Saturday, March 29, 2008
WWE WrestleMania XXIV
Sunday, March 30 - Orlando - 7:00 PM (EST)
24 Man Battle Royal
(Winner receives an ECW title shot later that night)
Elijah Burke - Lance Cade - Trevor Murdoch - Hacksaw Jim Duggan
Hardcore Holly - Cody Rhodes - Mark Henry - Tommy Dreamer
Snitsky - Brian Kendrick - Deuce - Domino
Val Venis - Chuck Palumbo - The Great Khali - Kane
Jesse - Festus - Jamie Noble - Shannon Moore
Jimmy Wang Yang - The Miz - Matt Striker - Kofi Kingston
Alright, you've got a lot of dead space here, with only about half of these guys being legitimate shots to win here. If you put Hacksaw in the thing, he's going to be the fan favorite. There are some once and future main eventers - Kane and Khali - in this thing as well, but you have to wonder if it's the best move to put the ECW belt on them so as to make them a more full time part of what seems to be a dying program on Tuesday nights. You've also got to consider who can turn around and go with Chavo later that night. If it were up to me, I'd love to see old school Tommy Dreamer get the win and go onto victory later...but I think the best bet, and the course WWE will take, is to take someone mammoth and put the belt on them, and then spend months playing everyone else on the roster against them.
Will's Pick: The Great Khali
Chavo Guerrero vs. Battle Royal Winner
Chavo's held the belt for a little while now, but you probably don't go to all the trouble of a battle royal to then let him win again, and fresh blood may help. Chavo's proven and capable on the midcard level, which is probably about what ECW main event is in the grand scheme of things, but again - if it's Khali or otherwise - I'll take the battle royal winner here.
Will's Pick: Battle Royal winner
Women's Tag Team Diva Lumberjack Match
Ashley & Maria vs. Beth Phoenix & Melina
(Special Guest: Snoop Dogg)
The "let's get as many women as we can in one place" match - a lumberjack match, for the unfamiliar, involves the ring being surrounded by, in this case, all the women on the roster. In the ring, you've got the faces and the heels - shockingly, both the faces have been in Playboy - but my quick point would be this: you don't need them to win this match to make people buy more copies of Playboy. Beth Phoenix is the only real female athletic talent they've got, so they should sell her. Fo' shizzle.
Will's Pick: Beth Phoenix & Melina
No Disqualification Belfast Brawl
JBL vs. Finlay
Here's a "this is the best we can do with this angle after six months" match - Vince McMahon - who will make his WrestleMania appearance here, I'm sure - and his illegitimate son the midget Hornswoggle, which is probably the strangest line in the history of this blog - who turned out to be the son of Finlay, who's now facing JBL in a no DQ Irish flavor match. Right. Finlay is like 50 years old himself, and the crowd will be behind him, but JBL should absolutely get the win here to he can continue to be a top level heel. As quickly as possible.
Will's Pick: JBL
Money in the Bank Ladder Match
(Winner receives a world title contract)
Carlito - Chris Jericho - CM Punk
John Morrison - Mr. Kennedy - MVP - Shelton Benjamin
There are less stars in this thing than last year, but that doesn't mean it won't be a better match. Jeff Hardy's substance abuse suspension does take a little bit of the edge off, but what you've got here is Chris Jericho and six guys who could use a push. Don't just assume that Y2J is going to win here just because he's the only name you've heard of. Last year, they took Edge and Jeff Hardy out of this thing early with a swanton bomb off a 15 foot high ladder onto Edge below in an especially violent spot. Jericho, who is highly innovative and right behind Shawn Michaels in the creativity and big money big match guarantee line, is already promising something new. And the other six guys will put themselves on the line, because this match can make you a star. So while I love Jericho and wouldn't mind at all to see him win, Jericho can get a title shot by being Jericho; these other guys need this. Kennedy actually won this thing last year before getting hurt two weeks later, so he's an option. CM Punk will be a fan favorite option, but they may want to keep him in ECW. My money's on them having Kennedy steal a win again, and then just continuing his push from 365 days ago. Should be highly entertaining.
Will's Pick: Mr. Kennedy
Raw vs. Smackdown
Umaga vs. Batista
Not that this isn't an interesting matchup, but how is this the best you can come up with for Batista, who's arguably your second biggest draw? You could make a solid argument for John Cena vs. Batista as the main event for the epic WrestleMania 25 next year, but this time around, the best we can do is "let's take one guy from Raw and one guy from SmackDown and put them together"? However, this is an excellent opportunity to push Umaga. He's been hovering at or below the main event for six months - now's the time. Beating Batista at WrestleMania could cement him as a major player that the WWE could really use. They could move him to SmackDown and have him feud with Batista to continue this if it's a good match. If Batista wins it's just another win. If Umaga wins, it's a huge push. Use the push.
Will's Pick: Umaga
Big Show vs. Floyd Mayweather
What they're going to do here, no one's really sure. It's wrestling, so it's obviously going to be scripted - though credit Big Show for letting Mayweather jack him right in the nose a month ago - but no matter how in shape he is, a 160 pound Mayweather is in serious jeopardy of getting hurt against a 450 pound Big Show if even the slightest thing goes wrong. WWE really screwed this angle up, and honestly I don't know why - if you follow boxing at all, you know that nobody like Mayweather, he's always the "heel". And being that WWE fans hadn't seen Big Show in around 18 months when he came back, of course they're going to cheer him. After about two weeks of them trying to play Big Show as the heel, they just gave up (original plans put superface Rey Mysterio in Floyd's corner, which also wouldn't have worked). So the crowd in Orlando should be decidedly pro-Show...which means that when Mayweather wins, and you don't show up for something like this if you're Mayweather unless you get to win, people will be unhappy. This is a case of good publicity for a bad result. Or maybe Show will just get pissed and rip Floyd's arms off.
Will's Pick: Floyd Mayweather
Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels
The real main event, if you will. The stipulation here is that Flair, who's 59 years young, has to retire the next time he loses, an angle they've been running since back in the fall and building momentum for this match by having him beat, along the way, Randy Orton, Triple H, Vince McMahon and a bunch of lesser foes. It's put Flair back in the saddle one more time, and now if you're looking for the perfect way to go out, there's no better place than WrestleMania, and there's no better opponent than Shawn Michaels. HBK's no spring chicken himself at 42, but there's still absolutely no one in this business who's better in big matches than Michaels. He won't have to fully carry Flair, but he'll certainly help along the way. This match could go 45 minutes and I wouldn't be stunned (HBK went 35 with John Cena in the main event last year). Now, Flair could still win and then retire the next night on Raw, that's out there. But in this business, you lose your last hurrah. Steve Austin lost to The Rock at WrestleMania XIX, Mick Foley has lost more retirement matches than I can remember, you get the idea. So being that Flair's business, I'm thinking Shawn gets the pinfall. They also screwed this up by deciding to have HBK play the icon vs. icon role for four weeks, the "Nature Boy vs. Showstopper" thing, which was fine...only to have him turn to the Old Yeller "I'm going to put you out of your misery" bit last week. I think maybe they're worried about the fans, who've been for both guys thus far, turning on Shawn at the beginning of the match spontaneously - but hey, Shawn's a big boy, he could've handled that. So instead of letting two of the greatest, if not the greatest mic-workers in the history of wrestling rip each other apart, they waited until the last week and then did it really quick. Still, you can't take much away from this match or either man's career. If Flair's gonna go, this is the way home.
