Monday, March 14, 2011

The Manifesto's Guide to March Madness 2011

In the 2004 remake of the movie Alfie, Jude Law plays a Manhattan playboy who casually sleeps with dozens of women but resists a real relationship, partly because he's British and good-looking and just can't pass up banging countless hot chicks, but more because he can't be with a woman without seeing her flaws. "Hair on her arms," he grumbles about one former fling, dismissing an otherwise knockout blonde due to an excess of follicles. He even throws away guaranteed happiness with a perfect 10 played by Marisa Tomei (still in her extended and perhaps infinite prime) just so he can maintain some nebulous sense of masculine freedom. It's a classic character study of a commitment-phobe: Every time Alfie sees something good, he winds up running the other way.

Well, that's exactly how I feel about college basketball this year. Every time I think about backing a potential NCAA tournament champion, all I can see are its flaws. The main difference between Alfie and me – well, other than the fact that he got laid six times a week, whereas I spent roughly four hours every day watching basketball for the past three months – is that Alfie was an idiot who couldn't appreciate the beauty of what sat right in from of him. I, however, am not so deluded, as the objects of my affection – namely the 68 teams vying for this year's NCAA title – are all more flawed than the characters in The Social Network.

Let's just take a sampling of the top contenders: Ohio State has no killer instinct. Kansas has character issues. Pitt lacks a creator. North Carolina has no depth. Duke relies too much on perimeter shooting. Notre Dame has no inside scoring. Texas is coached by Rick Barnes. UCLA can't bring John Wooden back from the dead.

Of course, that this year's top-tier teams are all impressively flawed is hardly surprising in the current era of college basketball, in which the dynasties of old have been replaced with an oppressive sense of parity. Take away home-court advantage, and virtually any team can lose on any given night. From a fan's point of view, this makes college hoops tremendous fun these days, as the competition invariably results in games that are both highly unpredictable and closely contested. But from a prognosticator's perspective, it's a nightmare. How are you supposed to pick a team to win six consecutive games in March when every time you look at that team, all you see is how many different ways it can lose?

Here's the rub: I am an obsessive basketball fan, and never have I watched more basketball in my life than I have this year. Yet paradoxically, I have never felt less confident in making my picks. The 2011 NCAA Tournament is that much of a crapshoot.

And let's not forget the inherent randomness of March Madness. I picked fifth-seeded Butler to reach the Final Four last year, which is easily one of the greatest achievements of my entire life, up there with going undefeated in the regular season in high school tennis for three straight years, along with that one time I watched 11 consecutive episodes of "24" without ever leaving my sofa. Everyone thought I was insane for picking Butler, and the Bulldogs came within that shot of winning the championship.

Here's the thing though: Butler almost lost last year ... to Murray State in the second round. That game was tied at 50 with less than a minute left, and if Gordon Hayward hadn't deflected a last-second pass, my purported fortunetelling brilliance might have crumbled into dust faster than Julian Glover at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's just how the tourney works.

But that's why it's so much fun. The odds of me correctly forecasting this year's Final Four are roughly equivalent to the odds of the NCAA tapping Jim Calhoun to teach an ethics seminar, but that just makes it a more worthwhile challenge. So here we go with the Manifesto's official guide to March Madness, region by region. (Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.)

The jungle: This region is absolutely loaded. The selection committee is taking plenty of (deserved) flak for some of its questionable inclusions (UAB?) at the expense of more worthy clubs (Colorado?), but its inability to evenly apportion the best teams across the four regions represents its biggest failure. Kentucky is one of the scariest teams in the country – they have an RPI of 7 and just demolished all comers in the SEC Tournament – and they're a four seed? Unacceptable.

The top seed: Ohio State is a good basketball team. They feature one of the only true low-post scorers in the country (freshman Jared Sullinger), a point guard whose play is so poised that his favorite band has to be The Hold Steady (freshman Aaron Kraft), a lights-out three-point shooter (Jon Diebler, who canned a preposterous 17 of 20 threes during a two-game stretch earlier this month), a sturdy swingman who can score in the mid-range (William Buford), and an experienced glue guy who does all the little things and never complains (senior David Lighty). They're well-coached, they defend, and they can score both inside and out.

