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Cream of Draft Crop Have Plenty of Promise

by - Published June 11, 2010 in Columns

With the NBA Finals in full effect and the LeBron James sweepstakes as the preferred topic of discussion in the background, not everyone remembers the NBA Draft is also on this month’s schedule. And no one’s to blame, really. Despite the talent the 2010 class holds, the draft has seen better days.

These 2010 guys are out to prove something, though. One won’t know just how great a draft class it will be until years down the road, once these soon-to-be-rookies go on to participate in several All-Star games, win an MVP or simply bust out to play in Europe.

With that disclaimer in play, here is the best the 2010 NBA Draft has to offer.

1. John Wall, point guard, Kentucky

Wall’s undisputedly No. 1. Not only did he help make Kentucky one of the best teams in college basketball last season, he did it as a freshman while averaging great numbers: 16.9 points, 6.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. The 19-year-old is a pure point guard with terrific size, speed and court vision. What he needs to improve is his inconsistent jump shot. But other than that, he’s exactly what troubled Washington — owner of the No. 1 pick — needs after such a tumultuous season.

2. Evan Turner, small forward, Ohio State

Averaging 20 points and almost 10 rebounds per game, Turner got to the rim and grabbed misses almost at will in college. He’s an offensive workhorse who can pass while also excelling on defense. His court vision also is outstanding, evidenced by his six assists per game in 2009-10. Just call him Mr. Versatility. It would be interesting to see how much he gets the ball in Philadelphia, which has the No. 2 pick, though. He was the man in Ohio, but he would be Andre Iguodala’s sidekick in Philly.

3. DeMarcus Cousins, center, Kentucky

So Wall didn’t make Kentucky a contender by himself. He had himself a stud of a big man helping him. Standing at 6-11 and weighing 270 pounds, Cousins averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in limited playing time — mostly because of foul trouble. He’s only 19 years old and has a lot of potential, good and bad. He has great hands and a scoring mentality, but there are concerns about his weight and maturity. There’s no question Cousins has all the tools necessary to be very good in the NBA. The New Jersey Nets, who have the No. 3 pick, would hope he decides to use them.

4. Greg Monroe, power forward, Georgetown

Two seasons at Georgetown was all Monroe needed to be NBA ready. He’s a double-double machine with great passing ability, and he’s a lefty. He can create his own shot but needs to work on his jump shot, a lot. He’s only 20, though, so there’s a lot of potential for the already-skilled big man. He’ll be a nice pickup for Minnesota, if the Timberwolves take him with the No. 4 pick, who could really use the help after going 15-67 last season.

5. Derrick Favors, power forward, Georgia Tech

The youngest player entering the 2010 NBA Draft, Favors was among the top players in field goal percentage (61 percent) during the 2009-10 season. He averaged 12.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in 27.5 minutes per game. He’s a very effective big man with quickness and athleticism. His youth also means his body hasn’t fully developed, though, so he’ll need to gain some muscle to be a difference-maker. There’s nowhere to go but up for Favors, and the Kings (No. 5 pick) will likely take him.

The only certainty in this 2010 Draft, it seems, is that Wall will go No. 1. Turner at No. 2 is also as good a prediction as a Tim Duncan bank shot. Picks No. 3 through 5, however, can be switched around among New Jersey, Minnesota and Sacramento. None of those big men will be immediate franchise saviors. Potential is their main label.

Kentucky: Calipari Masters the Art of Managing One-and-Done Players

by - Published April 11, 2010 in Columns

NBA point guards Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans’ success stories have only served as encouragement for a decision that didn’t need much thought for Kentucky freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins after their first college season came to an end: Bye-bye Wildcats, hello NBA lottery.

Rose and Evans, starters for the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings, respectively, have transitioned fantastically into the pros after spending only one season in school under coach John Calipari at Memphis. Calipari, now with Kentucky, is some kind of first-year player virtuoso. Wall, a point guard, figures to go No. 1 overall, and Cousins, a forward, is expected to be off the board not long after.

And what about the two other Kentucky freshmen and a junior who also declared themselves ready for the NBA? First-round picks, too.

Junior forward Patrick Patterson is the only player who’s left the door open for a return to the Wildcats next season, saying he’s “half in, half out,” while guard Eric Bledsoe and center Daniel Orton look confident in going for the leap. They can all opt to change their minds by May 8 as long as they don’t hire agents, but that seems unlikely. Calipari, while happy for his pupils, will have to work some more recruiting magic to make Kentucky (35-3 in 2009-10) a powerhouse again next season.

Wall was a favorite to go pro even before the season began, and he backed up the hype. His mind-blowing play that generated 16.6 points and 6.5 assists per game led the Wildcats to regular-season and conference tournament championships before they fell to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. He set a single-season school record with 241 assists. Many of those went to Cousins.