Will's Pick: Shawn Michaels
World Heavyweight Championship
Edge vs. The Undertaker
Always more relevant at this time of year than any other, Undertaker is 15-0 at WrestleMania. Edge, lesser known fact, is also undefeated at 'Mania, if you don't count him not winning the Money in the Bank match last year. Edge is the champion and the heel, and a good one on both counts...but you just don't beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania, and if you do, it takes someone still a little bit bigger than Edge to finally do it, who I personally love but is still like a B+ level guy in the eyes of the majority. Taker and Batista put on a much better show than what I was expecting last year, and Edge can work, so this should be good as well. But at this point, it's just chalk, and even if they tried to swerve everyone by having Edge win, you'd be left feeling like he didn't deserve it when it was over.
Will's Pick: The Undertaker
WWE Championship - Triple Threat Match
Randy Orton vs. John Cena vs. Triple H
The thing about this match, which I have gotten more excited in the passing weeks, is that it's really going to be unfair to the two guys who don't win. For John Cena, my personal dislike of him aside, WWE built him as this determined, unbeatable champ - he won the belt back in September 2006, and then held it for more than a year, the longest WWE title run in almost 20 years - before he tore his pec and had to drop the belt to Randy Orton. Then, Orton received the (well deserved) push of pushes, getting Cena's belt in September 2007 and beating, since then, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Jeff Hardy. That's how you give someone like Orton real credibility and establish him as one of your top dollar superstars, and a solid heel. So when Cena makes a surprise return at the Royal Rumble and wins, they have Cena and Orton rematch at No Way Out in February, which ends in a DQ to no one's surprise. They could've had Orton vs. Cena rematch with some added gimmick at WrestleMania, and that would've been fine. The problem is, now you've added Triple H, who's over more with the fans than either of those two guys, and now he's the one everyone wants to see win. You've got Orton's current credibility, Cena's built-up credibilty and the fact that he hasn't been pinned since the Fall of 2006 (except by Shawn Michaels in a non-title WrestleMania rematch last April), and the fact that at WrestleMania, the fans are supposed to go home happy, which means Triple H should win. Tough call. If this was any other night but WrestleMania, I'd have Orton win this match straight up. It just makes him even more respectable and pushes that "Legend Killer" persona hard. If Triple H wins, he needs to pin Orton and not Cena, so they can then still use Cena's "I never lost the belt/I haven't been pinned" angle and build Triple H vs. John Cena for down the line (or next month, as Backlash has become the company's third biggest PPV it seems). If Cena wins, a lot of people are going to be unhappy, though some still love him, and it just seems to throw away what Orton's done. So...I'll take Triple H to win, but to do so in a fashion that builds either Triple H vs. Cena, or lets Triple H go face Umaga or the Money in the Bank winner while Cena and Orton face off again next month to finally settle their score, which needs to be done. The enduring image from WrestleMania XXIV needs to be Triple H holding that belt. They just need to do it in a way that builds for the future as well, because the road to WrestleMania XXV starts Monday night.
Will's Pick: Triple H
Friday, March 28, 2008
Is this a trend or a coincidence?
Started: 20-4 (.833), ranked #10 on Feb. 20
Signature win: at #12 Florida, 76-72 on Feb. 22
Finished: 2-4 (.333), lost in SEC quarterfinals, NCAA second round
Started: 21-9 (.700), ranked #22 on Mar. 5
Signature win: vs. #5 Florida, 86-76 on Feb. 27
Finished: 3-2 (.600), lost in SEC first round, NCAA Sweet 16
Started: 25-2 (.925), ranked #1 on Feb. 25
Signature win: at #1 Memphis, 66-62 on Feb. 23
Finished: 6-3 (.667), lost in SEC semifinals, NCAA Sweet 16
Obviously, if you don't win the National Championship, your season ends with a loss. And these numbers aren't rock solid - you could argue that despite the ugly loss to LSU in the 2007 SEC Tournament, the '07 Vols did play their best basketball at the end of the season, if you count the first half of the Ohio State game.
But in each of the last three seasons, the Vols have gotten their biggest win of the season in the last week of February, and then never been quite able to return to that level.
Is there a relationship between football fans and basketball fans?
When I read some of the user comments on the News-Sentinel's govols.com site, and read things like "go back to Division III" in regards to Pearl, I think that Bruce has, for the first time, crossed that line with the legions of the miserable that Fulmer's been living on for six or seven years. The bar was set so high so quickly and so unexpectedly, now when the Vols don't meet it, the same fans who can't enjoy an SEC Eastern Division title in football seem to use the same spoiled mentality in basketball. And I'm too tired this morning to talk more about how sad that is, or how I want to punch those guys right in the face and hope they never tell anyone they're a UT fan.
The beauty and the curse of March is that everyone has a chance, and 63 other teams are going home empty handed. So while you know the Vols won't be as talented next year, you also know that if they can get back to the Dance, they've at least got a shot. And all I'll say about seeding is that good grief, it can't be as hard as it was this year. But Pearl has given us a chance. And now the Vols, next year and beyond, have to capitalize on it.
It's a bitter pill for Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell, an especially bitter one. You come to Tennessee not expecting to do the things you end up doing, but then the expectations get raised so high so fast that you fail to meet them in your senior year, and now the whole thing probably leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That'll fade, and their legacy will ultimately be, we hope, as the guys who got it started, the guys who turned it around.
And we'll miss them. Assuming that Bruce Pearl doesn't bolt for Indiana, now his real test begins. The Vols, unlike the previous three seasons, will not be as talented next year as they were this year. You're losing two of the best shooters in school history and replacing them with absolutely no one - we've got no shooters on the roster. The Vols will still be talented, especially slashing and on the inside. But now he'll get a taste of what it's like to be Phillip Fulmer - you raised the bar, now we hope you'll enjoy trying to leap it every single season.
If the Sweet 16 is our wall, the program must be built higher to cross it. That comes from recruiting and continuing the process, and only works by keeping Pearl around and being in for the long haul. No one's talking about being terrible next year. But we've had a year since the Ohio State game, where the only thought that made it better was that we'd get it done next year, we'd survive and advance further. And a year later, we find ourselves in the same place with a future that isn't as bright this time around.
A suggestion: buy something that says 2008 SEC Champions on it. Don't throw away the greatness of the whole season with a loss in the Sweet 16. This hurts. Louisville beat us with poise and grit, and when we got in foul trouble and weren't hitting threes, we didn't respond in kind. Instead of playing our best, when we could never get the lead in the second half and lean on them instead of the other way around, we played out of control and paniced - a new version of what happened against UNC late in 2000.
But don't forget this team. Don't bury them for losing in the Sweet 16. The fact that we're disappointed and no longer playing with house money this deep in the tournament is a great sign - but the pain comes with it. But, among the many other feats of this team, the outright SEC Championship cements their place. It's rings. It's a championship. It's an accomplishment not to be taken for granted nor forgotten.
The legacy of this team, in part, will be determined by where it goes from here. Lofton and friends can continue to be the example of the Vols at their very best...or we can recruit well and continue to build the program - and that's a slow burn, friends, especially when you lose what we're losing - and this three year run is the beginning of something, not the pinnacle. We'll see what happens.