That said, for such a complete team, the Buckeyes have an alarming tendency to allow opponents to hang around. Six of their wins were by five points or less, not to mention their recent overtime squeaker against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. On the plus side, this means that they've proven they can win close games and won't buckle under pressure. On the minus side, it illustrates that they lack killer instinct, which could bite them against stronger competition. Just keep that in mind when you're considering filling them in as your national champion.

The enigma: Ever since much-maligned point guard Larry Drew "transferred" midseason (assuming his teammates didn't make him an offer he couldn't refuse), North Carolina has looked like one of the best teams in the country. Kendall Marshall is a smart point guard with superb court vision, John Henson and Tyler Zeller are forces in the paint (defensively and offensively, respectively), and alleged phenom Harrison Barnes – perhaps upon glancing at the draft boards on and realizing he was slipping out of the top 10 – suddenly started showcasing the skills that made him the top recruit in this year's class. It's an impressive team, if a thin one (the drop-off in talent from the aforementioned four studs to the team's remaining regulars is precipitous).

Yet the Tar Heels frequently look disinterested and lethargic, turning their talent on in spurts but sleepwalking for long stretches of games. This lackadaisical play came to a head during the ACC Tournament, when Carolina fell behind by 19 points to Miami before storming back, then trailed virtually the entire game against Clemson before Barnes invoked the spirit of Michael Jordan and dropped 40 points to lead another impossible comeback. They tried a similar tactic in the final against Duke, only their second-half run stalled when Barnes missed an open three that would have cut the lead to seven, and the Blue Devils subsequently pulled away. The lesson is simple: If you're as talented as the Tar Heels, you can relax against teams such as Miami and Clemson and get away with it, but you can't do it against high-caliber competition. And that's why they won't be able to beat Ohio State.

The impostor: The Big East landed 11 teams in this year's field, easily a record for a single conference. As a result, you might think a sensible strategy would be to ride as many Big East teams as possible. So why can't I watch Big East basketball without reflexively covering my eyes like I'm watching the scourging scene from The Passion of the Christ? Every Big East game this year seemed to involve two teams that (1) played aggressive defense, (2) were extremely athletic, and (3) executed their half-court offenses as if they were high school JV clubs. With the exception of a composed Notre Dame squad, every team in the Big East is a nightmare to watch on offense. (I remember watching Villanova-Syracuse with my friend Beale, and the quality of play was so bad, Beale kept screaming every five minutes as if he had Tourette's.) West Virginia is no exception. The Mountaineers landed a five seed because of their conference, but it doesn't make them any good.

The headliner: Mark it down: A potential Sweet Sixteen matchup between Ohio State and Kentucky may be the most exciting game of the entire tournament, much less the third round. As I've mentioned, this Kentucky team scares the hell out of me. Terrence Jones is a tremendous talent who can score from anywhere on the court, Josh Harrellson may be the best per-minute rebounder in the country, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller defend and make plays, and Brandon Knight ... well, Brandon Knight is a bit of a wildcard, but he can carry the team when he's on. I was all set to take Kentucky as my sleeper pick for the Final Four until the committee decided the Wildcats should face the top overall seed in the Sweet 16. Damn them.

The snub: Georgia was widely considered a bubble team that lost its chance to make the field of 64 68 when it lost to Alabama for the second time (thanks to an unforgivable timeout from coach Mark Fox that made Chris Webber's gaffe in the '93 championship game look innocuous by comparison). Somehow they landed a freaking 10 seed. Meanwhile, UAB played one ranked team all year (and lost) and somehow squeaked in.

Now, on paper, the two teams with the best case for making the field over the likes of Georgia and UAB are Colorado and Virginia Tech. But the snub that really breaks my heart is Saint Mary's, because I was all set to take the Gaels to the Elite Eight behind the play of Mickey McConnell, possibly the best player in the country no one's ever heard of. Everyone raves about Jimmer Fredette, and rightly so, but McConnell's shooting percentages (51% from the field, 46% from three, and 91% from the line) are reminiscent of Steve Nash. He's a heady player who always makes the right decision and consistently gives his team a chance to win. America deserved to watch him play in March.

The Picks
Play-in games: Texas-San Antonio over Alabama State, Clemson over UAB.

Sweet 16: Ohio State over George Mason, Kentucky over Clemson, Syracuse over Xavier, North Carolina over Washington.

Regional Final: OHIO STATE over North Carolina.

