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Final Four

by - Published April 2, 2003 in Columns



Finally, We’re Down to Four

by Bill Thayer

While we haven’t had a ton of huge moments or that many memorable upsets, to me this year’s Tournament has been all about the tight games. It seems that almost every game came down to the final moments, with a number of lower seeded teams (UNC Wilmington, Wisconsin Milwaukee, Gonzaga, etc…) coming within seconds of pulling off shocking upsets.

We’ve seen the two favorites fall, the defending champions have been eliminated and only one number one seed remains. However, this could be one of the best Final Fours in recent memory as a case could be made for any of the four teams to walk away with the title of champions.

And as I think about the setting, New Orleans, where Fred Brown, Keith Smart and Chris Webber have all been immortalized, for good and bad, the nickname seems appropriate. The Big Easy, as each of the four has a player who makes the game seem so easy at times. While I’ve ridden the Texas bandwagon all season long, I find myself hedging a bit…maybe Carmelo Anthony is that special, good enough to carry the Cuse one moment. Then, I’m thinking about the Kansas seniors, who refuse to let the Jayhawks season die another. Then I’m thinking about the incredible team game played by Marquette last weekend.

Well, why not break down your four remaining contenders (in alphabetical order of course) with a touch of historical perspective:

Kansas

Collison and Hinrich. Hinrich and Collison. At this point there’s not much else to be said about this team. Four starters remain from last year, the same team that lost in the national semifinals to Maryland. If its not one of the two stepping up in a big game, its the other. Collison carried the load against Duke, as he put forward the best individual effort in the tournament (until two days later when he was trumped by Dwyade Wade). Then, as Collison struggled against Kansas, Hinrich exploded on the outside, dropping 28 points against the Wildcats. While the season took a hit when Wayne Simien was lost for the year, it caused Jeff Graves to mature. Graves, a widebody in the middle, can eat up space and help Collison out on the boards, as he did against Arizona. Keith Langford is explosive going to the hoop, but the key will be Aaron Miles. The sophomore point guard will have to keep his turnover numbers low if the Jayhawks hope to walk out of the Superdome with the championship trophy. All four teams are good at taking advantage of their opponents mistakes and while he has the most tournament experience of any of the four point guards, he is also the most questionable offensive option out of the four. If I were to compare this team to any recent champions, it would be the 1991 Duke team. Each reached the Final Four after getting blown out there the year prior (Duke against UNLV, Kansas against Maryland) and has an inside-outside combo that is difficult to match (Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner compared with Hinrich and Collison) as well as a coach who is searching for his first championship ring despite having great success as a head coach.

Marquette

For the large portion of the nation who didn’t know the name Dwyane Wade, they now do. The Golden Eagles junior stole the spotlight as he got the Tournament’s first triple double since 1998 in leading Marquette to a stunning win over top seeded Kentucky. But for all the attention given to Wade, his teammates all did their share, including senior center Robert Jackson, the Milwaukee native who transferred to play closer to home after spending three seasons at Mississippi State. Travis Diener has filled the big shoes left by departed senior Cordell Henry, but is a better shooter than ballhandler. Tom Crean’s club has evoked memories of the 1977 Al McGuire club, who went on to win the national championship in McGuire’s final season as head coach. Could they do it again this year? The brunt of the burden will fall to Wade, who will have to stop Kansas senior Kirk Hinrich. Wade’s size and athleticism make him one of the toughest defenders remaining (as shown by his five blocks against UK). Jackson and Scott Merritt can throw different looks at the Kansas front line, and their lack of depth will only get exposed if they are hit with foul trouble. Of recent champions, this team reminds me most of the 1996 UCLA team. Both have a star on the wing (Ed O’Bannon and Wade), a solid but unspectacular senior center (George Zidek and Jackson) and were not expected to be there after having sensational regular seasons.

Syracuse

Let the complaining about the Orangemen playing in Albany continue, the crowd was able to give the Orangemen a boost when needed against Auburn as the Tigers made their charge. The 2-3 zone seemed to do more damage against Oklahoma than the crowd did, however. The long arms of Hakim Warrick, Kueth Duany and Carmelo Anthony helped harrass the Sooners and threw them off their game. Marquis Daniels found his way into the middle of the lane many times, but the only player who plays his type of game would be Wade and the zone could cause problems for Diener and Steve Novak if Syracuse faces Marquette in the finals. In terms of pure talent, Syracuse may be the best team left, but the team only has one senior in the rotation (Duany). Jeremy McNeil can change the game when he gets in, but is too prone to foul trouble and will have his hands full with James Thomas. Gerry McNamara, like Diener, is best suited to play the two, but has been successful running the point. Jim Boeheim, like Roy Williams, is searching for the championship that has eluded him his entire career. I thought about comparing this team to the 1990 UNLV team, for their swagger, athleticism and the Warrick/Anthony combination but instead think their closest fit is the 1995 Arkansas team. Neither coach got their proper due for building a very strong team that season and neither was expected to do too much entering the season but thanks to a stifling defense they found their way to the Final Four. Could McNamara play the role of Scotty Thurman in the championship? It’s very possible.

Texas: 2000 Michigan State

The only number one seed still alive, the Longhorns got some help from the possession arrow against Connecticut in one of the most bizarre endings when the ball got stuck between the rim and the backboard as the Huskies were attempting a game-tying layup, causing a jump ball. Naismith award winner T.J. Ford steers the Longhorns offense, but his shooting has slumped recently, causing teams to back off him again. Brandon Mouton is the team’s biggest outside threat, and Texas has an army of big men led by James Thomas. Thomas should keep looking at tape from the Longhorns loss to Kansas back in January to remind himself of what Collison is capable of doing. As proven against Connecticut, this team lives and dies with Ford. Texas nearly blew a 14 point second half lead with Ford on the bench in foul trouble. They need him on the court to succeed. The comparison for this team is the 2000 Michigan State Spartans. Both squads are physically dominating but need their point guard on the court at all times. Both Ford and Mateen Cleaves were surrounded with very solid role players.

I like the Longhorns depth, versatility and Ford. That’s why, despite all the talent converging on New Orleans this weekend, Texas remains my pick to become the 2003 National Champions.

Enjoy your hurricanes, boys.

     

A Sweet Weekend

by - Published March 25, 2003 in Columns



A Sweet Weekend Ahead

by Bill Thayer

After one wild weekend of tournament play, we are getting set for the Regionals, the always-popular sweet 16 and elite 8 games. Only 16 teams have a chance to win the national championship, some surprising (Butler, Auburn) and some not-so-surprising (Arizona, Kentucky). After seeing parts of every game the first weekend, I’ve compiled a list of every team’s chances to win it all, based on who they’ll be playing, where they’ll be playing, but more importantly, how they’ve played thus far. Here are those rankings, starting at the bottom.

16. Wisconsin

Why 16? Kentucky. Outside of the West Region, the Badgers have the toughest road to the national championship. They’ll have to overcome the juggernaut known as Kentucky on Thursday night before even getting a chance to play in the regional final. They are also the one team in the regional semis that had no business playing in this round. Tulsa had them beaten for 32 minutes before a furious comeback set up Freddie Owens game winning three. Bo Ryan is a great coach and has improved the program to the point where its no surprise to see them still alive. It would be a surprise, however, to see them playing Saturday.

15. Michigan State

Why 15? Matchups. They’ll have to face the defending national champions, and, if they overcome that threat, will most likely face Texas in San Antonio. The Spartans looked impressive in their wins against Florida and Coloraod and have quietly stayed under the radar. Tom Izzo’s 18-4 record in the tournament should show that he is one of the best coaches in March. MSU makes their living on their inside toughness, and as Maryland proved against Xavier, they have as many horses inside as any other tournament team.

14. Butler

Why 14? Size. Other than 6’9″ Joel Cornette, nobody in the Bulldogs rotation is taller than 6’7″. That could cause problems against most teams, especially the way Oklahoma freshman Kevin Bookout has played in the tournament thus far. Their outside shooting and ability at the line can keep them in any game and they have adapted an “Us Against The World” mentality, talking about their lack of respect after their wins against Mississippi State and Louisville. Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller may have been the best backcourt last weekend, leading the way for the Bulldogs to stay alive. If they stay close against OU, look for the Albany crowd to get behind 2003′s Cinderella.

