Wednesday, March 29, 2006

By George...
When I last dropped in to share some frustrated thoughts on the Big Ten's goose egg in the NCAA Tournament, I half jokingly said that I'd have to root for the little guys to keep my interest in the tournament. By George, that guy George Mason did it!

I know there has been a lot of talk on the sports talk shows, SportsCenter, etc. about the Patriots' place in underdog history - rightfully so. Aside from the 1980 miracle on Ice, I have never witnessed - in all of my sports watching - a team quite like George Mason. Yes, an 11-seed (LSU in 1986) has made it to the Final Four before. Keep in mind, however, that LSU was coming from a power conference. They may have been one of the last teams in, but that isn't that big of a deal in my eyes.

Yes, a huge underdog has won the NCAA Tournament before (Villanova in 1985). But, again, that was a team from a big conference, used to playing on a big stage and one that had already played its opponent a few times that season. A big deal, but not this magnitude.

Sure, there are upsets and 15s have knocked off 2s, 14s have stunned 3s ... but none of those teams made it this far. I mean, we're talking a mid-major program (and IMO that is being kind because the CAA is more like a low-mid-major) that took out three of the biggest and best programs in college basketball. Michigan State has been to four of the last eight Final Fours. North Carolina won the whole enchilada last season. Connecticut, not overall top seed Duke, was the favorite to win the whole thing with a roster chock full of NBA prospects. George Mason beat them all and not with a Northwestern State-esque lucky, falling out of bounds, fade-away triple at the buzzer. The Patriots controlled the glass, the tempo, the defensive end of the court, stared defeat in the face and never blinked.

For my money, George Mason is the biggest and best "little guy" story that the game has seen - in my lifetime. The Texas Western story would be bigger given the times, but in the here and now, we may never see a run like this again. To beat the teams Mason beat over the course of a season would be huge. To do it back-to-back-to-back (more or less) over two weekends is amazing.

I'm not sure they'll come out of Indy as the champ, but they have already beaten three teams that I think were better than any of the rest that are still breathing. The ideal title game, in my mind, would be LSU and George Mason. If for no other reason because the teams have fun, they don't let a deficit shake them. Both remind me of the 2000 Michigan State team that won it all except that team was probably supposed to win that tournament title. If the Patriots do win the championship, you might never find a better feel good past-present-future, David and Goliath story of this level ever again...

Good move IU...
Word is that Indiana is going to name Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson as their next head coach. A good move by IU to cut ties to Coach Knight and start anew with a guy who's style will definitely fit in with the Big Ten.

Spring football is here...
I am hoping to get back to my mega team by team previews this summer. Fun to start thinking about football now that basketball is over for everyone but Michigan, but then again, I'm not going to wish spring and summer away before they get here!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What the bleep happened?
In the immortal words of one of the best play by play announcers in all of sports - Dick Enberg - "oh my." What else can be said about the Big Ten as it pertains to March Madness? 2006 will go down as only the third time in the last 50 freaking years that the Big Ten has failed to place at least one team in the Sweet 16. The first time since 1996. Man that sucks and not just because I had Ohio State in the Final Four, Michigan State in the Elite Eight and Iowa and Illinois in the Sweet 16.

It's hard to take because all season long, the RPI showed the Big Ten as the conference to beat. Nine of the eleven teams went on to postseason play, even if no one gives a rat's ass about the three that went to the Not Invited Tournament (sorry U-M, but nice work on getting to that Final Four.) It's hard to take because who do I root for now? I deplore the Big East. Root for Duke? I'd rather have Dick "Dukie V." Vitale sing the Duke fight song mere inches from my face for an entire day than actually root for the Blue Devils. I guess there are the 'dogs, including that guy George Mason who beat my alma mater in round one or that guy Bradley who knocked off a couple of sleeper Final Four picks. But really, without the Big Ten, it just doesn't feel right.

Looking back...
A word to two can sum up each of the six early exits for the Big Ten. In chronological order:

Wisconsin - Blown out. And here I labeled this as a team that could pull a Wisconsin a la 2000. Yikes. The Badgers were NEVER in that game.

Iowa - Shocker. Give me a loss - as a fan - like Wisconsin or Michigan State's any day. They have plenty of time to settle in and are easier to flush at the end of the game. There is nothing like losing to Cinderella on a freaking miracle, fade-away, falling out of bounds, desperation heave as the clock is running out. Oh and blowing a 17-point lead made that part even worse.

Michigan State - Ouch. It hurt to watch my beloved Spartans beat at the very game they usually play. George Mason played old style Spartan defense, hit the glass with abandon and generally wanted it more than everyone except Drew Neitzel and Mo Ager.