For now...congrats to Louisville. Don't talk about seeding or officiating. Thank God...thank God for the Celtics if you're me. But either way...when you invest yourself in a team that rewards you by being good enough to be ranked #1 and to honestly think about the Final Four, it burns you to be left in the same place you were before. But savor the journey, that hopefully isn't over. Tennessee will always be the 2008 SEC Champions. I'm telling you, buy something. Remember.
154 days until football season.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
(I will say that I'm glad to see and hear Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas, the latter being one of my favorite and, for my money, most intelligent analysts in college basketball. He's also frozen in Tennessee lore for breaking the usual cold neutrality of analysts during the December 2006 Tennessee-Texas game when Chris Lofton hit that shot over Kevin Durant, which caused him to let out the same "OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!" that I did when it happened. Good stuff.)
But among the many, many wanderings of my mind as its related to tonight's Tennessee-Louisville showdown, this one to me is the most intriguing and the most irrelevant - but hey, we've got two hours to kill, so here we go:
Who would win a game between the 2008 Vols and Jerry Green's 2000 Vols, who also made the Sweet 16?
I think that it's indisputable that a win tonight would be the biggest in program history, as it would put the Vols in the Elite 8 for the first time ever. However, this is our third try this decade to accomplish that feat, meaning that this is really the third time we could use that "biggest game in program history" label (and if you disagree and want to talk about Memphis or a regular season SEC game with Kentucky or Florida, let's just call it the most important game in program history and move on). So while a win tonight, combined with the outright SEC Championship - something the 2000 Vols shared with three other teams - would cement these Vols as the best team in program history, it's a very interesting experiment to line the two squads up against each other and, theoretically, see who would win:
2008 Vols (Head Coach: Bruce Pearl)
(currently 31-4, 14-2 SEC, outright SEC Champions, #2 seed)
PG Ramar Smith
SG Chris Lofton
SF JaJuan Smith
PF Tyler Smith
C Wayne Chism
G Jordan Howell
G Josh Tabb
F JP Prince
F Duke Crews
F Ryan Childress
F Steven Pearl
C Brian Williams
2000 Vols (Head Coach: Jerry Green)
(26-7, 12-4 SEC, SEC Champions (shared), #4 seed)
PG Tony Harris
SG Jon Higgins
SF Vincent Yarbrough
PF Isaiah Victor
C CJ Black
G Jenis Grindstaff
G Harris Walker
G Terrence Woods
G Del Baker
F Vegas Davis
F Marcus Haislip
F Ron Slay
C Charles Hathaway
Harder than you thought, isn't it?
Let's remember and not confuse the 2000 Vols with the 2001 Vols, who flamed out after a hot start and ultimately ended Jerry Green's career. The 2000 Vols made the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.
The similarities are actually very striking. Both teams got blown out in one non-conference game, the finals of a preseason tournament (this year against Texas in New Jersey by 19, in 2000 against Tulsa in Puerto Rico by 20). Both teams lost at Kentucky and at Vanderbilt (in both years where Vanderbilt was really good, who also beat the Vols in Knoxville in stunning fashion in 2000 - Dan Langhi, anyone?) The 2000 Vols also lost at Alabama, and flamed out on Friday in the SEC Tournament (in Atlanta) against South Carolina.
The 2000 Vols finished the regular season ranked #11 in the AP poll - #6 before the SEC Tournament loss - and struggled in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before putting away the Rajun Cajuns with a generous late whistle. In the second round, the Vols took advantage of an injury to Khalid El-Amin and pulled away late from 5 seed UConn, winning by 14. The Vols had a nine point lead on North Carolina, an 8 seed, late in the second half, but then watched the Tar Heels battle back, and lost their poise by taking a series of terrible shots down the stretch, ultimately losing by five points in a bitter defeat.
Point guard is the biggest difference - Tony Harris was a punk, as some might say, but he scored more than Ramar Smith and JP Prince put together, and played a different style. Otherwise, you've got more eerie similarities - incredibly three point shooters in Higgins and Lofton, slashes at the 3 with Vince Yarbrough and JaJuan (though Vince definitely had the height advantage), and a mirror image post duo, Tyler Smith & Wayne Chism with Isaiah Victory & CJ Black.
And the 2000 bench is deeper and more talented. Higgins, Walker, Woods, Haislip and Slay were all freshmen this season, but they still were impact players to various degrees. When this team was firing on all cylinders, they were awfully good.
But maybe that's a testament to how good Bruce Pearl is. Because even lining these two teams up against each other like this, and even if the '00 Vols are a little more talented and definitely deeper...who 'ya got? Because it's awfully hard for me to go against Pearl.
However - pulling things back to the present, as North Carolina has taken a big lead at halftime - if you're going to go against Pearl and the Vols, while Jerry Green may not be the best coach to have on the opposite sideline, I'm pretty sure that Rick Pitino is.
At Kentucky, Pitino went 14-3 against the Vols, including the last nine in a row. This includes a 60 point beatdown in an SEC Tournament games, and a host of other blowouts that featured Kentucky's very best - Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Antoine Walker - against some of the Vols' very worst.
Then he left UK to go to the Celtics, and I remember thinking that despite the fact that I hated him, and I had never seen the Vols beat the archrival Cats in person at this point in 1997, that if anyone could get the Celtics back on track, it was this guy. Then Boston brought ML Carr to the draft lottery, Tim Duncan went to San Antonio, and instead of making the Celtics great, Pitino made them irrelevant. For this, he is the only human being on the face of the planet to rank above Steve Spurrier on the list of people who've caused me more personal grief in the sports world.
After ruining the Celtics, he thought he'd come back to college basketball at Louisville, who promptly signed a four year contract to play the Vols starting in 2001. The Cards won all four games. The first three were all heartbreak - the snakebitten 01-02 Vols, Buzz Peterson's first team, blew a six point lead with :30 to play at Louisville, thanks to some banked in threes, and lost by one point. The following year in Knoxville, the young Vols took #9 Louisville to the wire before losing by three. The next year, the Vols got the absolute shaft on an out-of-bounds call at the end of the game and lost to #5 Louisville, again, by three. And in Buzz Peterson's last stand, freshman Chris Lofton hit a three to put the Vols up 53-50 with under 12:00 to play, and then Louisville went on something like a 24-5 run. Rick Pitino is 18-3 against Tennessee, 13 in a row. The Vols haven't beaten a Pitino team since 1992.
Speaking of Chris Lofton...
He scored 15 points as a true freshman in that loss, and hasn't gotten another chance since. Will tonight be the night that we see the "return of Lofton", so to speak, and he goes off? Because it's equally important to note that he hasn't in both our tournament games so far, nor against Memphis, and we've won anyway. It's a luxury that we don't need him anymore. But if he ever gets and hits the looks, that elusive "best basketball game of the year" that we all feel like we haven't seen yet just might materialize.
It'll need to be him and more tonight - this is a daunting task, as you'd expect in a 2/3 Sweet 16 game. Palacios and Padgett inside won't be easy, and Louisville is like the Vols in that they're capable of beating you in a number of ways. Tennessee has to get contributions from all over the floor - not everyone is going to play really well, but we need more good than bad. How will JP Prince fare this time around? Will the Vols get hot behind the arc, or be forced to go to Chism and Tyler to get the win? Will we see the SEC or NCAA Tournament defense? Can Bruce Pearl coach effectively against Pitino? Can the Vols get it done?
