, so hopefully they'll have that together before Sunday afternoon, as Butler looks about as good as everyone thought they would right now.

Credit American for being all those things that 15 seeds can be in a positive way, but credit the Vols for not showing any panic and simply getting it done to pull away and win. We're a little more uncomfortable than we were after the Long Beach State game last year, but that's one down and only 32 teams left come midnight. More thoughts here later today and after we figure out if it is, in fact, going to be the Butler rematch tomorrow.

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