13. Auburn

Why 13? Location. If they played Syracuse on a neutral court, the Tigers may have a great chance of reaching the East Regional Final. Alas, they’ll have to face a pro-Syracuse crowd in Albany. Anybody who didn’t know about Marquis Daniels learned the name as he powered the Tigers past St. Joseph’s in their first round OT thriller. He has plenty of support, but almost no experience. Cliff Ellis’ club has four second year players (three sophs. and one JUCO transfer) in their starting five. In terms of talent, they may be better than Syracuse, but the Orangemen faithful will turn the Pepsi Center into a mini-Carrier Dome.

12. Connecticut

Why 12? Turnovers. As has been the case all season long, the spotlight will shine on Emeka Okafor if the Huskies win, but if Texas knocks off Connecticut look for fingers to be pointed towards the backcourt. Taliek Brown has been hot and cold, and turns the ball over far too often. He’ll have to take care of every possession if he hopes to outplay T.J. Ford. Okafor’s defensive ability changes a large number of shots but it will be interesting to see how he’ll play against the Longhorns physical center James Thomas. Again, look for the San Antonio crowd to be pro-Texas, making this essentially a road game for UConn.

11. Marquette

Why 11? Energy. Marquette has already been through two emotional games in wins against Holy Cross and Missouri. I don’t know if they’ll have enough left in their tank to knock off Pittsburgh, who cruised against Indiana and Wagner. Dwyane Wade can take over a game, but he’ll face one of the toughest wing defenders in the nation in Julius Page, who will look to rough Wade up all 94 feet. If they are able to get through Pitt, its unlikely for them to have anything left against Kentucky.

10. Duke

Why 10? Experience. Standing in the Blue Devils way is Kansas, then either Arizona or Notre Dame. Duke’s freshmen have proved their worth this year, J.J. Redick is the team’s top shooter and has been a great complement to Dahntay Jones. Shelden Williams has been the biggest inside threat, and his development has coincided with the team’s success. Williams and Redick will have to face a pair of experienced players in Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. This time of year, teams and players who have been there are more likely to advance, as they’ve already dealt with the pressures and rigors of March.

9. Notre Dame

Why 9? Depth. The Fighting Irish have relied on their perimeter game through the season, but Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll have to be wearing down. Arizona can throw a large number of players at them, changing looks throughout the game. Thomas will have to outplay Jason Gardner if the Irish have any chance to advance. Forget about reaching the championship game, Notre Dame will have to win a pair of difficult battles just to win the West. They just don’t have enough fresh legs to do so, although they looked very impressive in their win against Illinois.

8. Syracuse

Why 8? Offense. Offensively there are no threats other than Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, which is difficult considering they are only freshmen. They had no business beating Oklahoma State but the Orangemen will get a huge boost playing in their backyard in Albany. Defensively they are difficult to prepare for, and they have one of the best players in the nation in Anthony, so the Orangemen have a great chance of advancing out of the East. But, if McNamara and Anthony go cold, their time in the dance will be short.

7. Maryland

Why 7? Defense. The Terrapins had problems all year long stopping outside shooting. In the first round, the Terps shut down Brett Blizzard but couldn’t contain John Goldsberry. Of all players, Goldsberry averaged four shot ATTEMPTS per game before hitting a tournament-record eight threes in the first round. Maryland was bailed out by Drew Nicholas before stifling David West in the second round. Playing in San Antonio will be difficult if they face Texas in the regional final. If the Terps run into Connecticut in a rematch of last year’s East Regional Final, they will have to find a way to contain Ben Gordon. Their second round performance showed that the defending champions will be a difficult out, but they’ll have to stop the three in order to find their way out of the South.

6. Oklahoma

Why 6? Interior Game. Kevin Bookout stepped up his play last weekend, but OU has been searching for a replacement for Aaron McGhee all season long. Butler doesn’t pose a threat inside, but Syracuse does. The Sooners could have problems matching up with 6’9″ Carmelo Anthony. The Sooners look to have the easiest road of any number one seed, but playing Syracuse in Albany will cause another issue for Oklahoma. In addition, they’ll need Hollis Price at 100%, as Price is the heart and soul of the Sooner squad. He refuses to let his team lose, but could have a tough time doing it if he’s on the sideline.

5. Pittsburgh

Why 5? Kentucky. I was really impressed watching the Panthers this weekend. They reminded me of Big Blue, as they play stifling in-your-face defense for all 94 feet. Julius Page flies from baseline to baseline and Brandin Knight gives them a great on-court leader. Look for them to pick apart a worn-down Marquette squad before facing off with Kentucky. If any team can shut down the Wildcats, it may be the Panthers. However, the way UK has looked, it is a task easier said than done.

4. Arizona

Why 4? Mentality. Arizona looked like they thought they were given a free pass to the Final Four in their first two rounds. That was, until Gonzaga gave them a wake up call. Jason Gardner and Luke Walton gives the Wildcats a pair of seniors who can carry them in late-game situations. Salim Stoudamire is one of the best pure shooters and a dangerous threat from the outside. They’ll have to win two difficult games to advance to New Orleans, where they could end up facing Kentucky before the championship game. That could give them three more chances to be worn down before championship Monday. For Arizona to win it all, they will have to believe they need to play 40 hard minutes, something Arizona hasn’t done in weeks.

3. Kansas

Why 3? Danny Manning. Call it the Manning Factor. Look at recent champions and you’ll see a senior leading the way. Maryland (Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter), Duke (Shane Battier), Michigan State (Mateen Cleaves, Mo Peterson), Connecticut (Ricky Moore) have been the most recent examples. Kansas has theirs in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, two of the nation’s top players this season. While the Jayhawks struggled to defeat Utah State, they rebounded with a very impressive 32 point win against Arizona State. If the Jayhawks continue to play like they did last Saturday, they may find a way to get past not only Duke and Arizona in the West, but Kentucky in New Orleans.

2. Texas

Why 2? Homecourt. The Longhorns will be playing in front of a huge home crowd in the Alamodome this weekend. T.J. Ford will pace the Longhorns past Connecticut and into a showdown against Maryland. Look for the torch to get passed from the defending champions to the eventual champions in the South Regional Final. Texas may be one of three Big 12 teams in New Orleans. If that happens, remember this: Texas defeated Oklahoma twice this season and would face the Sooners a third time in the national semifinal.

1. Kentucky

why 1? Streaking. No team is on fire like the Wildcats. They have torn through any and all opponents since mid-December. Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill give them a pair of seniors but any of the five players who are on the court could be the go-to guy in late game situations. Gerald Fitch is as good of a rebounder as any other guard and Cliff Hawkins gives them great energy off the bench. They don’t have to go through a region as tough as the West, but they don’t get to play at home like Texas or Syracuse. Either way, look for UK to be playing in New Orleans in early April.

     

Breaking It Down

by - Published March 18, 2003 in Columns



Breaking it Down

by Bill Thayer

I don’t think there is anything that needs to be said to intro this. The field has been set. We know who is playing where and when…well, except for those crazy kids in the Spokane Pod. Here are my thoughts on the upcoming three-week extravaganza.

South Bracket

The Top Seed: Shockingly we saw Texas as the top seed in the south, instead of Kentucky. While others want to blast the committee for this, I will not. With the Regionals being played at San Antonio, it is fair for the Longhorns to stay close to home, rather than being shipped off to Minneapolis. A case could have been made for Oklahoma, but as it seemed to be throughout the bracket, the committee payed almost no attention to the games played on Selection Sunday. The road ahead of them should be bumpy. The way LSU shoots the three makes them a dangerous second round opponent (just ask Arizona). They are one of two number one seeds I like to reach New Orleans this season, despite their loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament. T.J. Ford should be able to slow the tempo against LSU and could also turn it up when needed.