Cousins was at his best when not in foul trouble, something he struggled with mightily — along with a temper problem — early in the season. He averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and book-ended Kentucky’s monster guard/forward duo.

But if it wasn’t Wall or Cousins dominating the game, it was Bledsoe or Orton, the two other excellent freshmen who lived in their teammates’ shadows — hence the mild surprise when they announced the move to the NBA. The speedy Bledsoe averaged 11.9 points per game and was one of the Wildcats’ best three-point threats. Meanwhile, Orton kept Kentucky’s paint safe when Cousins was in foul trouble. He was a shot-blocking machine.

Patterson averaged a career-low 14.3 points per game, which might be one of the reasons he’d like to come back next year, along with the possibility of an NBA lockout. However, he backed out of the NBA Draft last season when many thought he was ready, which only tilts the balance in favor of him leaving this time around.

Patterson’s dipping numbers, down from 17.9 points per game last season, are a reflection of the kind of talent Calipari brought along after signing with Kentucky. A star alongside guard Jodie Meeks last season, Patterson was only the third-leading scorer this season. It’s a misleading statistic because — as with Bledsoe and Orton — if he had been the program’s featured player, he would have been a standout. There would be no “half in, half out” decision to make; it’d be an all-in while holding a full house.

Luckily for Patterson, Bledsoe and Orton, NBA scouts will see beyond their numbers, which should be a huge sigh of relief for Orton and his modest 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. They’re as good as gone. Calipari will be left with only five returning players from this season’s team.

But if anyone can rebuild a team, it’s Calipari, someone who transformed a team not good enough to make the NCAA Tournament one year into one of the Big Dance’s No. 1 seeds the next. The coach, who was a Mario Chalmers’ desperation three-pointer away from winning a national championship with Memphis in 2008, lost Rose to the NBA as the No. 1 pick in 2008 only to replace him with Evans in 2009, keeping the Tigers among the elite teams. He then left to Kentucky, where he turned an NIT team into a championship contender.

Calipari’s 2010 recruiting class, as usual, is among one of the top in the nation. Six-foot-10 Turkish center Enes Kanter has verbally committed, as has 6-5 slashing shooting guard Stacey Poole. Kentucky still doesn’t have an answer from point guard Brandon Knight, a crème-of-the-crop recruit, but the Wildcats, along with Kansas and Connecticut, are in the mix for his services.

Having Calipari at the helm certainly won’t hurt the Wildcats in their hunt to replace their departing young guns with other fresh-blooded talent. Kentucky will be back as one of the top teams next season. But before that — and a la North Carolina in 2005 — several Wildcats will hear their name called aloud on June 24, date of the 2010 NBA Draft.

Happy endings for everybody.

Bracket Breakdown: Your Complete Guide to the Final Four

by - Published April 3, 2010 in Columns

On one side of the bracket that went busted a day into the NCAA Tournament, we have two Cinderella teams hoping that the crystal shoe will fit them at the end. On the other, we have two power-conference juggernauts trying to spoil the folk tale’s happy ending.

It’s not a good vs. evil story. It’s merely the Final Four, and its two No. 5 seeds (injury-riddled Michigan State and Butler) battling each other for one spot in the championship game while the ACC’s and No. 1 seed Duke combats the Big East’s and No. 2 West Virginia for the other. Two feel-good stories vs. two bracket-saving, household names.

It should be fun. Let’s take a look at those Final Four-ers.

Even though it’s a second consecutive Final Four trip for the Spartans (28-8), the state of Michigan should still be pleasantly shocked to find them there. Michigan State has walked on the borderline of survival in every round to reach these instances, having won its four games by an average of 3.25 points. Clutchness and healthy doses of guards Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers have done the trick. They have the Spartans feeling they can go from 2009 runner-ups to 2010 champions despite their major underdog status.

However, when it comes to underdogs, no team barks louder than the Bulldogs of Butler (32-4). Fans are growing either hopeful or tired of hearing about how this team’s run is not unlike that of the Hickory team from the “Hoosiers” movie, the story of a small-town Indiana high school squad that wins the state championship — my apologies if I ruined the movie for anyone.

The similarities are there. Butler is also from Indiana and plays in the mid-major Horizon League. Adding to that, the Bulldogs have pulled their set of upsets to get to the Final Four. They beat their region’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds — Syracuse and Kansas State, respectively — to get a shot at the title while playing in their home state.

As it’s been the case all tournament long, swingman Gordon Hayward will be key for Butler, not just because of his team-leading scoring but because of his rebounding. The sophomore will need to set a tone on the glass and hope his teammates follow. Michigan State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and extra possessions could be the difference. The Spartans, for their part, must take Butler’s playing-at-home spirit out right off the bat. And they shouldn’t rely on their crunch-time skills. Butler, which comes into the game having won 24 consecutive games, has been just as good in those instances this tournament.