The jumble: At first glance, this region appears weak. Duke was the lowest-ranked #1 seed, San Diego State plays in the Mountain West and played a creampuff nonconference schedule, and Uconn finished 9-9 in regular season play in the Big East. But let's not forget that the regional final takes place in Anaheim, where San Diego State could have a major crowd advantage. Furthermore, as with Kentucky, Texas is a ferocious #4 seed (I'd pegged them as a #2 seed heading into the selection show). Overall, it's probably the second-weakest region, but it's closer in caliber to the strong Southwest than it is to the embarrassingly bad Southeast.

The top seed: This Duke team is not quite an elite ballclub, but neither was last year's, and all that team did was win the title. The Blue Devils have a Player of the Year candidate in Nolan Smith, a triple-threat guard who defends and doesn't shrink from big moments. They have two sharpshooting guards in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, plus a pair of athletic bigs in the Plumlee brothers, both of whom have come on of late. And they have Mike Krzyzewski, which is usually (though not always – see the St. John's debacle from earlier this year) a good thing.

They also have Kyle Singler, my favorite college player since J.J. Redick and potentially one of the best all-around players in the country. I say "potentially" because, for all of the things Singler does well – he's turned himself into an elite perimeter defender, he's offensively versatile in that he can out-quick bigger defenders and out-muscle smaller players, and he's an absolute iron man (he hasn't played fewer than 36 minutes in a game since mid-February) – he won't be truly complete until he discovers who illicitly sold his jumpshot on eBay (he's shooting a horrendous 10% from three over his last nine games). For Duke to win six straight games, they'll need Singler – one of the best players in the school's history – to produce on both ends of the floor.

But Singler's shooting woes embody Duke's Achilles' heel as a unit: They're a perimeter team. Smith is a capable penetrator, especially when driving to his right, but he's as likely to drive-and-kick as he is to finish at the rim, meaning Curry, Dawkins et al. need to be able to knock down open shots. As with most Duke teams, this one's loaded with players who can shoot (including Ryan Kelly, a steady sophomore who's primed for a big season next year), but they're also liable to go cold, and when that happens, they're in trouble.

The incalculable loss: I don't have too much to say about Kyrie Irving. When your team loses the best player in the entire country eight games into the season due to some mystifying toe injury and still lands a number one seed, it's been an impressive season regardless of how it turns out. Suffice it to say that if Irving were healthy, Duke would win the championship. That is not an opinion.

(And if Irving just happens to pull a Willis Reed in the Final Four ...)

The mirage: Don't get me wrong, Kemba Walker is a talented basketball player, and Uconn's blitzkrieg through the Big East Tournament was an astonishing display of athleticism and determination. But that doesn't change the fact that the team simply isn't that good. They have no inside scoring, their perimeter players are wildly inconsistent (three of their regulars shoot less than 40% from the field), and their halfcourt strategy seems to be, "Let's pass the ball around for 28 seconds, then let Walker create". There's a reason they lost four out of their last five regular season games.

Now, it's tempting to think that a player of Walker's caliber can carry a team that plays solid defense and scores in transition. I can buy that for 3-4 games, but six? What happens if he gets in foul trouble? What if a smart team throws a box-and-one at him and forces Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith to make plays? What happens if he simply has an off night? He can't win the title by himself.

The nightmare matchup: If a duel between Ohio State and Kentucky is a dream matchup for a general basketball, a contest between Duke and Texas is downright terrifying to Blue Devil fans. This Texas team is athletic, they rebound (ranked fifth in the nation), and as my buddy Mike pointed out, they'll have two tough defenders (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph) to throw at Nolan Smith. That they're the only team to beat Kansas at Kansas in the last two years is not an accident. If Rick Barnes weren't involved, I'd be picking Texas to reach the Final Four.

Of course, such a nightmare might remain a mere spectre that haunts my dreams, because Texas might lose to Oakland in the first round. The Longhorns have lost four of their last eight games, including an epic choke against Colorado in which they blew a 22-point lead and played as if God had turned on the "CPU Assist" button in favor of the Buffaloes. Am I really supposed to pick this team to make the Elite Eight? Are we sure there have to be eight teams in the Elite Eight?

(Seriously, can you believe that a year ago there was talk of expanding the tournament field to ninety-six teams? Given this slate of mediocre clubs, I'd be willing to consider reducing the number of eligible teams to 48.)