Looking Down The Bracket: BYU as a 12? Did I miss something? The Cougars were in the top 25 in the RPI throughout most of the season, which the committee apparently was looking at when it snubbed Boston College and Seton Hall. They should provide the Jeykil and Hyde Connecticut Huskies some problems in the first round and could even find themselves shaking up a couple regions by reaching the Sweet 16. Maryland may have fits trying to shut down UNC Wilmington’s Brett Blizzard. The Terrapins had problems stopping outside shooters in losses against Virginia and North Carolina and will have to find somebody to stop the UNCW’s all-time leading scorer if they hope to get out of the first round. Which Xavier team will show up? If it’s the same squad we saw towards the end of the regular season, they have the talent to reach the Elite 8. I think they will shake off the loss to Temple and do so.

Keep An Eye On: Colorado. The Buffs have proven their worth by knocking off Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma State. Now, they were all at home, but playing on a neutral court in Tampa should not drag CU down. Florida’s struggles down the stretch leave them vulnerable in the second round. Look for Stephane Pelle and David Harrison to give the Florida big men fits.

East Bracket

The Top Seed: Oklahoma avoided Kansas and Texas in winning the Big 12 Tournament. Playing in Oklahoma City provides them with one of the best first weekend home court advantages. They should have no problems with South Carolina State and California. However, looming in Albany will be either Mississippi State or Louisville, both of whom could give the Sooners some major fits inside. Remember, the Bulldogs defeated Oklahoma back in December and could find themselves doing the same in March. OU has missed Aaron McGhee more than anybody has given them credit for. Oklahoma’s backcourt of Quannas White and Hollis Price are amongst the toughest in the nation, but their inside game leaves plenty to be desired.

Looking Down The Bracket: As mentioned earlier, Mississippi State could find themselves in the Sweet 16 against Oklahoma, but they will have a war on their hands against Butler in the first round. The committee seemed to be in a pleasing the public move when they added Butler. The Bulldogs were given an at-large bid after many in the press thought the Bulldogs deserved one last year. They missed a chance at a quality win in the Bracket Buster by traveling to Duke instead, where they played the Blue Devils hard before losing by 20. But, they’ve beaten almost everybody else in their path. Syracuse as a No. 3 seed amazes me. The Orangemen ended the Big East Tournament with a thud, losing to Connecticut for the second time. Their reward? A higher seed than the Huskies, along with a near home game in Boston followed by a pair of home games in Albany. The Orangemen will get a major boost from their home crowd. Wake Forest earned their seed by winning the regular season ACC title, which is fair considering Gonzaga and Southern Illinois both got in by winning their conferences. Looking down the bracket, this is the second toughest of the four.

Keep An Eye On: Jameer Nelson. The Hawks point guard has been carrying the team and has quietly improved his offense. Once a pass first point man, Nelson has adjusted his game and has become a top scorer. Many times it just takes one player to carry a team in a run during March, and with the ball starting in his hands, Nelson might be that player. Wake Forest will have to rely on Taron Downey and freshman Justin Gray to try and stop Nelson. They’ll both have their hands full.

Midwest Bracket

The Top Seed: The hottest team in the nation, Kentucky has won 23 in a row and did not cut down the nets after winning the SEC Tournament, electing to wait until the national championship to take the nets from the Superdome. They should have no problems getting there with the region they’ve been assigned. UK faithful will travel in packs to Nashville, giving the Wildcats a boost, but they shouldn’t need it. I don’t see any team finishing within double digits within the region. They are just that good on both ends of the floor and have too many interchangeable parts.

Looking Down The Bracket: Oregon got plenty of help to get their bid. Had UCLA lost to Arizona in the Pac 10 Tournament, we may not have seen the Ducks in the field of 65 as Arizona should have handed the Ducks their tenth loss. Utah will need Britten Johnson to get past Oregon, however. That wacky Spokane Pod rears its head in the Midwest. Weber State allegedly turned down the NCAA when they asked the Wildcats to switch regions with BYU. They match up very well with Wisconsin and may get past the first round. Dayton and Tulsa is an interesting second round matchup. After being in the top 20 early on, the Golden Hurricane slipped under the radar then tore through the WAC. Dayton had some help by playing at home in the Atlantic 10 Tournament but Spokane should be a neutral site, providing no help for any of the eight teams there. Missouri and Southern Illinois both have the experience of winning in March, as they each played in the second weekend a year ago. Indiana and Alabama meet in a game between two teams who some people felt had no chance of making the field. Pittsburgh deserved the two seed in the East by winning the Big East Tournament but their lack of strength of schedule prevented them from being a one seed.

Keep An Eye On: Indiana. Remember, this is the same team that reached the national championship a year ago, not to mention the same team that beat Maryland, Gonzaga and Illinois. It was their game against Kentucky that got the Wildcats season turned around. With experienced players like Tom Coverdale and Kyle Hornsby and their ability to hit the three, the Hoosiers may find themselves with a second shot at Kentucky.

West Bracket

The Top Seed: Everybody knew Arizona would be one of the four number one seeds, but unlike the others there was no surprise where they ended up. Lute Olson said the team had no desire to play in the Pac 10 Tournament but they shouldn’t have to just turn it on and off. At times they can outgun anybody they want, but they rely on some inexperienced players. Then again, on a team with Luke Walton and Jason Gardner, and as much talent as they have, there should be no problems. Ah…but that’s just looking internally. As, we’ll soon see…..

Looking Down The Bracket: There is ample talent here. There are the traditional powers: Kansas, Duke, Illinois, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Mid-majors Creighton, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Central Michigan, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky can all prove tricky. Memphis got the shaft by getting stuck as a seven seed, despite being one of the hottest teams in the nation (and nearly defeating Louisville on the road in their last game). And Colorado State could be more difficult than anybody thought, especially if center Matt Nelson rebounds from an eye injury suffered against UNLV. Top to bottom there is loads of talent, too much to think that the bracket to stick to form.

Keep An Eye On: Illinois. Look for them to be the one to knock off Arizona. Brian Cook, one of my least favorite players entering the season, has stepped up his game and become one of the physically toughest in the nation. Dee Brown’s explosiveness helps the Illini beat many teams down the court. Ask Indiana, who the Fighting Illini beat by 26 in a late February meeting. Bill Self has won in March both in Illinois and at Tulsa. I’ve fallen in love with this team in recent weeks and look for them to be alive once the tournament reaches its final days.

Overall thoughts

Best first round game: South Bracket: 5 Connecticut vs. 12 BYU. If UConn plays like they did early in the season, they may run the Cougars off the court, but they have become a tough team to read. BYU does not have the marquee win that grabs the attention of the casual fan, but they’ve beaten Utah State, Arizona State and Colorado State, all tournament teams. Rafael Araujo will need to play well defensively and keep Emeka Okafor off the glass. Travis Hansen has the size to give Ben Gordon fits.

Best Pod: Indianapolis. Missouri/Southern Illinois, Marquette/Holy Cross, Notre Dame/Wisconsin Milwaukee and Illinois/Western Kentucky. All four games could end up as single digit outcomes. Marquette will look to make amends for last year’s first round loss to Tulsa, but Holy Cross has the big men to give the Golden Eagles problems inside. Notre Dame should be helped by a big contingent in Indianapolis to help them get over the hump against UWM, who may be as talented as the Irish.

Toughest Region: West. As proven above. Arizona’s road to the final four isn’t as easy as it once seemed.

Final Four: Texas vs. Syracuse and Kentucky vs. Illinois.

National Champions: I’m sticking with my pick from November, TJ Ford and the Longhorns will be cutting down the nets after beating Kentucky in the national championship.

     

Checking the Calendar

by - Published February 28, 2003 in Columns


You Know What Month It Is…

by Bill Thayer

Saturday is the first of the month. No, wait, that doesn’t sound quite right, let me try again.

Saturday is the first of THE month. That’s better.

While the Bracket Buster Saturday was not quite what many associated it had hoped, this weekend may be a bigger make-or-break weekend around the country. Many smaller conferences are hitting their final regular season games, some teams are fighting for conference titles, postseason seeding and even at-large NCAA Tournament bids. Here’s a look around the country at some of the games that can have huge long term impact, or at least some major short term effects (all records through Wednesday’s action).