Whichever squad remains alive after the underdog-off will have to face a powerhouse in the championship game. Duke (33-5), thought by many to be the most vulnerable No. 1 Tournament seed, is the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. The “Big Three,” guards Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler, combine for about 70 percent of the Blue Devils’ total scoring and has carried Duke past every team it was supposed to beat. Now, however, Duke, a team that relies heavily on three-point shooting, will face its biggest offensive test against a lengthy West Virginia (31-6) squad that forced another No. 1 seed, Kentucky, into misfiring on 28-of-32 three-point attempts in their Elite Eight match.

The Mountaineers not only are long and effective zone defenders but also feature one of the most exciting players in the field: forward Da’Sean Butler. Butler hasn’t needed to hit any big shots this post-season as West Virginia hasn’t had any major scares during its run, but Butler is one bad dude when called upon, as proven by his two game-winners in the Big East Tournament. He and forward Devin Ebanks are the Mountaineers’ main offensive weapons.

Smith is the guy for Duke. His ability to break down defenses and create, along with his reliable jump shot, could have West Virginia scrambling out of their zone defense rather early. The Blue Devils are an outstanding shooting team, and the Mountaineers might not have a choice but to play them man-to-man. How West Virginia adjusts to Duke’s shooting ability will be the deciding factor. And it would also help the Mountaineers if they could make a couple of shots. Defense is what’s gotten them this far, but they’re the worst shooting team remaining. West Virginia has shot less than 42 percent in all of their tournament wins.

Because of its underdog of underdogs’ status, Butler is the team that seemingly everyone wants to win it all, especially because the Bulldogs are playing in front of their home crowd. Michigan State will be a tough rival, but these teams are evenly-matched. Meanwhile, on the other side, Duke will need a good shooting day to get past the Mountaineers, who will pray for an average shooting day to help them get back to the championship game for the first time since 1959. It should be fun.

Predictions that will probably be completely wrong: Butler and Duke advance. And Duke wins it all.

Bracket Breakdown: Pac-10, Mid-Majors Show the Big East the Door

by - Published March 24, 2010 in Columns

It all started with some kid from a Kentucky school not named Kentucky stunning the college basketball world with an odds-defying, game-winning jumper at the buzzer. Thanks to forward Danero Thomas, 13th-seeded Murray State shocked No. 4-seed Vanderbilt, 66-65, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Thursday.

Racers’ fans went into a frenzy. Many people who had never even heard of the school before celebrated the feel-good upset just because of its own strange nature. Even more people, however, kicked at the ground and muttered curse words because the unexpected result shook up their brackets.

That was just the beginning. Perhaps inspired by the Racers’ Day 1 shocker, a No. 12 seed, Cornell, decided it would ride hot-shooting all the way into the Sweet 16, a similar case to that of No. 10 St. Mary’s, which unleashed its beast of a center, 6-11 Omar Samhan, in the South Region and knocked out second-seeded Villanova to also join the field of 16.

And after No. 9 Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh made the most cold-blooded crunch-time 3-pointer in recent tournament memory to cement his team’s Sweet 16 ticket while taking down overall-top-seeded Kansas on Saturday, it was official that at least 90 percent of the country’s brackets had gone more busted than a piñata on Cinco de Mayo.

Putting aside the almighty custom of wagering on tournament predictions, however, March Madness has been splendid so far. Down-to-the-wire games have been numerous, as have been upsets. High seeds Kansas, Villanova, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin and Temple all got axed, but their executioners gave the competition parity and diversity. Entering the Sweet 16, 11 conferences will be represented.

Out of all surprise teams, Cornell has been the most pleasant one. The Big Red’s wins made it the first Ivy League team to make it this far in more than 30 years, and it did so with authority. Cornell smacked around No. 5 Temple in the first round and then did the same to No. 4 Wisconsin in the second while shooting a combined 58.6 percent in the games.

Even better than that, though, has been the performance of St. Mary’s Samhan, who has totaled 61 points through two games while making 24 of 32 field goal attempts. His supremacy has been the reason the Gaels are enjoying the best season in their history while Villanova is already home, lamenting its collapse.

Speaking of failure, that’s been the theme of the postseason for Nova’s conference. The Big East, widely regarded as the best league in college basketball, had a tournament-best eight entrants, but half were done by the end of the first round, and two more followed soon after in the second. Only No. 1-seed Syracuse in the West Region and No. 2-seed West Virginia in the East remain.

First-round meat: No. 6 Marquette, which blew a 15-point lead in the second half and lost to an out-to-prove-the-Pac-10-is-not-that-weak No. 11-seed Washington; No. 3-seed Georgetown, which was blasted by Ohio, a team that had a losing record in the MAC and got into the Dance only after winning its conference’s tournament; Notre Dame, which was zoned out of the tournament by No. 11-seed Old Dominion; and No. 9-seed Louisville, which also got embarrassed by the Pac-10, by Cal.