Make no mistake - we're good enough. We've earned what we've got so far, and now this is the next step. Lose tonight, and we're taking about this team in the same "what might've been" we discuss the 2000 Vols in. Win tonight, and it's history - and more proof that this team is the best in program history, and that their story isn't over yet. Tennessee is capable. Is tonight our night?
Sunday, March 23, 2008
All together now: survive and advance. The why and the how are less important. The fact remains - the Vols head to the Sweet 16 once again, and will try Thursday night to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time in the history of the program.
In the first five minutes, the Vols looked like they'd finally play that very best game that some of us still seem to be looking for, even though the Vols are now 31-4 on the year. But when Butler did what Butler does - and it should be said over and over, that this was a very good basketball team we played today, even if they too weren't at their best - the Vols first never let Butler get the lead in regulation, and then when they finally did take it in overtime, Tennessee never flinched. This was a gritty, toughness win that will make the Vols better, not worse.
And yeah, it'll need to get better. Right now both Louisville and North Carolina are playing Ivan Drago to some pretty good Apollo Creeds - if you like offense, Carolina wins by scoring 108 on the Arkansas Razorbacks and winning by 31. If you like defense, U of L holds 6 seed Oklahoma to 48 points in a 30 point win. And few teams have looked better than Washington State in this tournament, who'll join those two and the Vols for the all-chalk Regional Finals in Charlotte on Thursday and Saturday that might as well be a mini-Final Four.
For the Vols...the point guard play will continue to be a hot topic. JP Prince still probably puts our best five on the floor, but his meltdown at the end of regulation with consecutive turnovers on the game's most precious possessions opened the door for a fresh Ramar Smith, who came in and helped paved the way. Despite the late errors, Prince finishes with 9 points, 7 boards and 5 assists. But he also had 6 turnovers. Pearl will decide the call there (and I still feel like the moment that Jordan Howell hits the first three he tries, that'll all go away), but between now and then let's hope he figures out which is the best route to go.
But let's remember this as well: Chris Lofton has scored 14 points in the first two tournament games combined. And the Vols are going to the Sweet 16.
Wayne Chism has come up huge of late. I love what they're doing on the Vol Network immediately after the game is over in the tournament, where one player and then Pearl join Bob & Bert real quick for a more in-the-moment reaction. You can hear the raw confidence in Chism's voice, as if he knows exactly how good he is. And it's great fun to hear Pearl in the moment - to hear him yelling "Yeah baby, YEAH!" to the orange faithful just before he gets on the headset, to hear Rocky Top in the building, to get on the air and then wish everyone a Happy Easter and say that he hopes everyone went to church, that there are things today that are so much more important that basketball - and again, this is Easter and Pearl is Jewish - that the Vols felt the prayers today and God bless everyone...I love this side of Pearl.
And I'll tell you who I don't love: Rick Pitino. At all. Less than Spurrier. Bring it on, baby.
So here's what we'll see next weekend:
Thursday - Sweet 16
West (Phoenix) - 7:10 - 3 Xavier vs. 7 West Virginia
East (Charlotte) - 7:30 - 1 North Carolina vs. 4 Washington State
West (Phoenix) - 9:40 - 1 UCLA vs. 12 Western Kentucky
East (Charlotte) - 10:00 - 2 Tennessee vs. 3 Louisville
Friday - Sweet 16
Midwest (Detroit) - 7:10 - 3 Wisconsin vs. 10 Davidson
South (Houston) - 7:30 - 2 Texas vs. 3 Stanford
Midwest (Detroit) - 9:40 - 1 Kansas vs. 12 Villanova
South (Houston) - 10:00 - 1 Memphis vs. 5 Michigan State
And a few more random observations before we shut 'er down for this weekend:
- As scripted, the two most anticipated games will be Tennessee/Louisville on Thursday and Texas/Stanford on Friday. The first one should be called a literal toss up by all the experts between now and then, and the Vols get that extra added factor with Chris Lofton getting another shot at his home state before he graduates (and Lofton is 0-1 career against U of L, as the Vols lost to the Cards in 2005 back when Buzz Peterson was still here). If Tennessee plays to the level of its competition, expect better basketball Thursday. And again, you'd just better be ready to go the distance. I'm still proud of Marquette, but Stanford's also very good, and I think those Lopez kids are punks - which is an enjoyable thing to watch when I want them to win, as I will against Texas, and something I'd love a crack at at some point for the Vols to shut them up on the other hand. One thing at a time...
- I know Carolina just ripped Arkansas, but there's a part of me that'd really rather just go ahead and play them if we win rather than face Washington State and their defensive prowess. I know the Vols will be up and ready for UNC, and I worry about Wazzou's potential to quietly stun everyone and make it to the Final Four.
- I've got 9 teams right in the Sweet 16, and we're about halfway the rest of the way - I've got 4 of my Elite 8 left, and 2 (Kansas & Tennessee) of my Final Four still standing. Of all the crazy things I picked, I've been most right on Western Kentucky. So the insanity continues in my bracket, with WKU over UCLA. The problem is, I expected UCLA to play a flat game and get caught, and now I think we already saw it yesterday against Texas A&M, and the Bruins escaped. Could be trouble.
- If Stephen Curry ever shows up in the first half, Davidson might win the whole thing.
- A modified bracket at this point, for me, would have Tennessee, Kansas, Xavier and Stanford making the Final Four.
This weekend has been, as expected, one of the very best things about sports. And most importantly, for the Vols, this weekend has become next weekend. The best season in school history now goes back to the Sweet 16 for the third time this decade. And late Thursday night in Charlotte, the Vols will play the biggest game in the history of the program, to carry this thing one step further.
Happy Easter to one and all...here in Ceres it's an hour before, and I still find myself pacing the floor, if you will, still with about 90 minutes to fill even after finishing all my Easter duties. Plus, I'm pretty sure that the swiss cheese they served at the church luncheon was definitely past its prime, and so I may be celebrating the resurrection in all new ways for the rest of the day. It's for details like this that you read this blog, I know.
While we're waiting, here's a great article from Mike Strange about the Butler/Hoosiers connections. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt probably wants to bury its head somewhere if they're watching Siena and Villanova, because those yellow jerseys ain't what they were two days ago, that's for sure.
Will the SEC have anyone left standing after today? With the favored 'Dores making the first round exit and the Vols playing the role of the vulnerable two seed, and with Arkansas and Mississippi State facing the aces of their respective brackets today, the conference can either make a big statement or go home quietly today. Me and my bracket hope it's the latter.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
While we'll be celebrating the resurrection here in Ceres with the sunrise at 7:24 AM, my bracket has entered the dark night of the soul on only the third day of the tournament.
(Also, may I add that I've started some weird Easter tradition of watching movies that relate in a backhanded way to what we're celebrating. I stole the idea of watching The Matrix Trilogy at Easter last year. This afternoon, we've embarked on part one of the walk through all three Indiana Jones movies, to be completed before May 22, with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Didn't you guys ever go to Sunday school?)
Unlike Duke's loss, I feel proud of the boys from Marquette, who just finished an immensely enjoyable and up-and-down game (as commented on by Jay Bilas, who does a great job with color and should do it more often) with Stanford, losing by one in overtime. The Golden Eagles fought hard with every possession - you could tell how much they wanted it in the way they celebrated little things like loose ball victories, etc. - they just came up on the wrong end of it at the end. Stanford, also, appears very solid and should have an interesting matchup with (probably) Texas next weekend.
