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Bracket Breakdown: Math Behind VCU’s Run Is Unbelievable

by - Published April 2, 2011 in Columns

You don’t need me to tell you that VCU’s run to the Final Four was improbable. But let’s take a look at just how unforeseeable it really has been.

During the NCAA Tournament , the Rams have improved their offensive and defensive efficiency by more than twice as much as any team did in last season’s tournament. The change is so dramatic that you’d think that we’re dealing with an invasion of the body snatchers. Would whoever kidnapped the average three point-shooting, defensively suspect Rams please return them to Earth?

It’s that remarkable. … Continue Reading

Bracket Breakdown: History Beckons for Butler, VCU

by - Published April 2, 2011 in Columns

This weekend promises to be historic.

For just the fifth time since UCLA completed its run of dominance in the 1970s, we will have a mid-major program playing for the national championship. And based on the torrid play of VCU and Butler, there’s no reason to think the Rams or Bulldogs can’t knock off Connecticut or Kentucky to claim the first title for a non-power conference team since UNLV demolished Duke in 1990.

For a quick history lesson, here’s a rundown of championship game participants from conferences not named the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC since 1975. … Continue Reading

Bracket Breakdown: Best Conferences Thus Far Come as a Surprise

by - Published March 21, 2011 in Columns

Surprise! After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the two conferences performing the best are the ACC and CAA.

I don’t think many people saw that coming. But those two conferences account for a quarter of the Sweet 16 teams and have more teams advancing to the second weekend than the Big East and Big 12 combined. That’s even more impressive when you consider the latter two conferences fielded 16 teams to the seven from the ACC and CAA. In addition, 12 of the Big East/Big 12 teams had seeds of No. 6 or better, while only two of seven ACC/CAA teams could say that. … Continue Reading

Bracket Breakdown: 16 Questions for 16 Games

by - Published March 19, 2011 in Columns

With the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament in the books, we’re moving into the third round. By the end of Sunday, we’ll know which teams will form this year’s Sweet 16, and there promises to be a few surprises. Let’s take a look at 16 questions for the third round of action. … Continue Reading

Bracket Breakdown: 32 Questions for 32 Games

by - Published March 17, 2011 in Columns

Let’s take a quick run through every first-round match up to highlight the top question in each game.

1.

(5) West Virginia 84 (12) Clemson 76
How will the Mountaineers handle Clemson’s pressure defense, which forces turnovers on 23.2 percent of defensive possessions?

ANSWER: After an ugly start, West Virginia recovered to beat Clemson 84-76 in the first game of the day. The Mountaineers succeeded in limiting turnovers to about 16 percent of their possessions, better than their season average 19.0 percent and even more impressive against the Tigers. … Continue Reading

NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Projected Field 9.0

by - Published March 12, 2011 in Columns

We’re less than 24 hours away from Selection Sunday, and we’ve got plenty on the line today. Yesterday’s results produced some significant movement in the brackets. Here are the highlights.

  • Purdue’s loss to Michigan State costs the Boilermakers a No. 2 seed. Louisville’s run to the Big East championship game allows the Cardinals to move into that spot.
  • Likewise, the Spartans move up from a No. 10 seed to a No. 9 seed with the win. … Continue Reading

NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Projected Field 8.0

by - Published March 11, 2011 in Columns

Thursday losses burst the bubbles of several teams that failed to advance in their conference tournaments, ending any chance that they’ll play their way into an at-large bid.

As Selection Sunday approaches, there are only a handful of teams on the outside that can still move their way into the tournament. Those teams include: … Continue Reading

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: Kansas’ Upset Follows Scary Trend for Jayhawk Fans

by - Published March 22, 2010 in Columns

Kansas was supposed to cruise to its second title in three years. On paper, the Jayhawks had everything a team was supposed to need to make a long, triumphant run to the final game in April.

A seasoned point guard with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, including one national championship already? Check.

A tough-minded beast in the post with NBA-caliber talent? Check.

A few athletic swingmen who cause match up problems against smaller guards? Check.

A great statistical profile that included an offense and defense ranked in the top 10 in efficiency? Check.

A veteran coach who knows how to win big games? Um, we might need to leave that box blank.