No. 3-seed Pittsburgh made the second round, but the Panthers couldn’t hang with No. 6-seed Xavier on Sunday and were ousted.

With so many high seeds gone so early, thanks in big part to the Big East, it’d clearly be silly to count any team out. In the East, No. 1-seed Kentucky will have the challenge to cool down the Big Red’s red-hot shooting, and West Virginia will have to remain impressive to get past an also-remarkable Washington. In the South, No. 1-seed Duke, which has made quick work of its rivals so far, will face a Purdue team missing Robbie Hummel, and No. 3-seed Baylor will deal with Samhan, St. Mary’s scary big man.

In the Midwest, Cinderella Northern Iowa will face No. 5-seed Michigan State, ecstatic after its buzzer-beating win over Maryland Sunday, and No. 2-seed Ohio State, the favorite to win the section now that Kansas is gone, will take on No. 6-seed Tennessee. In the West, No. 5-seed Butler, which got a scare from Murray State before advancing via a 54-52 win Saturday, will meet with Syracuse. The winner will play the winner of the Kansas State-Xavier game.

Predictions? We’re not too big on them these days, but the solid candidates to advance are Kentucky, Syracuse, Duke, West Virginia and Ohio State. These teams have been imposing through their first two games. They’re as dependable picks as Kansas was before Saturday.

Bracket Breakdown: How the Mountain West Will Fare

by - Published March 17, 2010 in Columns

The Mountain West Conference demonstrated that it’s a league on the rise as it doubled its number of NCAA Tournament participants from two in 2009 to four this year. But are they ready to dance with the likes of the Big East and SEC?

New Mexico Lobos (29-4, 14-2 MWC)

No. 3 seed, East Region

Regardless of what goes on in the tournament, this will be regarded as the best season in New Mexico’s history. The Lobos won a school-record 29 games — and counting — and claimed the MWC regular-season championship. The only sour note of the year so far was struck by San Diego State, which handed the Lobos half of their losses this season, including one in the tournament semifinals Friday.

The recompense to the Lobos’ exceptional season is a No. 3 seed in the East Region and a game against a I-still-can-not-believe-I-am-here Montana, a team that booked its NCAA Tournament ticket by rallying from 22 points down to win the Big Sky Tournament championship. New Mexico will handle those cats easily and advance to the second round, where Marquette will be waiting.

And although Marquette is a No. 6 seed, this will be where the dream season will come to an end for the Lobos. The Golden Eagles, a Big East team, have been tried repeatedly this season, while New Mexico, part of a far-more-modest conference, has not. It will be close, but Marquette will prevail. Still, the Lobos will go home having won 30 games, an incredible feat.

Brigham Young Cougars (29-5, 13-3)

No. 7 seed, West Region

The Cougars would be considered the best team in this conference hands down if it wasn’t for the simple fact that New Mexico, the actual best team in the MWC, swept them this season. Otherwise, BYU was almost flawless in a season that saw them win a school-record 29 times.

Getting it done both offensively and defensively is what drove the Cougars to this season of distinction. BYU is the second-highest scoring team in the nation at 83.0 points per game. But in the midst of their high-octane offense, they still find time to play defense. The Cougars hold their opposition to 65.2 points per game. That’s a point differential of 17.8 points.

That dangerous combo — along with the brilliance of guard Jimmer Fredette — will make BYU, a No. 7 seed in the West Region, a threat to any team regardless of record or pedigree. The Cougars will make quick work of undeserving No. 10 Florida in the first round and then give Kansas State fits in the second. But the Wildcats and their guard duo of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente will put an end to the dream season. BYU will also have to say bye-bye in the second round, having won 30 games.

San Diego State Aztecs (25-8, 11-5)

No. 11 seed, Midwest Region

After a 2008-09 season in which they felt snubbed out of the NCAA Tournament, the Aztecs made sure there wouldn’t be a chance for a repeat this season by winning the MWC Tournament title.

San Diego State barely escaped Colorado State in the tournament’s quarterfinals but was more convincing in the semifinals, defeating New Mexico, and the championship game, downing UNLV. That tournament title awarded them a No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region and a first-round meeting with No. 6 Tennessee.

But will the confidence of a tournament championship and a chip on their shoulder from the 2009 snub be enough to push the Aztecs past a team that’s beaten both No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky this season? Likely not. The Volunteers happened to have lost their last game in shameful fashion, 74-45 to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals Saturday, and they will not overlook the Aztecs in the first round. San Diego State will not be able to surprise Tennessee and will be one-and-out after a great season.

UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (25-8, 11-5)

No. 9 seed, Midwest Region

On paper, the Rebels have an almost identical NCAA Tournament résumé to that of San Diego State. The only difference for UNLV lies in its 55-45 loss to the Aztecs in the MWC Tournament championship game Saturday. They’re even in the same region, the Midwest.