So now with finalist Duke down and Final Four contender Marquette out, things look bleak. Western Kentucky and Mississippi State need to come through tomorrow to put me back in it, and if they can take care of business by beating one seeds along the way, they'll accomplish their task by taking everyone else's bracket out as well while I reap a small benefit. Because beating Memphis and UCLA (and San Diego before that for WKU) should be no problem, right.
And of course, the SESB bracket will go as far as the Vols do. So there's still a flicker of hope remaining. That hope carries forward to Sunday.
Ouch, my bracket.
The problem with picking hot-shooting three point teams to go deep in March is that sometimes you can pick the wrong one. So while West Virginia got clutch threes from surprising places, Duke looks as sick and tired as their coach in the second half, and is currently playing "how many 3's can we miss in a row?" (currently at 16)
So, my premeditated decision to not pick UCLA to the Final Four, and the fact that we'll be rolling the dice again later today with Marquette, led me to pick Duke all the way to the title game almost as the best choice of who was left over. This, my friends, was a bad idea.
I also think that if Larry Bird got fat, shrank a few inches and dyed his hair, he'd be Bob Huggins.
I'm more upset by the fact that I can't celebrate Duke's exit along with the rest of the college basketball world than anything else. I feel like I cheated myself out of something great.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
It wasn't without some tense moments. There wasn't a lot of classic basketball today from what I saw, though Georgia/Xavier and Marquette/Kentucky certainly had their moments. I'm on the Golden Eagles' surprise train to the Final Four, and while Kentucky put some fear in me and all the Marquette faithful today, I was also reminded why I like them while watching them play - solid defense (except on Joe Crawford, good grief) and an attacking three guard set that can still knock down the outside shot. The interesting Marquette/Stanford "who ya got?!" matchup is now on for Saturday.
USC & Kansas State may have been a classic, but I never got the chance to find out. Instead of watching that one like I was sure I'd end up doing, I started with Duke and Belmont and never left, which ended up - at this point, though Arizona has pulled to within one - giving us the best moments of the day, by far, and almost put my bracket in hospice. Even with Duke preventing the cinderella outcome, this was a great basketball game, and it's enjoyable to see a group of kids play as hard as the Bruins did. There was a sequence around the 10 minute mark where you just knew Belmont wasn't going to pull it off - they got something like four offensive rebounds in one lengthy possession, and still couldn't hit a shot to tie or take the lead. Give Gerald Henderson credit for taking matters into his own hands to give Duke the lead late, and you've just gotta shake your head if you're Vince Gill or another Belmont fan, in the great state of TN or otherwise, at that last inbounds play with a sensational call to have a guy open five feet from the basket, and the kid just missed him with the lob pass. So Belmont's shining moment is coming close, and Duke plays on.
Tennessee's win over West Virginia is looking better and better every minute, I'll tell you that.
Speaking of the Vols, is American capable of putting a real scare in the 2 seed tomorrow afternoon? The tempo will need to be slow for them to do so, and the Vols should be able to dictate pace enough either way to put some distance between themselves and AU to get the job done. Even if it is easy, I'm sure it'll be the last time that happens this season.
UCLA just won 70-29. But don't worry, Western Kentucky will take care of them. You know, after they upset Drake and then beat UConn Sunday. They're just one of several teams (Mississippi State and Gonzaga especially) who make my bracket even more vulnerable tomorrow. But hey, what's the fun in picking all the favorites? And for once and for real, the success of my bracket is directly tied into the success of the Vols. And I like that.
SI once again goes the regional cover route for the second time this year in college basketball, and continues to run their "every team in the dance" cover for at least the third year in a row, which I love. So does two regional covers equal one real cover for Lofton now? And do all six teams making the cut this time around get to claim the jinx if/when they lose?
10 hours. And I should really try and get some sleep.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
First-round flop: Tennessee Volunteers loss to the American Eagles. The Vols ... or Smokey the coonhound ... or whatever. They would be the play-in game in any mascot bracket. Needless to say, the American Eagles (while sounding like a commuter airline) are far more intimidating and go on to the second round.
Page 2 also writes in the coach appearance bracket:
Biggest upset (in entire bracket): No. 15 American over No. 2 Tennessee. The orange suit jackets are bad enough. But Bruce Pearl, shirtless, with his chest painted orange, is an image that's just never going to go away, folks.
All in good fun...15 hours to go.
With that in mind, here's some thoughts on the bracket:
Full disclosure: I won my bracket group two years ago by being hot in the first round and then riding the Gators before most others thought to do so. Last year did not go so well, however, though I was still hot Thursday/Friday by not picking lots of upsets. But I usually go with the gut over the brain when it comes to these things, which can work both ways.
Looking back at my bracket after I completed it this year, there's a noticeable East Coast bias. And it's not that I hate the Pac-10 at all, it's that I've seen a lot of college basketball this year with the ol' Full Court package, but none of it involved Pac-10 schools, and the only West Coast school I really saw all year was a couple or three Gonzaga games. Head to head I usually put a much greater emphasis on what I've seen over what I've read, and sometimes that's not a good idea. So I have no real fear that anyone I'm playing with this year will read this and steal my ideas, because my gut instincts probably make the most sense to me. Hopefully, there's still a little common sense in here somewhere...
Here we go...
While it's tempting here to just take UNC and the Vols and put them in the Elite 8 because I want to see that so badly and then work backwards from there, let's walk through the journey before the destination:
- While this isn't a year where I'm picking all the SEC schools in the first round, I do like an Arkansas team that I certainly picked up more respect for last weekend, and who can beat you in a number of ways, to beat a shaky Indiana squad that lost three of four coming into The Dance and may still have some Kelvin Sampson issues.
- Upset alert: 12 George Mason over 5 Notre Dame, because it's George Mason and I hate Notre Dame in football, and that's just too much for my brain to overcome. 13 Winthrop over 4 Washington State - see, East Coast bias comes in early and often.
- In the lower half, I like Louisville and OU to hold serve, and I think Butler vs. South Alabama will be one of the best games of the first round. The Vols saw both of these teams last season, and Butler has been and is exactly the sort of team you don't want to see in March. They'll get it done.
- What do we know about American University? Other than the fact that Holy Cross alum Bill Simmons ran them down in his podcast last week for winning the Patriot League, a team that's only scored 80+ points three times this season might have some issues staying with the Vols, though if their SEC Tournament defense shows up maybe American will break some school records along the way. They did beat Maryland on the road, but also lost at Georgetown by 27. They'll try and be slow and deliberate, which means the Vols will want to take them out of their pace, but Tennessee should advance either way. (By the way, let me state how much I enjoy the fact that Tennessee plays on Friday, so I can make it through at least one day of tournament play without having a thrombo. And let me put my plug in right now for Kevin Harlan or Gus Johnson to call our games. Pretty please.)
(Edit: It's Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty in Birmingham. Which isn't bad, considering that's the 1B CBS team.)