Ivy League Showdowns (Friday and Saturday)

Penn and Princeton at Brown and Yale

Possibly the biggest of any games you’ll see listed here as Brown, 8-1 in conference, hosts first place Penn (9-0) and third place Princeton (7-2). With only four games remaining, the Quakers can clinch a share of the regular season title by winning their two games, but they will have a fight when they face Brown on Friday night. Penn won the first meeting, 73-66 in Philadelphia, holding Earl Hunt to 14 points in the win. If the Bears do knock off the Quakers, they’ll have to turn around and take on the Tigers, who will look to remain alive despite losing at home against Brown for the first time in school history on Valentine’s Day. A year ago Penn, Princeton and Yale finished in a three way tie, leading to a mini-tournament for the automatic bid (the Ivy League does not use tiebreakers to determine their champion). Yale will have to beat Penn to have a shot this year.

Crystal Ball Out West (Saturday night)

Gonzaga at San Diego

The new-look West Coast Conference Tournament gives the top two teams a major advantage, as they get byes to the semifinal (call it the Gonzaga Rule since the Bulldogs RPI fell after winning their first round matchup last year). Each of these teams have clinched those byes, with seeding yet to be determined. Most likely, we’ll see this game in the WCC Championship, as they’ll have a team who just played the previous night (or two nights in a row if its the 5-8 seeds in the semifinal), so this could be a preview of things to come. Keep an eye on how the Zags handle the Jenny Craig Pavilion crowd, the Toreros will be hosting the conference tournament, so the fans will look to one up the infamous Kennel. With an RPI in the 40s, Gonzaga could still find itself squarely on the bubble if it falls short in its bid to gain the automatic bid, but if the Bulldogs do not have a regular season championship as part of their resume, the likelihood for an at-large bid will dwindle.

A New-Day Dawning? (Saturday night)

Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Butler

Consider their brackets busted last week. The Panthers had a chance to increase their RPI and get a huge quality, late-season win against Southern Illinois but lost it in the final seconds. Heading into Thursday night (each team had another game when this was being written) the Panthers and Bulldogs were tied atop the Horizon at 12-2, so the winner will get the claim of regular season championship to add to their portfolio in case they fall short in the conference tournament (starting to catch that theme at all?). Many claimed Butler deserved to make the tournament last year, but with an RPI in the high 70s and very few quality wins, it was tough to justify the bid, even though the Bulldogs won 25 games. A win here could push them over the top, but the Panthers, with a win earlier this season, may have Butler’s number.

Rising From The Valley (Saturday night)

Creighton at Southern Illinois

If the Horizon was the big loser on Bracket Buster Saturday, then the Missouri Valley is the big winner. Creighton added another quality win to their resume (and locked down a tournament bid in my mind) when they knocked off Fresno State. Meanwhile, Southern Illinois may have pushed themselves into the dance when they knocked off Wisc.-Milwaukee. Despite losses to SMS and Wichita State in recent weeks, the Valley regular season champions will get crowned after this game. Creighton owns a win earlier this season over the Salukis, but they’ll have to deal with a sold out SIU Arena. Students slept out for tickets and snatched up their allotment of 2,000 in just 45 minutes. It’s never easy to win in the Valley and SIU can give themselves an even bigger push heading into March with a Missouri Valley Championship and win over top 25 opponent.

A Red Hot Blizzard (Saturday afternoon)

UNC Wilmington at VCU

UNC Wilmington’s Brett Blizzard became the Colonial Athletic Association’s all-time leading scorer, then broke 2,000 career points last week, but he’ll face a stiff test against VCU’s Willie Taylor. Taylor has been one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the conference and has been a big part of VCU’s turnaround (9-1 in their last ten games after a 4-4 conference start). VCU and Drexel have been jockeying for position behind the defending conference champions, who is lacking the quality wins needed to be considered for an at-large bid. UNCW carries a game and a half lead over both the Rams and Dragons and can wrap up their second straight title by winning out. UNCW trashed VCU 81-50 in their first meeting, at home, and has enough experience to be able to handle playing on the road (where they are 10-4 this year). This game features two of the youngest coaches in the nation, UNCW’s Brad Brownell (34 years old) against VCU’s Jeff Capel (27 years old).

Prove Yourself (Sunday afternoon)

Holy Cross at Lehigh

At 10-1, Holy Cross has run away with the Patriot League regular season title. They are followed by a pack of teams, Lehigh, Bucknell, American, Colgate and Lafayette, who are seperated by two games. American shut down Holy Cross in their only loss of the season in what appeared to be more of an off-night for Holy Cross than anything else. The Mountain Hawks controls their own destiny for second place, which could be the difference in facing 2-10 Navy in the first round of the conference tournament or 6-5 Lafayette. They are looking to wrap up their first ever undefeated season at home (11-0 heading into Thursday’s game against Colgate). Not to mention what a psycological boost Lehigh would have heading into the conference tournament (played at a neutral site in Upper Marlboro, MD).

One other factor here: any of these teams could very easily come away with a win or two in the NCAA Tournament. Keep a close eye on each of these teams, or else you might find your favorite squad on the losing end against them two weeks down the road. Enjoy!

     

Dwyane Wade

by - Published February 3, 2003 in Columns


Wading above the Talent

by Bill Thayer

His name evokes images of a certain sit-com character. You know, the one with the flip glasses who was in love with Denise Huxtable. He plays in Milwaukee, not for the Bucks, but in the same arena. He’s an All-America candidate from Chicago, but did not even finish in the top five in Illinois Mr. Basketball voting his senior year of high school.

Maybe you’ve heard of him, or misspelled his name, he’s Marquette’s star junior Dwyane Wade.

If Wade spends his collegiate career under the radar it won’t be anything new. “I wasn’t recruited real big,” Wade said. “I knew where I wanted to be right away. I made a great decision to come to Marquette because right away I got a chance to show I could play a little bit.”

Partly because of his better-known city mates, partly because of his academic status, Wade was passed over by many larger schools, leading to his decision to sign with Marquette. Of course, that didn’t quite make the splash he had hoped. After deciding to attend Marquette, Wade and fellow Chicago high school star Odartey Blankson called a Wisconsin paper to let their collegiate intentions known. It just happened to be at halftime of a Green Bay Packers Monday night football game. What they had hoped to be a major announcement was shoved aside due to the NFL.

While his announcement was not headline grabbing material in Wisconsin, at least one man knew what type of talent the Golden Eagles were getting. “One of my coaches, Dwayne Stephens, kept calling me every ten minutes,” head coach Tom Crean recalled when learning about Wade. “He just kept raving about what Dwyane did. I’ll never forget the day. He was in a Christmas tournament in Chicago. He had 48 points in the morning during a 10 o’clock game and another 42 points in a game at 8 that night. I think he also averaged 13 or 14 rebounds in those two games.”

Looking over box scores from his two-year career, those numbers seem typical for Wade. But, back in high school, Wade never demanded that type of respect. It was difficult standing out, especially for somebody who has been referred to as “shy” and “humble” numerous times. It was made more so considering Wade was playing alongside Darius Miles and T.J. Cummings in AAU ball.

Sometimes bad things happen for a reason. Wade was not eligible to play his freshman year, but became the first partial qualifier to enroll at Marquette. A season on the sideline helped Wade mature as a player, sitting beside Crean during games many times and address his teammates during halftime. One game, Wade ranked the performance of one of his teammates on a scale of one to ten as a three.

The responsibilities given to Wade that season was just part of his maturation. Marquette prides itself on its academic reputation, so accepting a player with substandard grades are rare, but Wade has proven that he belongs. Last semester Dwyane earned a 3.0 grade point average, and, in the off-season, became both a father and a husband.

Looking back, its not surprising to see his name come after Miles and Eddy Curry in the 2000 Illinois Mr. Basketball voting. But after two spectacular seasons as a Golden Eagle its clear that we may soon see his name on another list that Miles and Curry was on, the draft wishes of many NBA teams.