The farce: Remember that hilarious SportsCenter commercial in which Kenny Mayne and Stuart Scott play basketball with a bunch of kids and flip out whenever the kids did something wrong? I think of that commercial whenever I watch Derrick Williams play on Arizona. A potential top-three pick in the draft (how many freakishly athletic 6'8" forwards shoot 60% from three?), Williams playing in the Pac-10 is like Peyton Manning playing in a Pee Wee league. By all accounts, he's a good teammate, but I can totally see him snapping the next time Kyle Fogg throws up a brick. "When I pass it to you, give it right back. GIVE IT BACK!"

The Picks
Sweet 16: Duke over Michigan, Texas over Arizona, Uconn over Cincinnati, Temple over San Diego State.

Regional Final: DUKE over Temple.

(For the record, I've flip-flopped roughly 35 times on the outcome of that Duke-Texas game. I'm likely still not done.)

The right stuff: This is a strong, well-balanced region – not as loaded as the East, but not as barren as the Southeast. With the exception of Georgetown landing a #6 seed (because Chris Wright is supposedly coming back completely healthy from a broken hand, sure), I can't say a bad thing about this region. And that's rare for me.

The top seed: Part of me thinks that Kansas is the most complete team in the country; part of me thinks the Jayhawks would rather be playing beer pong than focusing on winning a national championship. But when in doubt, I tend to choose talent over character, and make no mistake – Kansas has talent. Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed combine to form a steady backcourt, Thomas Robinson is a load inside, and Marcus Morris might be the most underrated player in the country (and he still won Big 12 Player of the Year). They would probably be my clear favorite if Bill Self weren't constantly jerking freshman stud Josh Selby around like he's trying to emulate Jon Voight in Varsity Blues. Still, as long as they keep their heads in the game, the Jayhawks will make it to Houston.

The quiet ones: Notre Dame is hardly an imposing team on the court and would be an afterthought in the overall tournament picture, if it weren't for the irritating fact that they hardly ever lose a game. In a conference defined by athleticism and toughness, the Irish make their living through patience, execution, and perimeter shooting. Could they get riled against a hard-nosed Florida State squad? Sure. Could they ride Ben Hansbrough's decision-making and court savvy to a Final Four berth? It's entirely possible. Basically, I have no idea what to make of them.

The noisy ones: Purdue features one phenomenal talent (JaJuan Johnson, a high-flying big man with shooting touch), one sturdy senior who's capable of taking over a game (E'Twaun Moore), and a bunch of gritty role players who defend, hustle, and generally make life miserable for the opposing team. That's exactly the kind of roster that can give Notre Dame problems, and it's also a roster that has no chance of beating Kansas. Sometimes, things just shake out that way.

The lucky ones: By all accounts, VCU has no business playing in the tournament. They've lost five of their last eight games, they beat one ranked team all year, and they finished third in the Colonial. So why do I feel like they could parlay their good fortune into a serious run, at least beating an overrated Georgetown squad and possibly making Purdue sweat?

The unlucky ones: I like Louisville. I like Kansas more.

The Picks
Play-in game: VCU over USC.

Sweet 16: Kansas over UNLV, Louisville over Richmond, Purdue over VCU, Notre Dame over Florida State.

Regional Final: KANSAS over Purdue.

The wasteland: What a mess. Are the people who placed the teams in this region the same people who are currently negotiating the NFL's labor dispute? I honestly think that the East and the Southeast engaged in secret trade talks, whereby the Southeast sent Kentucky and North Carolina to the East in exchange for Florida, Wisconsin, and the right to host the top overall seed in 2013. There's no other explanation for this putrid collection of teams.

The top seed: If this year's NCAA Tournament were Super Mario Kart, Pitt would be Luigi. It's a team that does everything reasonably well but nothing extraordinarily well. They play defense, they rebound, they're physical, they have one dead-eye shooter (Ashton Gibbs), and they have a sneakily talented all-around player in Brad Wanamaker. And yet, no one on this Pitt team scares me. It's one thing to have a balanced squad; it's another not to have a go-to-guy in crunch-time. Can a team with no stars really make the Final Four?