Despite the tourney loss, UNLV was granted a higher seed over the Aztecs, a No. 8. That’s not necessarily going to help the Rebels stick around any longer than the champs, though. They’ll have to play a No. 9 Northern Iowa that has only lost four games all season long and has an edge on experience. The Panthers bring pretty much their whole team back from last year’s NCAA Tournament run, and, unfortunately for the Rebels, that will doom them and give them yet another likeness to San Diego State: a season-ending first-round loss.

Bracket Breakdown: How the Pac-10 Will Fare

by - Published March 16, 2010 in Columns

The good ol’ days are gone for the Pacific 10 Conference as the league has suffered a plummet in skill level this season that’s gotten them from having six participants in the NCAA Tournament last year to only two in this one: Cal, the regular-season champion, and Washington, the conference tournament champion.

California Golden Bears (23-10, 13-5)

No. 8 seed, South Region

It took 50 years for the Pac-10 to be weak enough for Cal to win a regular-season championship, but it finally happened. Behind the conference Player of the Year, guard Jerome Randle, who averages 18.7 points per game, the Bears are undoubtedly the Pac-10’s cream of the crop. Their reward for being the best of definitely-not-the-best is a game against the South Region’s No. 9 seed, Louisville (20-12, 11-7 Big East).

California knows how to party, and that’s what the eighth-seeded Bears were doing up until running into Washington in the conference tournament final. Winners of nine of its last 10 games coming into the match up against the Huskies, Cal missed on its chance at a first-ever tournament championship in great part due to Randle being in foul trouble. Washington, using surges while Randle was on the bench, won 79-75.

Even with the disappointment of being unable to complete the championship combo, Cal is playing decent enough to give itself a chance against the Cardinals. But this season, in a battle between the Pac-10’s best and the Big East’s sixth-best, one must go with the guys in the proven conference. The Bears will roar loudly at Louisville, but it’s the Cardinals who’ll fly away with the win in crunch time.

Washington Huskies (24-9, 11-7)

There’s two sides to every story, and the Huskies’ side says they would have beaten Cal even if Randle had played all 40 minutes of the tournament final. That may very well be, seeing how Washington had won six games in a row before facing the Bears.

The duo of forward Quincy Pondexter and guard Isaiah Thomas was the Pac-10’s best this season. Thanks to their combined 37 points per game, Washington, seeded No. 11 in the East Region, reached a national-No. 10 ranking at a point. That was before drinking some reality tea and hitting a five-losses-in-seven-games’ stretch. Since, however, the Huskies have been much more respectable, winning 12 of 14 and going from bubble team to the Pac-10’s rightful NCAA Tournament delegate.

On a roll or not, though, Washington will have the same fate as that of its conference comrade, Cal: a first-round loss to a Big Easter, a much-more-tested No. 6 Marquette (22-11, 11-7 Big East). The Pac-10 was just too frail this season, and the NCAA Tournament’s second round is for the big boys.

Better luck next year, Pac-10.

Bracket Breakdown: How the Big 12 Will Fare

by - Published March 16, 2010 in Columns

With more than half of its conference participating in the NCAA Tournament, the Big 12 has sky-high aspirations to have at least one of its members making it all the way to the Final Four. And two of them making it is not a foolish prospect either. Here is a preview of what to expect from all seven Big 12 participants in the Dance.

Kansas Jayhawks (32-2, 15-1 Big 12)

No. 1 seed, Midwest Region

Ranked No. 1 in the nation and having received the top overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kansas is the Big 12’s — and NCAA’s — favorite to bring home the prize: the national championship.

Owners of 13- and 14-game winning streaks during the regular season, the Jayhawks come into the mid-March Madness having won every game they were supposed to win, their only losses coming on road games to No. 14 Tennessee and daunting Oklahoma State. Kansas won its conference’s regular-season title by a wide margin and also paced itself to a trouble-free Big 12 tournament championship.

The Jayhawks have already beaten a number of teams invited to this year’s field of 65. That includes road wins against a No. 5 seed, Temple, which Kansas thrashed 84-52 Jan. 2, and Kansas State, a conference rival and a No. 2 seed, which the Jayhawks defeated grittily, 81-79, in overtime Jan. 30.

Back spasms almost prevented Kansas’ star, point guard Sherron Collins from coming back in time to down the Wildcats during the Jayhawks’ overtime win, but very little stops the senior from leading his team to victory these days, especially in crunch time. The Jahawks’ leading scorer and assist man at 15.5 points and 4.6 assists per game, Collins is added insurance when a game gets too close for comfort. In the rest of the occasions, Kansas’ complete offense/defense combo does the trick alone.