Assorted Musings™ (the real deal, don’t buy any imposters)

• Kansas’ season could have been DONE after the collapse against Arizona, but to the credit of Nick Collison the Jayhawks remain in the national title picture after their win Monday night against Texas. Collison, who has drawn comparisons to Kevin McHale, looked like the former Celtic as he pulled down 23 rebounds in the win. He proved that, while it is good to have plenty of talent, a team needs to have senior leaders at some point in big games.

• It has slipped under the radar, but Danny Granger, who had a 20/20 game himself earlier this season, transferred to New Mexico from Bradley. While it hasn’t drawn the same amount of attention as Jason Conley did when he left VMI, the announcement was a score for the Lobos. Bradley is claiming tampering, as a former member of their coaching staff is now in Albuquerque, but it is possible that Granger was not comfortable playing under new head coach Jim Les. Many times a player will choose a school based on the coaching staff, so when the Braves brought in a new staff, they should have expected some players to be unhappy.

• How tough is it in the SEC? Check out what Mo Williams said after losing to Kentucky last week. “At this point in the season, we’re really playing just trying to make the tournament.” Not the type of confidence you would expect to see from the point guard on a top five team. The Tide needs Kennedy Winston to become a perimeter threat, as teams are double teaming big men Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker.

• Emeka Okafor is a special player and Ben Gordon is a rising talent, but Connecticut will live and die by Taliek Brown. last week St. John’s pressured the Husky guards when Brown was on the bench with four fouls and repeatedly forced turnovers and bad shots. The Huskies need Brown to create on offense, they just don’t have anybody else who can create offensively.

• Remember when people thought Memphis had a shot at the tournament? Me neither.

• Utah scored a huge win over BYU last weekend, ending the nation’s longest home-court winning streak at 44. The Utes did so without head coach Rick Majerus, who left the team to attend the funeral of Andre Miller’s stepfather.

• I’m not sure anybody is playing better than Florida right now. If the Gators played in the Big Ten or Big East, I would ink them in as a number one seed for the tournament. The SEC could still prove to be too hazardous as they have to play Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky again … and that’s just looking in their division. Their non-conference schedule is one of the hardest in the nation; the beat Maryland (away), Kansas (neutral court), Miami (away) and South Florida. That doesn’t even include a pair of losses at West Virginia (one of the hardest trips in the country this year) and Stanford (ask Arizona how difficult the Cardinal can be).

• The ACC regular season will end with co-champions having at least four conference losses each. Outside of Maryland and Wake Forest, it doesn’t seem as if anybody else there can win on the road. Example: Georgia Tech, 10-0 at home this year, 1-7 in road and neutral site game.

• Got into an interesting argument at work about the All-Big East teams, where you can make a case for almost ten players to be first team. My thought on the matter: Mike Sweetney, Emeka Okafor, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Hatten and Chris Thomas first team. Brandin Knight, Julius Page, Matt Carroll, Drew Schifino and Troy Bell second team. Hakim Warrick, Ben Gordon, Gary Buchanan, Darius Rice and Andre Barrett on the third team. That’s a lot of talent, and, other than Bell, Hatten and Buchanan, none are seniors. We could be witness to the rebirth of the conference. Worried about players leaving early? Then check out the other four members of the all-freshman team: Craig Smith, Gerry McNamara, Randy Foye and Torin Francis. Loads of talent.

• I am currently in the process of reading the latest John Feinstein book, The Punch, about the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich fight. The first chapter (which was run in Sports Illustrated) is incredible, but essentially is repeated over and over throughout the book. Easily the worst of Feinstein’s basketball works. If you want a good reach, check out A Civil War… Feinstein’s look at the Army and Navy football programs. It’s my favorite sports book.

• Not to say “I told you so,” but it’s amazing to see how empty the Chris Duhon bandwagon has become.

• While I’m tooting my own horn, I found it funny reading a columnist on one of the other “major” web sites who wrote “You heard it here first: Texas will make the Final Four.” Looking back to November, somebody for Hoopville declared the Longhorns would become the national champions. So wouldn’t that make that other columnist the second person to say it?

• Creighton should not get ripped for losing at Evansville. It was obvious that they could not run the table in the Valley. They will have too many road games in conference where they will face a hostile crowd and the best effort from the opposition. It’s too much to ask them to defeat every challenger easily. That does not mean you won’t see them make a run deep into March.

• Hey Guy: we’ll miss you buddy.

     

Mid-Season Awards

by - Published January 21, 2003 in Columns


The Second-Annual Mid-Season Awards

by Bill Thayer

We’re halfway through the season, so what a better time to reflect back and take a look at the players and teams I think deserve recognition. So, without delay, here are my Second Annual Half-Year Awards!

1st Team All-Americans

G: Hollis Price, Oklahoma

I tossed back and forth between a pair of Big 12 guards, then I thought back to Monday’s Oklahoma/Texas Tech game in which Price stepped up at the end of regulation and hit a basket at the buzzer to send the game into overtime … after already leaving once with a swollen eye. There is no tougher player in the nation than the 6’1″ senior. Price does it all for Oklahoma at both ends of the court. He leads the team in scoring, is second in assists and steals and is sixth in the nation in free throw percentage. He’s the type of player who every coach loves to have late in the game, especially in March, where the impact of four years of experience is truely felt.

G: Jason Gardner, Arizona

Gardner’s numbers won’t blow you away, but to see his full impact on the top team in the nation, look a bit closer. 21 points in the win at Oregon, including a three with 2:13 to go to give Arizona the lead for good. 13 points against Texas, six coming in the final two minutes against Texas, a game in which he dealt out seven assists with only one turnover. 16 points against LSU as well as a key steal late in the game which gave Arizona the chance to win. With player after player leaving the program over the past few years, Gardner has been the one who Lute Olson could count on and will be the guy he looks to as the season progresses.

G: Dwyane Wade, Marquette

I went with three guards last year (Williams, Dixon, Logan) and halfway through the year I will have to do the same. Wade is the sole reason Marquette is in the top 20. Wade is in the top ten nationally in scoring (23.2 ppg) and is efficient at doing it, hitting over 55 % of his shots. Wade is a tough defender, leading the Golden Eagles with 27 steals but is good as shutting down his opponent; he held Kirk Penney to seven points on 3-10 shooting, and many of Henry Domercant’s 27 points against Marquette came when Wade was on the bench in foul trouble. Wade is one of the few players that gets me to tune in no matter who he is playing against. I’m reminded of Heisman propaganda Indiana used to sent out for Antwaan Randle El, claiming he was “College Football’s Most Exciting Player.” I think Marquette can dub Wade “College Basketball’s Most Exciting Player” for 2003.

F: Kyle Korver, Creighton

As pointed out earlier, a good way to gague a player’s contributions to a team is to look at their biggest games. Korver fits that bill just fine. In their win over Notre Dame, Korver scored 24 points to go with 10 rebounds and hit of 7-11 three pointers. Against then-undefeated BYU, Korver had 19 points, 11 rebounds and four assits. Against Xavier, Korver scored a career high 32 points, 26 of them in the second half. Then, this past weekend, in a showdown against Southern Illinois, Korver led the way for the Bluejays with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Korver leads the 16-1 Bluejays in scoring, rebounding, free throw percentage (over 90 %), and steals. He’s second on the team in field goal percentage and assists. THAT’S a leader.

F: Mike Sweetney, Georgetown

Sweetney was flying quietly under the radar in the nation’s capital until coach Craig Esherick blew up following Georgetown’s win over West Virginia, in a game in which Sweetney scored 35 points to go with an amazing 19 rebounds, one of his six double-doubles this year. He is among the top 20 in the nation in both scoring and rebounding and is battling with Troy Bell and Carmelo Anthony for the Big East scoring crown.