- If we do get UNC-Arkansas in the second round, it'll be a good feeler for Charlotte. And no matter the opponent, I do think you can go ahead and pencil the Tar Heels into the Elite Eight. I think you can pencil Louisville into the Sweet 16. It'll be the Vols who struggle the most to get that far in this bracket, and I do think it'll be that most difficult road possible: American-Butler-Louisville-North Carolina. Which, as we said on Sunday, would also be the most enjoyable road, getting revenge on Butler, beating Rick Pitino, and then facing the Tar Heels. More "experts" than I thought have been making the point this week that nothing the Vols face will be as difficult as winning at Memphis was, and that Tennessee should play like a team that belongs. They'll have to win several different ways to do it, and I'm sure we'll break that down if the Vols get to the Sweet 16, but the Vols are good enough to beat Butler (or South Alabama), good enough to outduel Louisville, and yes, Tennessee is good enough to beat North Carolina. I can write "Tennessee to the Final Four" here and have you take me seriously. I promise.
If there's a number one seed I'd bank on, it's Kansas. I like their road, they won't have to deal with any push scenarios in the Elite 8 the way North Carolina and Memphis might, and they're one of the best all around teams in the field. For me, it's really hard to go anywhere else in this bracket.
- I think if you pick a 9 (Kent State) over an 8 (UNLV), it's not really an upset. I also think Villanova shouldn't be in this field and that Clemson is really good, and will prove both those points in the opening round. Vanderbilt vs. Clemson would be really fun in the second round...but again, I don't think either of those two is beating Kansas. Even on Vanderbilt's very best day from Foster and Gordon, I don't think they get it done.
- quasi-East Coast bias, part two: I've seen Michael Beasley play and he's the most exciting player to watch in college basketball. I've only seen OJ Mayo on SportsCenter. And even though I'm wise enough to remember that USC did this last year to Kevin Durant and Texas, I'm dumb enough to pick Kansas State and Beasley anyway.
- Gonzaga vs. Davidson is another one of these really good 7-10 mid-major showdowns. Gonzaga was trendy about three years ago, and now I think half the people filling out these brackets still think Adam Morrison plays there. Still, I like them to advance here. Georgetown vs. Gonzaga in the second round is tough, much like the game itself would be, low scoring and physical. Roy Hibbert is a force inside, sure, but when I look at these two teams, I'm not sure there's that much space between them. Gonzaga played with the Vols and with Memphis, and lost seeding in the bracket by losing to San Diego in their conference tournament. But I think Gonzaga can upset Georgetown and make it to the second weekend.
- Again, Kansas is the pick, whether they see Georgetown, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, OJ Mayo or Michael Beasley in the Elite 8. The Jayhawks are simply too good - I think there's more space between the one seed and the rest of the field in this region than anywhere else.
Unintentionally when filling it out, this became the "blow it up" bracket. One upset seemingly led to another when I was picking, and I ended up with something I'm almost afraid to commit to paper. But, you need to shake up at least one region, right? So here we go...
- Literally as soon as I saw this bracket released, I said "Memphis is going down in the second round." Do I hate Memphis? Sure. But having seen them and Mississippi State both a bunch, I think the Bulldogs are exactly the type of team in exactly the type of situation that can run them out. A team that's played in two straight Elite 8's, as Memphis has, and a team that's only lost once all year, might tend to take the early stages of the tournament for granted. MSU will not have that problem. Jarvis Varnado is a game-changer inside, and I think the Bulldogs are capable of playing well enough defensively to disrupt what Memphis does, and allow Jamont Gordon to match Chris Douglas-Roberts step for step. Since tournament seeding began in 1979, all four number one seeds have never reached the Sweet 16 in four consecutive years. All four number one seeds have made the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons. Trouble! Down goes Memphis! Down goes Memphis! Down goes Memphis! SEC! SEC! SEC!
- Alright, now that we've already made one bad decision in this region, let's keep going - how about Temple over Michigan State in the opening round, which is backed by a few folks on ESPN because Drew Neitzel can be streaky.
- Marquette-Kentucky seems interesting, but here's what I'm wondering: with the Cats so happy to actually make the tournament for a change, and still without Patrick Patterson, will that affect their sense of urgency and play? Tubby didn't win them all, but he always, always got out of the first round. Billy Gillispie is harder to project simply because we haven't seen it yet...but then again, Tubby was never an 11 seed. I just don't think UK is good enough to beat Marquette. Then if you look at Marquette-Stanford in the second round, it becomes about what type of style you like. Though Marquette had a talent for getting drilled on the road, the Golden Eagles are one of those four or five teams in this tournament - like Tennessee was last year - that can play really well behind the arc to compliment the rest of their scoring, and if they get hot, they can beat anybody. They've got three proven scorers on the floor, while Stanford will go all Lopez on you inside. The saying that the NCAA Tournament is all about guard play is only true when your guards are making shots - witness Georgetown over UNC last year - and consequently, if they're not, the team with the big bodies is going to wear you out. But the best teams these days aren't just the big bodies - Ohio State was way, way more than Greg Oden last year - so in a game like this, who's going to do the additional scoring for Stanford? Marquette's best scorers in McNeal, Hayward and James are all better shooters than Stanford's Anthony Goods. The truth is, as I'm sure you can tell by the length of the analysis here, I really like both of these teams...but against each other, you've gotta go with Marquette.
- I think you pencil Texas into the Sweet 16. I think if Mississippi State can beat Memphis, they can make their way deeper to the Elite 8. If it's Texas vs. Stanford, then again for reasons described above, I think it's Texas no problem and then Texas all the way to the Final Four. However, if it's Texas vs. Marquette, who's going to be hotter? Because that would be an insanely fun game to watch. Augustin and Abrams are proven commodities, but perhaps there's also something to be said for a Texas team that makes it to Houston with Memphis out of the way taking Tom Crean's team for granted? I fully respect Texas, and the Vols have the double digit beatdown to prove it...but this is one of those "it just feels right" things, and like I said, filling out your Final Four with all 1 and 2 seeds isn't the way it's supposed to be done, right? Because remember, I've got Mississippi State on the other half of that Elite 8 equation. So ladies and gentlemen, SouthEastern Sports Blog is taking Marquette all the way to the Final Four. Like I said, didn't set out to do it that way at all, just went matchup to matchup. Now that I've said that, I'm sure the Kentucky faithful will take great joy in busting my bracket.
You might think UCLA has an easier road to the Final Four than Kansas does, as I said earlier. And Duke is generally perceived as the weakest of the 2 seeds. So how does anyone pick someone other than the Bruins in this region...well...
- I do think UCLA makes the Sweet 16 no problem. However, here's a stat for you: since John Wooden's days ended, only three schools have ever made three straight Final Fours: Duke in the early 90s, Kentucky in the mid 90s, and Michigan State in the early part of this decade. UCLA has been bounced in the finals and the semifinals the last two seasons. Maybe I put way too much emphasis on the idea of a team in that position taking the path for granted, but I've seen it enough to believe it: somewhere along the way, UCLA will lose before San Antonio.
- And while Drake is another one of those hot shooting teams, I don't think they'll be the ones to do it, because I think this is another case of low separation between mid-majors, and Western Kentucky is going to beat them in the opening round. Perhaps even WKU could be the ones to make a run and take down the Bruins, who knows. I like their chances, or Drake's, better than UConn's in that half of the bracket.
- I'm also not going SEC when it comes to the Georgia Bulldogs, who had an incredible weekend that now their fan base thinks translates into them being a national power. Typical. Anyway, teams that make the magical conference tournament run almost never play well in The Dance, and typically they get bounced right away (see Syracuse three dances ago or Arkansas in 2000). And plus, Xavier is no gift. Sorry Georgia.