The Midwest Region isn’t exactly the cakewalk section of the tournament, but Kansas should advance unchallenged through at least the first two rounds, downing 16th-seeded Lehigh in the first and UNLV/Northern Iowa in the second. Maryland, Georgetown or Ohio State might throw a scare into them into the Sweet Sixteen and beyond, but the Jayhawks are not only destined to get to the Final Four but also to win the tournament championship for the second time in the past three seasons.

Kansas State Wildcats (26-7, 11-5)

No. 2 seed, West Region

Feeling lucky to be in any region besides the one the Jayhawks are in — seeing how the Wildcats have lost 41 of the 43 past meetings — Kansas State is the No. 2 seed in the West, behind the monster Big East Conference’s Syracuse. The Wildcats have an exciting combo of guards in Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, who average a combined 35.1 points per game, and shouldn’t have problems advancing to the Sweet 16 by beating No. 15 North Texas and No. 7 BYU.

But that’s where they’ll likely encounter another Big East bully, Pittsburgh, and things could get complicated for the Wildcats. Pittsburgh’s defense could create a lot of problems for Kansas State, and in a match up of second-place teams in the top two conferences, the Panthers would show the Wildcats that the Big East is just a tidbit better than the Big 12 and end their best season in more than 20 years.

Baylor Bears (25-7, 11-5)

No. 3 seed, South Region

No team may have an easier path to the Final Four than Baylor, a No. 3 seed in the weakest region, the South. The No. 1 seed of that section is Duke, a team many believed could fall to a No. 2, followed by Villanova, a squad that has fallen from grace after losing five of its past seven games.

Not only do the Bears have a high-scoring backcourt duo in LaceDarius Dunn (19.4 ppg) and Tweety Carter (15.7 ppg), but they also play intensively on the defensive end. First, they get No. 14 Sam Houston State, a team that will see itself overmatched against the Bears. Then, likely, it will be No. 6 Notre Dame, a dangerous opponent that may upend them, but if the Bears can get past them, the Sweet 16 will await them in Houston, giving them a home court advantage they can ride into the Elite Eight and Final Four.

Texas A&M Aggies (23-9, 11-5)

No. 5 seed, South Region

With two wins, the Aggies get to play a virtual home game in the Sweet 16. That’s all the Aggies of Texas A&M need to do to get a match up in Houston against (likely) the South Region’s top seed, Duke. That’s easier said than done, though. The No. 5 Aggies need to get past the No. 12 Aggies of Utah State, the second-best three-point shooting team in the nation. This game is more even than people might realize because of that long-range shooting wild card.

Utah State won 17 games in a row at one point for a reason, and Texas A&M might see itself get upset in the first round. Utah State is scarier than either team Texas A&M would get in the second round: a No. 4 Purdue without Robbie Hummel or No. 13 Siena. But if the higher-seeded Aggies can get past that first-round hurdle, they could get themselves a dream game in the Sweet 16.

Missouri Tigers (22-10, 10-6)

No. 10 seed, East Region

Inconsistency is the name of Missouri, a No. 10 seed in the East Region. The Tigers opened the season by winning their first four games, then dropped three of their next four. They then ran out to a winning streak of nine games before losing three of their next five. The latest word on the Tigers is a stretch that could have seen them lose four consecutive games if they had not pulled out an overtime win at lowly Iowa State March 2.

No. 7 Clemson, Missouri’s first-round rival, isn’t riding high either after losing its last two games before the NCAA Tournament, but the battle of Tigers will probably go the more-experienced Clemson’s way. Missouri’s leading scorers are all second-year players. The best is yet to come for them, just not this year.

Texas Longhorns (24-9, 9-7)

No. 8 seed, East Region

Few understand what’s happened to Texas, a team that won its first 17 games, earned a No. 1 ranking and then lost nine times in 16 games. But when looking at the schedule, it’s not that difficult to find an answer: the Big 12 happened. The eighth-seeded Longhorns lost seven games against conference rivals and were unable to get any confidence-building wins. A big chunk of their Big 12 victories came at the expense of teams like Iowa State and Texas Tech, the conference’s little brothers.

The Longhorns, however, did get a break in drawing No. 9 Wake Forest as their first-round East Region match up. The Demon Deacons are more done than an overcooked turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Texas fans better enjoy those Damion James‘ first-round dunks. They will be some of his last, seeing how the second round will bring top-seeded Kentucky and the end of a season-gone-awry for Texas.

Oklahoma State Cowboys (22-10, 9-7)

No. 7 seed, Midwest Region

Just how good is shooting guard James Anderson? Good enough to carry Oklahoma State to at least one NCAA Tournament win, that’s how good he is. The No. 7 Cowboys get a date with No. 10 Georgia Tech in the first round of the Midwest Region, and Anderson and his 22.6 points per game look to be more than sufficient to get them past a Yellow Jackets squad that had a losing record (7-9) in the ACC.