2nd Team All-Americans

Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph’s
TJ Ford, Texas
Josh Howard, Wake Forest
Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse
Nick Collison, Kansas

3rd Team All-Americans

Maurice Williams, Alabama
Reece Gaines, Louisville
Chris Thomas, Notre Dame
Antonio Gates, Kent State
Emeka Okafor, Connecticut

National Player of the Half-Year: Kyle Korver, Creighton

National Freshman of the Half-Year: Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse

Everybody thought Anthony was going to be good, but very few people could know he was going to be this good. Anthony’s in the top 15 in the nation in scoring (22.8 ppg), scoring in a variety of ways from both the inside and outside. In his 12 collegiate games, Anthony has nine double-doubles. He has the talent to single-handedly carry Syracuse to the tournament.

Runners Up: Rashad McCants (North Carolina), Bracey Wright (Indiana), Daniel Horton (Michigan)

National Coach of the Half-Year: Eddie Sutton, Oklahoma State

While the Big 12 has struggled a bit, the Cowboys have surged despite losing Fredrik Jonzen and Maurice Baker to graduation. The backcourt of Victor Williams and Tony Allen have stepped up. But another top 20 team proves that Sutton can win with any five players he’s given.

Runners Up: Bill Self (Illinois), Tommy Amaker (Michigan)

Game of the Half-Year: Indiana/Maryland, Big Ten/ACC Challenge

It was one of those games that had you calling your friends by the second half. In the rematch of the national championship, Indiana avenged their loss and toppled the Terrapins in a not-so-neutral court in Indianapolis. Tom Coverdale led Indiana with 30, including a furious rally to send the game to overtime … which almost didn’t happen as Steve Blake connected on a prayer from half-court which he released less than a second too late.

Runners up: Miami/UConn (from Monday, the Darius Rice game), Akron/Ball State (4 OT thriller)

5 Players to Watch:

1. Kent Williams, Southern Illinois

Williams shooting could help the Salukis sneak into the tournament again this year. With Creighton off to their hot start, it has become easy to forget that So Ill was the team who reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, in large part to Williams. They still have at least one more game against the Bluejays, with a third potential meeting in the MVC Championship. If Southern Illinois knocks off the Bluejays there, the MVC could send two teams to the dance which would knock out a team from one of the majors.

2. Marvin Stone, Louisville

Rick Pitino walked into a program that had a dangerous player on the outside (Reece Gaines) and brought in the big man that he needed in Stone. His impact can already be seen on the court as he has been a steadying influence on the glass. Now, if Gaines is off, Stone gives the Cardinals a second option. He’s physical enough that teams will have trouble guarding him in the early rounds of the tournament as there are very few players as big and strong as he.

3. Todd Billet, Virginia

The ACC is wide open this year with teams struggling to win on the road. The title can be won by any of a number of teams, but as of now its looking like it will come down to a race between Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke with each team holding a win and loss against the others. North Carolina and Georgia Tech are on the outside looking in, along with the Cavaliers. Billet is the type of seasoned veteran and cold blooded shooter that can help them separate themselves and move into the upper crust.

4. Amit Tamir, California

Tamir is another inside-outside combo big man who can attract a bigger player away from the hoop or take a smaller player inside. After Arizona the rest of the Pac Ten is wide open, but Tamir gives the Bears a player who can match up with Luke Walton and give the Bears the opportunity to contend for the conference’s automatic bid.

5. Derrick Tarver, Akron

Tarver is an explosive scorer who can shake up the MAC. In a seven day span, Tarver had three 30 plus point games (against Ball State, Ohio and BUffalo). If he’s able to do that in the conference tournament, he could help take out league favorite Kent State.

5 Biggest Questions For The Rest of the Year:

1. Can Kansas continue to succeed with so little depth?

They are starting to get into a rhythm, but what happens if Nick Collison gets into foul trouble. A lesser concern will be the legs of the starting five when the rigors of March hits.

2. Will Connecticut put together 40 solid minutes in one game?

They overcame a 34-9 second half deficit to defeat Massachusetts. They fell behind by 20 against Oklahoma, only to storm back and bridge the gap to five. They trailed Virginia Tech in the first half by double digits before winning by 20. They spotted North Carolina a 23-4 lead, in Chapel Hill, and took the lead late before losing. They fell behind by 14 against Miami but came back to win…until giving it away in the final seconds. There is ample talent but the Huskies are still young and need to learn how to play a complete game or they will get burned in March.

3. How will the tournament committee react to Creighton?

A year ago Gonzaga was a top ten team according to the coaches and AP polls but got a six seed due to their (lack of) strength of schedule. Will Creighton get killed for playing in the Missouri Valley Conference? They beat Notre Dame and Nebraska and lost to Xavier but it may not be enough to get higher than a four seed.

4. With the SEC prevent itself from earning a number one seed?

Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Georgia all have the talent to be a top seed but they all have to play each other (not to mention Auburn and LSU). Potentially seven teams could earn bids into the tournament but they may have too many losses to garner a top seed.

5. Who will survive in the Big Ten?

Indiana and Illinois looked to be the class of the conference entering conference play, but a look at the standings shows Iowa and Michigan both undefeated. The Wolverines have been a major surprise, led by freshman Daniel Horton. Iowa never earned the success thought possible a year ago, but a run in the Big Ten tournament proved to the younger players how to win tight contests. They both could prove to be dangerous, especially for teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, who could be sweating out Selection Sunday.

     

Big 12 Big and Bad

by - Published December 21, 2002 in Columns


The Biggest And Still The Baddest

by Bill Thayer

I’ll admit it, October was a great time. I couldn’t wait to hear Riot Act by Pearl Jam (in fact, I’m listening to it right now). I was on the edge of my seat, glued to the Winona Rider trial. And, while I didn’t buy a President Bush mask, I did all I could to imagine what Saturday Night Live would be if Will Farrell was still there doing his President Bush.

But the best part of October was putting together my top 25 list for Hoopville, a poll in which I voted Kansas No. 1 and had them joined by Big 12 running mates Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri in the top six.

And if you were to believe Mitch Schneider, I should hang my head in shame for doing so. But wait, what’s that I hear out in the heartland? Is that the sound of successful basketball being played?

Even though the Big 3 (Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas for those of you scoring at home) didn’t win their biggest games of the season thus far, that’s no reason to cast aside a conference that top to bottom is the best in the nation. To see how good the conference is, you have to look past the top and start in the middle where some surprising teams may surprise you with where they land in March.

Iowa State was supposed to be rebuilding again this year, but that didn’t stop them from going into Iowa and scoring a win. One of their seven against only one loss. Nebraska may have lost to Div. II Alaska-Fairbanks (the same team that knocked off soon-to-be Big Sky champs Weber State in the same tournament) but they also trounced Minnesota by 20. The same Minnesota that was supposed to be near the top of the class of the Big Ten. And Texas A&M, Team Turmoil a year ago, has rallied around super-frosh Antoine Wright, the best recruit Melvin Watkins has landed since joining the Aggies, and taken out LSU and Tennessee. And you can never count out an Eddie Sutton team. Oklahoma State is using a balanced attack, the same one that steamrolled over Michigan State in Alaska. Meanwhile, Missouri has yet to take a loss as they head into this weekend’s showdown with Illinois.

That, my friends, is what you call depth. Including Baylor and Colorado, two young teams that have experienced their share of growing pains, I can count ten teams who could easily find their way into the field of 65 in March.

Ten teams. That’s more teams than are in the ACC. As many as are in the Pac Ten. And I’m pretty sure, based on their performance against Minnesota, that Nebraska could give a scare to any of the other conferences top teams.

No conference could match them team for team. The Pac-10? Arizona’s great but after that there’s a huge drop off. Big 10? Indiana and Illinois are as good as any of the top seven teams in the Big 12, but again there’s a huge dropoff. The only conference I can see making an argument for is the ACC, but there is so much unproven talent there and no team that I would say is one of the top ten in the nation. Meanwhile Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma all fall in the top ten category, with Kansas waiting to climb back in.

Oklahoma may have lost to Alabama, but remember how good they played towards the end of that contest. Instead of hanging their heads and taking a bad loss, they collected themselves and started playing the same physical style of basketball they used to reach the Final Four a year ago. Texas got outrun by Notre Dame, who has quieted any critics of their program, and then followed that by losing at Arizona. But they were in it until the end against the most talented team in the country in one of the toughest home courts in the nation.