- I think the most difficult first round game to pick in the entire bracket is West Virginia vs. Arizona. If Bob Huggins and Kevin O'Neill get in a fistfight, the money I spent on Mega March Madness will instantly be worth it. When push comes to shove here, I think West Virginia has been more consistent and Arizona is the program in turmoil, so I think it's more likely that they crack under pressure than come together. Mountaineers move on.
- And now that I've talked myself into not picking UCLA in this region, I've gotta do one of my least favorite things: project Duke to advance deep into the tournament. On Facebook's official bracket challenge run by CBS Sports, every entrant is allowed to enter their favorite team and their most despised team. And so of course, there's a decisive edge to North Carolina and Duke for favorite team, with UNC holding a slight edge. So it also makes sense that these are the two most hated teams, because they hate each other, which they are. But while it seems like all Duke fans hate Carolina (approx. 21,000 Duke fans on Facebook and around 27,000 Tar Heel haters), there's absolutely no contest for hatred in college basketball: a whopping 57,000 people list Duke as their most hated team, with Carolina in second some 30,000 people behind. Take pride, Duke. But really, here's another potentially hot shooting team, who I don't predict running into trouble until the Sweet 16. And in a Duke-Xavier matchup...it's just hard for me to look at that and not pick Duke. I know they lost to VCU last year. I know Xavier is good. I'm picking Duke anyway. If we're not going with UCLA, we're going with Duke then, aren't we?
Looking back at this, it reads like I got bored halfway through and then just decided to spice things up: we've got Tennessee vs. Kansas on one half of the bracket, and Marquette vs. Duke on the other half. But we're rolling with it. Tennessee's road in my bracket already goes through Butler, Louisville, and North Carolina, so it might as well stay at the top with the Jayhawks. These two teams play a home and home the next two seasons, by the way. Kansas is deep and would present many of the same challenges that Memphis did. But obviously, if you're familiar with this blog, you know that if we've got the Vols going this far, we're not stopping now.
And really, this whole piece isn't "how can we construct an argument for Tennessee to win it all?" You don't have to do much construction this year - make threes, win the rebounding, keep them more than honest inside with Tyler Smith, and this time around, let's play defense eh? - but it's In Pearl We Trust, and again, I believe Tennessee is good enough to win six.
If number five is Kansas, I've got Duke over Marquette in that half at this point, just really because if this all actually happens (and if it somehow does, I'll be several thousand dollars richer between my bracket pools, because I'm not picturing many others with a Tennessee/Kansas/Marquette/Duke Final Four) we might as well get a chance to join the Duke hating too. And I'll admit, on a national level, I don't like Duke. At this point, it wouldn't be anything worse than what the Vols had already seen.
So yeah, you're stunned, but I'm picking Tennessee to win it all. That's the whole bracket. But right now in real life, I'm just focused on American University. One step at a time, six times. But one at a time. The Madness has clearly already begun on this blog.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
And here's the point: nobody, from Bruce Pearl to Joe Fan like me, needs to be talking about not being a #1 seed now. We've all gotta win six games, no matter where you're seeded. Talking about "we should've been a number one seed, we're getting disrespected!" makes us sound whiny, and takes the focus off the task at hand. If Pearl wants to use that behind closed doors as motivation, fine. But no one, players nor coaches, needs to be worried about that now. I love the team that says "we'll play anybody, anywhere." The Vols need to be that team.
And they'd better be, because my second thought is this: this is the toughest road I could've imagined to the Final Four.
The general consensus is that the Vols are the #5 team on the line, the first team to not get a #1 seed and the best #2 seed. So therefore, as a #2 seed and the strongest, supposedly, #2 seed, the road at least to the Sweet 16, and theoretically to the Elite 8 on paper, should be favorable.
Now - I'm not saying we got screwed in the draw. I'm just saying, this is going to be a long road.
In 2006, the Vols got the surprising #2 seed, and after dodging Winthrop, faced the winner of Wichita State and Seton Hall. Had the Vols beaten Wichita State, they'd have caught George Mason in the Sweet 16. That road was easy - on paper, because of course, the Vols lost to Wichita state.
In 2007, the Vols got, probably, the best #5 seed, matched up with the lowest #4 seed, Virginia in the second round. Right away, you knew this was a great draw - you're in the bracket with #1 seed Ohio State, whom you'd played to the last possession on the road that January, and #2 seed Memphis, whom you'd beaten by 18 points in December. You felt like you could really make it to the Final Four against that draw, that these were all good matchups. The Vols were one possession away from beating Ohio State and getting a rematch with Memphis in the Elite 8.
In 2008, I'm seeing more negatives than positives.
I don't know anything about American, but we're going to say that since they're a #15 seed, the Vols should win. Then, the giant red flag jumps out: Butler. My first question is how they're seeded that low. My second question goes back to Madison Square Garden last season, where they slowed the Vols down, held us under 50 points, and beat us soundly. This is not a team or a style that I wanted to see at all, let alone in the second round. Then, the idea of playing Louisville in the Sweet 16 and the Tar Heels in the Elite 8 - and in large part, because you haven't seen the Vols play toe to toe with those teams the way you had with Ohio State and Memphis last year - but it's not the most favorable draw I could draw up. I think right now everyone would agree that North Carolina is the best team in the country. And of the following three seeds - Louisville, Stanford, Wisconsin and Xavier - the Cardinals are the best team out of that group for my money.
But then, when you stop thinking about how difficult the journey will be for a moment, you start to realize how fun it could be.
You can get a small measure of revenge against Butler, something the returning Vols from last season I'm sure want.
If it's Louisville, that'll amp up Chris Lofton. And there's still no coach in college basketball I'd rather beat than Rick Pitino, without question. (Though John Calipari is giving him a run for his money, by mentioning about ten teams as possibly the best in the country, but failing, of course, to name the Vols - the only team that beat them - as one of them just before the brackets were announced.)
And look, if you want to make the Final Four and win it all, you're going to have to beat the best teams sooner or later. To be the man, WOOOOOOOOOO, you've gotta beat the man. And North Carolina - whose coach is probably still bitter about Buzz Peterson, and is another team that spanked us last year - might as well be the man. Dick Vitale just said the East is the toughest bracket by far. So be it.
We'll talk about the Final Four when we get there. We can generally discuss that defense wins championships, and the Vols seemingly forgot how to play it in giving up 87 points to a South Carolina team that scored 56 against you twice in the regular season, and then 92 (and getting outrebounded) to Arkansas. That, of course, must improve. But I'm over the SEC Tournament right now. Tennessee should be too.
I believe that you still haven't seen Tennessee's best basketball. Now's the time. I believe that this road is incredibly difficult. But that shouldn't matter. I believe, one seed or two, that the Vols are capable of going the distance. And that starts not with North Carolina, Rick Pitino or Butler. It starts with American, Friday in Birmingham. Survive. Advance. Go Vols.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I will say that while you didn't really learn anything new in the first two games today, you did learn some things in the night session - that Florida is brutally young and you just forgot it because it says "FLORIDA" on their jerseys, that Alabama is really talented and they just forgot it all season long, and that Ole Miss - down 10 with 12 to play against the homestanding Georgia Bulldogs, who are, incidentally, making their only visit to the Georgia Dome of the 2007-08 athletic season - isn't really an NCAA Tournament team. At least right now.