Beating up on top teams has been the Cowboys’ trademark this season. They were one of two teams that handed Kansas a loss this season, a fact that should scare anyone who happens to be in their way. But they also beat Baylor and handled Kansas State in Manhattan. They are capable of upsetting No. 2 Ohio State in the second round, but we won’t predict that considering the Buckeyes’ Evan Turner will be awaiting. Out with a bang, that’s how the Cowboys will go in the second round.

Besides Missouri, all Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament look poised to win at least one game in the Dance, with a couple of them having the potential to reach the Final Four. That’ll make the conference very proud of all its children. In the end, though, it’s all about Kansas for the Big 12, and the Jayhawks will show why they always got the biggest piece of cake for dessert.

Why You Need to Watch the Pac-10 Tournament

by - Published March 10, 2010 in Conference Notes

The Pacific 10 Conference is so feeble this season that even defending-tournament champion USC doesn’t want to be a part of this year’s tournament.

In reality, the Trojans can’t defend their championship because of a self-imposed sanction, but the idea of skipping the historically great league’s competition isn’t as absurd as you might think when considering the fall the Pac-10 has had this year. Regardless, the show must go on. Minus USC, nine hopefuls begin a journey at Staples Center today.

Hoping to lock up a dance ticket for a second consecutive season, regular-season champion and top-seeded Cal (21-9, 13-5 Pac-10) is the odds-on favorite to take the tournament due to its experienced squad and balance. Four of the Golden Bears’ starters are seniors, and they all average double-digit points (in order: guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher and forwards Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin). The Bears, winners of seven of their last eight games, will face the winner of tonight’s play-in game between No. 8 Oregon (15-15, 7-11) and No. 9 Washington State (16-14, 6-12)  (11 p.m. EST, FSN National).

Winner of six of its last seven games, No. 2 Arizona State (22-9, 12-6) might be the only Pac-10 team not named Cal that has secured itself an NCAA Tournament at-large bid even if it gets bounced out of the tourney early, which is unlikely. After dropping their first two Pac-10 games, the Sun Devils demolished then-No. 22 Washington to start a hot streak that saw them win 12 of their last 16 games, dominating every team but Cal, which won both regular-season meetings against ASU comfortably. The Sun Devils will take on the Landry Fields’ show, No. 7 Stanford (13-17, 7-11), on Thursday (9:18 EST, FSN).

The third-seeded Huskies repaid Arizona State when the Sun Devils came to Washington Feb. 6, knocking them around in a 79-56 win that was a shred of brilliance from the last Pac-10 team that still has a shot at an at-large bid. Led by senior forward Quincy Pondexter, who had a career-high 34 points against Oregon Thursday, Washington was ranked as high as tenth in the nation before entering a Pac-10 stretch in which it lost five of seven games. Pondexter didn’t let his Huskies lose many more games thereafter, though. Along with sidekick, sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas, Pondexter’s 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game helped Washington go 9-2 in its last 11 regular-season games.

The bubble Huskies get No. 6 Oregon State on Thursday (11:40 EST, FSN). Washington is fresh off a Beaver-pounding session as its last game was an 82-70 win at Oregon State Saturday.

No. 4 Arizona is a mystery, a streaky team that can take down the best, as evidenced by its Jan. 31 win over Cal, or choke against the worst, shown in a Jan. 8 last-second loss to Washington State. The Wildcats (16-14, 10-8) had two different three-game losing streaks as well as a winning streak of four games. They’re streaking in the right direction as they enter the tournament, however, as they’ve come up victorious in their last three games, including a win against its Thursday tournament rival: No. 5 UCLA (13-17, 8-10).

The only thing the Bruins will have going in their favor Thursday (3 p.m. EST, FSN) is that they’ll be playing at home. Young talents Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday are in the NBA now — like every other young UCLA star, seemingly — and unable to help them, and Arizona swept the regular-season series from them. UCLA’s attack is balanced, but it won’t be enough. Home court is the wild card for the Bruins. At least they know the NBA won’t be taking any of their players this year.

The Staples Center crowd will be disappointed to see UCLA fall early as all the higher seeds will advance to the Friday semifinals, where Cal will down Arizona and the Huskies will mildly upset Arizona State. Then, in the Saturday final, Cal will prevail over Washington, securing itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Both Washington and Arizona State will receive at-large bids.

Lastly, all three conference representatives will lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, finally putting an end to a disappointing Pac-10 season.

Mississippi State: Difference-Maker Can’t Make a Difference for Dogs’ Tourney Hopes

by - Published March 8, 2010 in Conference Notes

Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney didn’t know how to help. That’s been the theme the whole year as the NCAA went through an investigation that will result in the talented forward missing his entire freshman season plus the first nine games of next season because he’s suspended for receiving improper benefits in high school.