While Kansas may have not deserved the No. 1 vote, they are slowly evolving. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Many people had the Jayhawks counted out but they went to Tulsa (what other major school would do that?) and escaped with a win. Keith Langford and Aaron Miles did what Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich had not been doing, they carried the Jayhawks. Collison and Hinrich will come around, and as long as Langford and Miles continue to improve, they will certainly get past the first weekend of the tournament.

The Big 12 had been hampered by a slower style in recent years. Last year, when they finally broke through and put two teams in the Final Four, it was in large part to the perimeter games of Kansas and Oklahoma. While each had a dominant big man, their runs were led by guards. College is a perimeter dominated game, and some of the most talented guards and wing players play in the Big 12 … Andre Emmett, Hinrich, John Lucas Jr., Rickey Paulding, Hollis Price, Jake Sullivan, Wright … the list goes on and on.

When the time comes to fill out your bracket remember pick against the pathetic Big 12. But, please, if you do, let me know so I can join your pool!

     

NYC Point Guards

by - Published December 10, 2002 in Columns


Great Expectations for the NYC Point Guards

by Bill Thayer


It wasn’t supposed to be like this two years ago. By the time the 2002-03 season rolled around, the point guards in the Big East that people were talking about weren’t supposed to be named Knight, Bell and Thomas. It was supposed to be them, it was supposed to be New York City’s Holy Trilogy of point guards, but as Andre Barrett, Taliek Brown and Omar Cook have learned, sometimes life takes a wrong turn.

They entered college the same year, all three McDonald’s All-Americans, all three going to Big East schools in the tri-state region. Barrett to Seton Hall, where he joined friend Eddie Griffin and Marcus Tony-El in what was supposed to be the best freshman class since the Fab Five. Brown went north to Connecticut, where he was going to follow in the footsteps of Khalid El-Amin and lead the Huskies to their second national championship. Cook remained in the city, heading out to Queens to play for St. John’s, hoping to capture the brightest spotlight in the world.

This was going to be the junior year for all three of them. Certainly by then they would have made their marks. They would have fought for all-conference honors, possibly splitting votes for Big East Player of the Year. Two Big East titles and a combined six NCAA Tournament bids should have been theirs, had the pundits correctly seen their future.

It hasn’t quite worked out the way they expected. As Barrett and Brown entered their junior years, both holding down a starting job for two years, Cook continues to flounder after making a poor decision to enter the NBA Draft after only one year at St. John’s. Cook was a member of the Big East third team all-conference as a freshman. Brown helped Connecticut win the conference tournament last year. That’s it. No accolades for Brown or Barrett, no championships for Brown or Cook.

After a solid freshman year, Cook became the poster child for what’s wrong with the NBA Draft as the 19-year-old decided to leave school and pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. Cook was selected in the second round by Orlando, who then traded his rights to Denver. Cook’s run of bad advice continued as his agent, Aaron Goodwin, the same man who helped persuade Cook to enter the draft, could not reach a deal with the Nuggets.

As training camp approached, Goodwin could not reach an agreement and, once camp began, Cook was still not with the team. A week in, and finally a deal was signed. By then, Cook had fallen behind Kenny Satterfield and was playing catch up. He was released by the Nuggets before the season began, but did sign with Dallas in November, 2001. After a short stint with the Mavs, he was released but found his way to the NBDL.

Barrett never knew how tough things would be. Prior to the 2000-01 season, hopes were high for Seton Hall, as the fabulous trio of Barrett, Griffin and Tony-El was joining a team that had reached the Sweet 16 the year before. The chemistry between the three was terrific, each convincing the other to join him in school. Griffin was the big name, the headliner, but Barrett was the glue. The playmaker for the two athletic forwards.

While the chemistry was there between the trio, it wasn’t there with the rest of the Pirates. After one game Griffin had a run in with senior Ty Shine and ended up punching Shine in a locker room brawl that ended up grabbing the attention of the New York media. The Pirates never got back on track and ended up shut out of postseason play. Griffin bolted for the NBA, and while that was tough for Barrett, he and his teammates were rocked when head coach Tommy Amaker left the Hall to take the head coaching position at Michigan.

Brown escaped the spotlight of metro NYC, seemingly hiding away in rural northern Connecticut. What he didn’t expect was The Horde. Expectations at the state school have been enormous ever since Jim Calhoun took over the program in 1986. The Huskies have won numerous Big East titles, regular and postseason, as well as a national title in 1999. Their rabid fan base read all about the three guards from New York and demanded the best from the only that chose to be a Husky.

With no Khalid El-Amin and no Richard Hamilton, Brown’s freshman year was as difficult as anybody’s. The Huskies did not make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997 and Calhoun was rumored to be leaving the Nutmeg State to take the vacant position at South Carolina. The team was never in sync on the court and limped away from the season losing at Gampel Pavilion to Detroit-Mercy in the NIT. One of only four non-conference losses the school has ever had in that building.

But it’s only been two years. There’s still time for each to carve out his own niche.

Cook, who led the Big East in assists in his lone year in school, was named to the All-NBDL 2nd team in 2001-02. He set a league record with 19 assists in one game. This year he had a brief stint with the Boston Celtics before returning to the NBDL. Advocates of the league point to Cook as the reason the league was made, for the kids who didn’t want to be in school but were not ready for the NBA. The 21-year-old still has time to develop his game and prepare himself to be a professional, but without the peer pressure that surrounded him in NYC.

Barrett has taken control at Seton Hall. Although he was never known for his scoring, Barrett led the Pirates in both points (16.9 ppg) and assists (5.0 apg) last year and hit a solid 75 percent from the free throw line. Without Amaker and Griffin around, Barrett had to grow up quickly, but also did not have to deal with the same expectations to succeed as he did his freshman year. This year he was named to the Big East preseason all-conference 2nd team.

Brown captured the hearts of Husky faithful last year in the Big East championship game. With the Huskies leading Pittsburgh by two with 36 seconds left, the Huskies had the ball at midcourt with just two seconds left on the shot clock. The ball was inbounded to Brown, who took one dribble and connected on a 35-foot jumper that rattled in to give Connecticut a five point lead and ice the game.

Brown couldn’t control his emotions and turned and leapt high, even though the Panthers were coming back up the court. For once, something good had happened to one of the three former Bronx-Queens Expressway AAU teammates. Most likely it won’t be the last time they’ll be successful on or off the court.

Assorted Musings

• Quite a week for Notre Dame, who defeated Marquette, Maryland and Texas in a six-day span last week. What I admire about Mike Brey’s team is that they fill in for missing pieces every year. Two years ago Troy Murphy departs, but in steps Ryan Humphrey. This year Humphrey and David Graves leave, but Torin Francis and Dan Miller fill the void. And, from what I’ve seen, they have the heir apparent to Chris Thomas in freshman Chris Quinn. Quinn is a solid shooter and has excellent court vision. Look for the Irish to take the Big East West division title.

• While Chris Duhon and Steve Blake continue to grab most of the attention, the race for the ACC player of the year may come down to a pair of players not well known around the conference. Wake Forest forward Josh Howard (21.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, including a 31 point effort against a tough Wisconsin defense) and Virginia big man Travis Watson (14.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg). Since the conference race is so wide open, look for the winner of the award to come from whichever team finishes on top.

• Billy Hahn has done a good job of rebuilding La Salle’s program, as they showed by taking Villanova down to the wire. They won’t make the Tournament this year, but look for them to be in the thick of the A-10 race next year. Sharp-shooting freshman Gary Neal will help them be a thorn in the sides of conference foes this year as well.

• Is LaBron James being exploited? Yes. Is ESPN the first to do so? Certainly not. The road for the St. James/Oak Hill showdown on ESPN2 was paved when the St. James’ AD agreed to put their games on PPV, which was a joke of a decision. I will definitely tune in to see the high school game on Thursday night because I want to see what all the hype is about. However, remember one thing: Felipe Lopez graced the cover of SI before his fist collegiate game. So did Scott Bentley (that’s one for your football fans).