The fraud: I've been secretly rooting for Florida to do well in the regular season, just so they could get a high seed and inevitably choke in the tournament. I certainly got the first half of my wish, as the Gators inexplicably landed a two seed. The only problem is that every other team in their half of the region is as bad as they are. Nevertheless, I dislike this team. They're led by two guards (Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker) who don't like to pass, make bad decisions, and are inefficient shooters (Boynton shoots just 38% overall and 33% from three). Their big guys are talented but don't get enough touches because their guards don't share the ball. And their best player, small forward Chandler Parsons, is a liability in close games because he shoots 56% from the free-throw line. And they could feasibly reach the Final Four. The Southeast is that bad.

The scouting report: Alright, here's the Manifesto's take on BYU's Jimmer Fredette: Obviously he's a remarkable collegiate player who deserves to be National Player of the Year. But what's his pro stock? Fredette has two major strengths: unlimited shooting range, and an uncanny ability to wriggle into the lane and get his shot off against bigger players. The first should translate just fine to the NBA, but the second will not – Fredette just won't be able to create his own shot at the next level. But that doesn't mean he won't be a reliable scorer off the bench. He's a willing passer with decent vision, and if he works on his defense (given his size, he'll need to defend shooting guards), he could be a valuable role player on a good team. Just don't expect him to drop 52 points against NBA defenses.

In any case, as good as Fredette is, BYU is obviously toast without Brandon Davies. Ever since Davies – the Cougars' lone athletic big man and leading rebounder – was suspended for engaging in some hanky-panky that violated the university's honor code, the team has been in a tailspin, and there's no reason to expect that to change against a high-energy team such as St. John's. That'll teach Davies to have consensual sex with his girlfriend.

The great unknowns: In case you couldn't tell, the amount of college basketball I've watched over the past few months could charitably be described as "unhealthy". And yet, I never managed to catch either Utah State or Belmont. I did, however, watch plenty of both Kansas State and Wisconsin, and I saw more than enough to know that I'm not backing either team against an opponent who's won 30 games. All hail the second-round matchup between 12 and 13 seeds!

The vendetta: Every year, I predict Michigan State to lose in the first or second round, always citing their poor regular season performance. And every year, they advance further than I predict, reaching the Final Four six times in the past 12 years. Well guess what? I'm picking against them again this year. They lost 14 games this season, and they haven't won three in a row since November. You will have to kill me, Tom Izzo. I'm like Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men – I am the last holdout. I will never vote for you while I am alive.

The sleeper: I recognize that ritual requires me to pick at least one team from this wretched region to reach the Final Four. I've already written off the top five seeds (Pitt, Florida, BYU, Wisconsin, and Kansas State). St. John's is intriguing, but the Red Storm are too inconsistent to win four straight games in March. UCLA hails from that wilderness called the Pac-10. Butler doesn't have Gordon Hayward anymore. I'm tempted to write in "Saint Mary's", but ESPN's bracket interface won't let me. Which means I'm left with ...

... Old Dominion.

Sure, it's a stretch, but it's not unfathomable. Old Dominion is good. They've won 13 of their last 14 games. Their only bad loss all season was to VCU. They play a brutal, suffocating zone. They're seventh in the nation in rebounding. And if they pull off a win against Pitt in the second round (basically a home game for ODU in D.C.), the entire New Orleans crowd will be vigorously behind them in the region's final two games.

Besides, I'm taking three #1 seeds in the other three regions, so I need to shake things up a little. It's that kind of year.

The Picks
Play-in game: UNC-Ashville over Arkansas-Little Rock.

Sweet 16: Old Dominion over Pitt, Utah State over Belmont, St. John's over BYU, UCLA over Florida.

Regional Final: OLD DOMINION over St. John's.

Semifinal #1: The only reason I'm picking Duke to get past Texas is that Mike Krzyzewski might be able to out-coach Rick Barnes. He won't be able to do the same to Thad Motta. Ohio State over Duke.

Semifinal #2: If I have the balls to pick Old Dominion to make the Final Four, doesn't that mean I should ride them all the way and back them to beat Kansas? No.

Championship: In a battle between the two most talented teams in the country, I'll take KANSAS' depth and balance over Ohio State's firepower.

And that's a wrap to the Manifesto's guide to March Madness 2011. I look forward to getting most of this wrong, but no matter what happens, I still have this from last year.

1 comment:

Brent said...

Seriously, you don't even mention Wofford? Just implicitly trash them. Not cool.