After the Vols and Gamecocks kick things off tomorrow, you'll get Arkansas and Vanderbilt immediately following, and then Mississippi State/Alabama and Kentucky vs. the winner of the ongoing UGA/Ole Miss contest tomorrow night. Hopefully, we can think about potential Saturday matchups, again, in about 16 hours. But even playing the team we beat by 30 or so just five days ago...I'll believe it when I see it.
And I expect to see it soon.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Also, Bruce Pearl shares Coach of the Year honors with Billy Gillispie, who apparently was rewarded for sucking so much for the first three months of the season that everyone now believes he's a great story over the last six weeks. And no, I won't take it back.
JP Prince did win Sixth Man of the Year.
If I had a vote, it'd go like this:
SESB All-SEC First Team
G Shan Foster, Vanderbilt
G Chris Lofton, Tennessee
F Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State
F Tyler Smith, Tennessee
C Charles Rhodes, Mississippi State
SESB All-SEC Second Team
G Devan Downey, South Carolina
G JaJuan Smith, Tennessee
F Richard Hendrix, Alabama
F Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
C AJ Ogilvy, Vanderbilt
SESB All-SEC Third Team
G Nick Calathes, Florida
G Joe Crawford, Kentucky
F Marreese Speights, Florida
F Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State
C Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss
Monday, March 10, 2008
While you won't get all the answers over the next six weeks, these are the most important questions:
The State of the Program
The most important thing to know here is this: the Vols are still the Vols, and will still be good enough to win every game they play. Tennessee is still one of those six-star programs, and even though the competition will be as good as it's ever been - signified by four losses in 2007 - the Vols are good enough to rise above it - signified by the SEC Eastern Division Championship in 2007. As has been the case each of the last two seasons and will be in 2008, the Vols should be a preseason Top 15 team, good enough to be in the conversation but not expected to dominate it. The fact that Georgia and Florida will be expected to field Top 5 level teams will do nothing to temper expectations in Knoxville, which is exactly how it should be. As I'm sure I should change the motto of this website to reflect the fact that I've said this about a million times in discussing the last three college football seasons, the SEC is good enough to offer a very real challenge every single Saturday, and the Vols are good enough to answer it.
New Faces on Staff...
Dave Clawson's offense becomes less talking and more walking starting tomorrow, and while the finished product won't be on display until August, this should be the most interesting spring practice we've had around here in awhile, and Clawson's offense should up the numbers at the Orange & White Game. With that territory comes the fact that every practice, and especially the Orange & White game, will be scrutinized by the media and especially the fanbase. This level of scrutiny, unfair or no, will be brand new for Clawson, and he should use this spring as his own practice in handling it when he faces it for real in the September heat. However, Clawson's level of success depends greatly on...
New Face(s?) at Quarterback
Now, I think that Jonathan Crompton is the man, and will be the man for the next two years, save for a few brief glimpses of Gerald Jones. However, the media and some fans are trying to make this into a competition, which hopefully Crompton will use to make himself better. As a true freshman thrown to the wolves, he performed better than anyone expected in losses to LSU and Arkansas. Erik Ainge stayed healthy all year last season, so the most enduring images of Crompton are still from 2006. But one that everyone enjoyed was him taking on LaRon Landry and the LSU defense head on during a downfield run, and jumping up with excitement after it was over. He's 6'4" 220, and will make defenders think twice if Clawson wants to use him that way. At the very least, he adds another dimension. Ainge, SEC Championship Game aside, became excellent at getting the ball to the right man at the right time, and was highly prolific under David Cutcliffe. Jonathan Crompton, both running and passing, must become prolific. He'll benefit greatly from the presence of Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer at tailback, and our offensive line is our greatest strength right now, but as Clawson's success is tied directly to Crompton, Crompton's success is tied directly to:
Wide Receivers: Encore?
The biggest question mark at this point last year revolved around the wideouts, who didn't make you feel good about things until the fall, but then they answered all the questions. And every single one of them is back. However, it's a new quarterback, a new system, and it must be noted that Trooper Taylor is no longer in charge. Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe will again get the 1-2-3 in the rotation this spring, but perhaps more importantly, spring ball can be used to establish some separation among the second group. Between Quentin Hancock, Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones, and Kenny O'Neal, can someone step up and become an asset to this offense? There will be balls to be had, especially with Chris Brown having graduated (and the mystery of Brandon Warren continues). Whether the numbers themselves rise or fall, this group has shown it can be reliable, and now it must continue to do so and become even more of an asset. This offense may not have any Heisman parts, but when you put them all together - Crompton, highly experienced tailbacks, proven wide receivers and an excellent offensive line - the whole could be very good.
Who will play defensive end?
Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell, gone. Along with all the starting experience. And so while Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams both return at tackle, the end space is wide open. These holes must be filled quickly, because rushing the passer - which the Vols struggled so mightily at until late last year - is a key component to the John Chavis defense, and that starts up front and off the edge. Robert Ayers will get the very first shot, and I really like his motor - he played the hunter in the Arkansas game and lived behind the line - but he'll need that motor to be cranked up all the time this season. The other spot could go to Wes Brown if you like experience, or Ben Martin if you like raw talent. Both will have their shot, along with other career backups like Andre Mathis and Chris Walker. However, it's more troubling when you consider that this isn't our biggest problem on the team or on defense, it's this one:
I challenge you to name our third starting linebacker right now.
We all know Rico McCoy. I'll give you Ellix Wilson and his one career start for free. Now. Go ahead. Tell me who the third guy is. Because this is the problem - it's not like we're choosing from all these experienced backups, or that we even have a good idea like at defensive end. This thing is wide open with lots of room for error. There's Adam Myers-White. There's Nevin McKenzie, who makes you say "hey, I know him!", but that's been as a nickel back and a human missile on corner blitzes, not as an every down player and never as a linebacker. Then there's a bunch of guys you only know if you followed recruiting last year - Savion Frazier, Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson. Both at end and at LB, spring practice is the proving ground, because there is definitely playing time to be had. Opposite problem in the secondary...
Who are the best four guys on the field at DB?
Eric Berry, Antonio Gaines, DeAngelo Willingham, Brent Vinson, Demetrice Morley, Marsalous Johnson, Dennis Rogan. Pick four. And yeah, take Berry and then pick three. The only real question with Morley is how quickly he can get back up to speed, but he'll be ready to go tomorrow. The other guys all have positives and negatives, but the Vols simply have to find the best combination and then roll with it. I really can't remember a time in my Tennessee football lifetime where the defense relied on the secondary to bail it out, but well, here we are. Better study up on the term "coverage sack". And last but not least...
Who punts the first five games of the season?
While Britton Colquitt is off giving John Adams material, somebody's gotta punt. And if you roll your eyes at the notion of this being an important spring topic, remember that it was arguably inexperienced Colquitt more than anyone else who got us beat at Florida in 2005, and inexperienced David Leaverton who almost did the same at UCLA in 1997. It should be Chad Cunningham filling this role, and we're not asking for greatness - we're just asking that you don't get us beat. The rest of the special teams news is all good - Daniel Lincoln and Dennis Rogan are both back, and are both difference makers. Maybe we can put the special in special teams in a different sort of way in 2008.
It's a learning process this spring, and again, the real answers won't come until August 30 and thereafter. But you'll begin to see the pieces come together. And, you know, once the basketball team wins the National Championship, maybe we can celebrate it at halftime of the Orange & White. Because that would be a feasible reason to come in for it, yeah?