• Congrats to West Virginia on their win over Florida. It’s been a long few years in Morgantown, I’m sure Jack Beilein will continue that type of success down the road. He did it at Richmond and I’m sure he’ll be successful with the Mountaineers as well.

• I wasn’t much of a believer in Indiana until I saw what they did to Maryland last week. Bracey Wright is a very special player and just another one of the many talented freshmen around the country. I can’t even fathom selecting a national freshman of the year….Carmelo Anthony, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Wright, JJ Redick, Antoine Wright, Chris Bosh, Torin Francis, Wright, Matt Walsh…the list goes on and on.

• After Cincinnati lost to both Xavier and Dayton, it looks like the best team in Ohio will be decided when those two teams meet in conference play. Sorry Ohio State, just not enough talent this year.

• Why is everybody patting Georgetown on the back for playing South Carolina? When was the last time the Hoyas scheduled a non-conference foe from a major conference? Last one I can think of was when they went to Memphis in 1994. Once every eight years isn’t enough for me.

     

Giving Thanks

by - Published November 28, 2002 in Columns


Giving Thanks

by Bill Thayer

It’s late November which means its time for turkey, stuffing, potatoes
… yes, it’s Thanksgiving. So, here’s a list of thanks from a college
basketball fan:

Thanks for the Preseason NIT, which has given us such gems as Henry
Domercant’s first round effort against Boise State, the breakout games
of Matt Walsh, the return of Carolina hoops and a pair of upsets in the
Garden.

Thanks for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, which has given us good
basketball, but more importantly raised money to fight cancer.

Thanks for the fabulous freshmen who turned down the money and lure of
the NBA to go to college, players like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh,
Jason Frasier and Shavlik Randolph.

Thanks for all the great point guards who have helped pump up the tempo
in the college game, especially those pass first guys like T.J. Ford,
Steve Blake and Mo Williams.

Thanks for the players who continue to play at a level much higher than
they get credit for, as they are buried on bad teams in big conferences.
Players like Washington State’s Marcus Moore, Kansas State’s Pervis
Pasco and Providence’s Ryan Gomes.

Thanks for Anthony Glover, a warrior who has been in college forever and
never gives less than 100 percent.

Thanks for Cameron Indoor Stadium, the toughest road game in the
country.

Thanks for Jerry Tarkanian, for paving the way for Steve Fisher.

Thanks for Dwyane Wade’s explosiveness and much improved defense. A
pure joy to watch at both ends of the floor.

Thanks for Luke Walton’s unselfish play.

Thanks for Evansville’s new uniforms. No more sleeves!

Thanks for the Bracket Buster day, Feb. 22 will give us some great
matchups.

Thanks for Bradley’s Danny Granger, who not only pulled down 20 rebounds
in a game last week (Notre Dame’s Torin Francis did that also), but
grabbed 11 on the offensive end!

Thanks for Creighton, the team nobody will want to play in March, as
they’ve shown thus far.

Thanks for Alaska-Fairbanks reminding us why the games need to be
played, as they become the first Div. II school to win a Div. I
tournament. Sure, they didn’t knock off a ranked team, like Chaminade
did, but they did run off three in a row, a huge accomplishment.

Thanks for bands and cheerleaders, who add to the atmosphere that is
NCAA basketball.

Thanks for the BCS, which makes March Madness look brilliant.

Thanks for the beginning of the season, football was really starting to
get to me!

Bill Thayer is a Hoopville Senior writer living in New York. He can
be contacted by clicking
here
.

TJ Ford for MVP

by - Published November 22, 2002 in Columns


Ford Tough: T.J. Steers the Horns

by Bill Thayer


Baseball was locked in a debate once the season ended on the criteria for MVP, should it go to the best player or the best player on the best team? I’ll end all arguments for college basketball right here and now: T.J Ford is the best player in college basketball and the most valuable player in college basketball. On top of that, Ford is the main reason Texas will win the national title this year.

Ford’s ability as a pass-first point guard was well documented last year as Ford became the first freshman to lead the nation in assists and joined Jason Kidd as the only players to do it before their junior seasons. Much like Kidd, Ford’s game is continuing to develop. Ford spent his summer improving his scoring skills, as he showed in the Longhorns season opening win against Georgia, leading all scorers, as well as tying his career-high, with 22 points.

What is overlooked when talking about Ford is his toughness. He’s vocal on the court and his wiry frame makes him look like the typical end-to-end jet (which he is). Ford has never been one to avoid mixing it up with the big boys, as evidenced by an 11 rebound effort last year against Stanford.

I don’t like to throw comparisons around freely, but watching Ford reminds me of another undersized point guard who knew how to win: Isaiah Thomas. There are certain instincts Ford shows in finding his teammates and creating open shots for them that Thomas flashed early in his career. Thomas developed his scoring as well and, like Ford, would hit the glass when needed.

Everybody already knows Ford’s resume, leading Willowridge High School (along with current Duke guard Daniel Ewing and Oklahoma State’s Ivan McFarlin) to a 73-1 record over his last three years. But how Ford does it is by making others better. Late in the win over Georgia, Bulldogs coach Jim Harrick was called for a technical foul. Texas coach Rick Barnes told Ford to take the free throw and ice the game. With the Longhorns up four, Ford nodded then told Brandon Mouton to take it.

“I ask him what he was doing,” Barnes said. “He said, ‘I wanted Brnadon to hit and get his confidence up. It might help us down the line.”

Mouton made the free throw and Texas held on. Yet another assist for the best in the game.

Assorted Musings

• While T.J. Ford may be the best player in the college game, I think Marquette’s Dwyane Wade is making his case for most exciting. I know some pro scouts are drooling over the 6-5 junior guard, but I think he has some aspects of his game to work on before he’s ready for the league. Wade still needs to extend his shooting range and learn to free himself up before he’s ready to move to the next level. That being said, there are very few players in college who are as good at getting to the hoop as he is. He redefines the word explosive.

• The NCAA doesn’t seem to care about the P.R. nightmare its providing for itself right now with the suspension of Billy Edelin and held up case of Mario Austin. While I like the idea of upholding some of its rules there are bigger issues to be looked at before worrying about if Edelin played in a rec league or not. Like the essential squashing of SAT scores from minimal requirements.

• The biggest injury of the season may have occurred at NC State, where forward Ilian Evtimov was lost for the season with a torn ACL just minutes into an exhibition game. The sophomore forward was just one of the many versatile pieces for the Wolfpack. He looked like he was going to, along with Marcus Melvin, help take some of the scoring pressure off of Julius Hodge. Now, as he is out for the year, the Pack may have slipped back into the race for the ACC, where as many as seven chances have a legit shot at the title.

• With all the talk of the freshmen around the nation, the hot start by Notre Dame has gone virtually unnoticed. In the first two games of the year, wins against Belmont and IUPUI, the Irish set and then broke, the school record for blocks. Mike Bray continues to develop that program. Freshman Torin Francis and sophomore Jordan Cornette have filled the role left by Ryan Humphrey and Maryland transfer Dan Miller adds another scoring option. If Chris Thomas plays as well as he did early in conference play last year, they should give Pittsburgh a run in the Big East West.

• Creighton forward Kyle Korver was named Missouri Valley Conference player of the week for the week ending Nov. 17. That should come as no surprise considering Creighton was the only team in conference to play a regular season game that week.

• North Carolina should not be patting themselves on the backs for their second round “win” over Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights gave the game away, blowing an 11 point lead in the final 7 minutes. Rutgers rushed many shots and never got back defensively. Not to be totally negative, it seemed like the Tar Heel faithful helped will their team to that win as the Dean Dome was LOUD.

• After watching Villanova lose to Marquette I kept thinking back to two years ago when Seton Hall could not get the right chemistry between their freshmen and veterans. With Gary Buchanan out, Derrick Snowden looked uncomfortable with the newcomers and was seen pouting on the bench more than once. Part of it may be due to the little amount of practice time before the first game, but if the Wildcats can’t gel it will be a long year for Jay Wright.

     

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