Unable to make a basketball play, Sidney apparently deemed it necessary to let everyone know he’s still around by getting into a verbal confrontation with No. 13 Tennessee’s big man Wayne Chism after the Volunteers had kicked the Bulldogs’ behinds all around Humphrey Coliseum Saturday night.

“I can go to sleep knowing I can play next year,” Sidney said upon learning of the NCAA ruling, a day before his team’s disheartening 75-59 loss.

Will Sidney’s absence have the Bulldogs (21-10, 9-7 SEC) in next-year mode as well following the defeat? Smack talk or not, Chism’s Volunteers (23-7, 11-5) might have just slammed the door in the face of Mississippi State’s hopes to make the NCAA Tournament.  The Bulldogs finished the regular season with the No. 1 seed in the SEC West, but their conference tournament chances look dim with  No. 3 Kentucky, No. 19 Vanderbilt and Tennessee itself representing the East in the competition.

Outstanding as it’s been while playing in the daunting SEC, Mississippi State could have been that much better with an in-uniform Sidney, who averaged 26.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a senior at Fairfax High School of Los Angeles. At the very least, the 6-10, 260-pounder could have been a deluxe complement to team leading-scorer and rebounder, senior forward Jarvis Varnado (13.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game).

Mississippi State relied heavily on its home court advantage and burst out to a 12-2 record early in the season. The win total slowed as expected once the Bulldogs hit the conference schedule, but the home wins continued. They were 12-1 at the Hump by the time Kentucky came to visit Feb. 16. The Bulldogs led the Wildcats by five with less than four minutes remaining in regulation but faltered in overtime, losing 81-76.

But the feared edge that had the third best team in the nation on the ropes at one time was nowhere to be found Saturday. Tennessee shot out to a 17-0 lead and never looked back, sending the Bulldogs to their third home loss and deflating their bubble.

Sidney exchanged words with Chism, who averages 12.4 points per game but scored only one on the night, thinking of what it could have been. Chism will graduate after this season, so Sidney won’t get a chance to confront him on the court — not him, nor South Carolina’s Devan Downey or any of the other outstanding SEC seniors. Sidney will wait a year and then some to make his mark. This year, though, his Bulldogs are in — a difficult — position to make the NCAA Tournament. They probably don’t need to repeat as conference tournament champions to get an NCAA Tournament invitation, but they need an upset, which likely means they need to at least make it back to the championship game.

That’s a daunting task — Sidney or no Sidney.

We’re No. 346!

by - Published March 1, 2010 in Conference Notes

Two more chances, that’s all Alcorn State has to get this season’s bragging rights.

Bryant? All it can hope for is that the Braves (1-28) keep tumbling so it doesn’t have to go alone with the worst Division-I team title.

Heading into the last week of the regular season, Alcorn State will have two shots to move past the Bulldogs (1-29) in the 2009-10 season win column. Not being the team with the least wins wasn’t exactly what the Braves were looking to brag about this year, but at this point, they’ll take it.

It’s not like they have much else to hang on to. Just like Bryant, the Braves won’t have post-season play.

The Braves knew from the very beginning it was going to be bad. Their season opener was a 40-point defeat at the hands of Ohio State, followed by a 62-point humiliation to Arkansas. Check, please?

Alcorn State kept on playing. Ten games later, it was 10 more double-digit losses, including a couple more 60-point losses. By the time the Braves won their first game — in their 25th try, 55-54, against Mississippi Valley State Feb. 13 — only 750 fans showed up to see it.

Bryant‘s path was a bit less embarrassing. The Bulldogs started off with 43- and 24-point losses before dropping a close one, 59-56, to Bucknell. Five of their next 23 losses were by six points or less before finally becoming the last Division-I team to win a game. Bryant defeated Wagner, 53-51, on the road Feb. 18.

The Bulldogs closed the season with three more losses, including an overtime one, 69-60, to St. Francis, N.Y., Thursday.

The résumés are alarming for both squads, although Bryant seems to have a slim edge just because Alcorn State was blown out in all but three games this season. And even in that one, the Braves tried to give it away. They led 54-47 with 32 seconds to go, but Mississippi Valley State was within one point 26 seconds later.

Alcorn State clanked two free throws to give Mississippi Valley State a last chance at the winner, but it didn’t go.

A few more close games, a road win and being a team in transition from Division II are the sad edges Bryant has over Alcorn State even though the Braves still have two games to go and could potentially end up with three times as many wins as the Bulldogs. But it isn’t happening.And even though the Braves score nine points more per game than Bryant did this season (51.9), defense matters more when you’re trying to find an identity. The Bulldogs held opponents to 69.5 points per game while Alcorn State has allowed them to score 82.5.

One can compare attempting to give an edge to either of these awful teams through the previous statistics to trying to find light in two black holes, though. The bottom line is neither one will be bragging. Bryant already left the 2009-10-season room very quietly; Alcorn State will follow soon, tip-toeing.

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