Since coach Bill Self arrived in Lawrence in 2003, the Jayhawks have reached the NCAA Tournament every season. In 2008, Self guided Kansas to its first championship in 20 years by upsetting the top overall seed, North Carolina, and then beating Memphis in a thriller. The media eagerly added Self to the pantheon of the greatest coaches in the game today.

But perhaps we all embraced Self’s success a little too hastily.

Besides 2008, what has Kansas accomplished under Self? If Saturday’s loss to Northern Iowa stunned you, I recommend that you sit down for this one.

If you don’t count the championship season, Kansas has won exactly one NCAA Tournament game against a team seeded better than No. 8. One! That doesn’t seem possible, especially for a team that has been seeded No. 4 or better in every one of those NCAA Tournaments. For crying out loud, Cornell and St. Mary’s have topped that total this season alone!

Let’s run down the recent NCAA Tournament history of the Self-made Kansas Jayhawks.

  • 2004: In Self’s first season with the Jayhawks, the team earned a No. 4 seed and beat No. 13 Illinois-Chicago, No. 12 Pacific and No. 8 UAB before losing to No. 3 Georgia Tech in the Elite Eight.
  • 2005: With high expectations as a No. 3 seed, Kansas flamed out in the first round against No. 14 Bucknell.
  • 2006: Kansas fared no better the next season as a No. 4 seed, losing to No. 13 Bradley in the first round.
  • 2007: As a No. 1 seed, Kansas made its second-deepest run under Self, beating No. 16 Portland State, No. 8 Kentucky and No. 4 Southern Illinois before losing to No. 2 UCLA.
  • 2008: The Jayhawks earned a No. 1 seed and won the national championship by taking out No. 16 Niagara, No. 8 UNLV, No. 12 Villanova, No. 10 Davidson, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 1 Memphis.
  • 2009: After winning the championship, the reloaded Jayhawks got a No. 3 seed and beat No. 14 North Dakota State and No. 11 Dayton before losing to No. 2 Michigan State.
  • 2010: Expected to win their second national championship in three seasons, the Jayhawks became the first No. 1 seed to lose in this year’s tournament when No. 9 Northern Iowa knocked them off.

In three of seven tournaments, Kansas has been victimized by teams seeded eight, nine and 11 seeds worse than the Jayhawks’. Those all count as major upsets. In 2004 and 2009, the Jayhawks were the beneficiaries of other upsets and beat three teams seeded No. 8 or worse in the second round and Sweet 16 before eventually losing to the first better seed they played.

In 2007, Kansas made its best run outside the championship season as the Jayhawks beat the hardest possible team, based on seed, in each round before losing to UCLA, and there’s no shame in losing to a No. 2 seed in the Elite Eight.

But even Kansas’ run to the national championship in 2008 is littered with lucky breaks. The Jayhawks drew overmatched No. 12 Villanova in the Sweet 16 and exhausted No. 10 Davidson in the Elite Eight. If Stephen Curry hadn’t simply run out of steam with five minutes to go, the Wildcats might have pulled off yet another major upset of Self’s Jayhawks.

In the 2008 Final Four, Kansas played the single best NCAA Tournament game of the Bill Self era when the Jayhawks crushed North Carolina with a huge first half. The Jayhawks used a 31-6 to squash North Carolina’s hopes by midway through the first half. However, even with a 28-point lead, Kansas tried to give away the game as the Tar Heels rallied to cut that huge deficit to four points. They ran out of gas — a la Curry in the Elite Eight — and Kansas held on for an 84-66 victory.

In the championship game, Kansas was the team delivering an epic rally. When Memphis’ Robert Dozier hit two free throws with just more than two minutes remaining, the Tigers has a nine-point cushion and appeared set to win the championship. But Memphis missed 4-of-5 free throws in the final 75 seconds — perhaps bad karma derived from Derrick Rose’s academic machinations in high school — setting the stage for Mario Chalmers’ miraculous game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds. Kansas carried the momentum through overtime and surged to a 75-68 championship game victory.

There’s no doubt that Self is a good coach. He is an excellent recruiter, and his teams statistically play great defense and efficient offense. However, his NCAA Tournament résumé is far from proven, and it’s way too early to label him a great coach as long as the Jayhawks have twice as many NCAA Tournament losses (six) than wins against teams seeded better than No. 8 (three).

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