Illinois - Tough out. The Illini faced a big, early deficit, turned it around by 25 points, but got out-clawed in the end.

Indiana - Valient effort. So long Mike Davis. Indiana gave it a good shot, but apparently you can't just stop Adam Morrison and still beat Gonzaga.

Ohio State - Disappointing. Arguably the best Big Ten team and most consistent all season, the Bucks got flat killed by a good but not great Georgetown team. Too boot, it happened in their own backyard.

It was ugly, but hey, there is always next year... the Big Ten can't always dominate half of the Final Four...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Congratulations Iowa...
As I predicted, minus the opponent, Iowa clawed through a highly competitive Big Ten tournament to grab the crown. The Hawkeyes, who finished one game out of their first Big Ten regular season title since 1979, earned it with a nice win over a very good Ohio State squad. Here's hoping it carries the black and gold deep into March.

Let the Madness ensue...
As a die-hard college basketball fan, there is flat out no better time on the sports calendar than March. The madness starts with all the bubble talk and bracket projections, and only gets more deafening when the brackets are announced. So-called experts ridicule the Selection Committee in an annual rite of passage. And then, the games begin.

It would have been nice to get seven, but Michigan will have to carry the flag in the NIT. Not a bad deal. Heck, the Wolverines won it the last time they had their bubble burst, so who knows. They need a good run in Ann Arbor to feel better about where Amaker is leading the program. But I digress. We all know that the only tournament that truly matters is the NCAA Tournament. After all, it is a $6 Billion business!

With that, here is what I expect each team to do on the Road to the Final Four:

Illinois: The Illini slipped to a four seed and play the one team who's very existence in the tournament has been questioned by just about everyone - Air Force. The Falcons play a Northwestern/Georgetown/Princeton style on offense - one Illinois has played against a lot even this season. I like the Illini to take out the Fly Boys and advance to the Sweet 16 with a win over Utah State. Yep, there is one of your year-in-year-out 12-5 upsets. The run ends there as UConn, my pick to cut down the nets, nips the Illini in a close one.

Indiana: The Hoosiers definitely played their way in with a surge when it mattered most - late in the season. With nothing to lose, the Hoosiers are dangerous. But so is first round opponent San Diego State. Do the cream and crimson have enough gas left in the tank to make a run? I think they get past SDSU but fall to eventual Final Four team Gonzaga in the second round. Let the coaching search begin!

Iowa: I've heard more than one expert call an upset here, but I'm not buying it. Iowa is a tough tournament team. They have seniors. They can control tempo. They are playing really well right now. Northwestern State goes down with ease, but then it gets tough. West Virginia ran deep last year and is interesting this year too. Still, the Big Ten is too good to lose this game. Iowa gets to the Sweet 16 but loses to Texas in a heartbreaker.

Michigan State: The Spartans got a huge win with the quarterfinal victory over Illinois and almost made the Big Ten Tourney finals. That got them off the seven line and into the six spot. Allegiance aside, I like the draw. George Mason is good but without their best player after he got a little too personal with a player from Hofstra in the CAA Semis. North Carolina is playing well but has virtually no tournament experience. Tennessee is the most overrated two seed I can recall. Bottom line? I like Michigan State to get it together, like they always seem to do and run to the Elite 8 before a loss to eventual champ UConn.

Ohio State: You have to wonder had they won the Big Ten Tourney if the Bucks would be the 1 out west in place of Memphis, but they aren't so let's go with where they are. I like this team. A tough big man, a team capable of shooting lights out from three. Even on cold days, the scarlet and gray are capable of beating good teams. I like the Buckeyes to beat up on Davidson, squeak past the Hoyas, beat an athletic Florida team and then shut down Villanova to get yet another Big Ten team to the Final Four.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have the toughest first round contest but have the team and the coach to do some damage in this tournament. I expect an overtime win over Arizona and then an overtime loss to Villanova in round two. But, don't sleep on Bo Ryan's Badgers, because they could shock their way deep into the tournament a la 2000 if opponents aren't careful.

My Final Four is: Connecticut, Gonzaga, Duke and Ohio State.
My Title Game is: Connecticut versus Duke
My Champ is: Connecticut.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Now the fun begins...
Admittedly, the Big Ten conference race was a wilder ride than I expected back in November. Some teams really stepped up (Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State) while others (Michigan State) really struggled more than expected at times. But as we all know, November - February is really there to A) get you in to the postseason and B) to get you prepared to play in said postseason.

Winning the Big Ten is a feat every school wants to accomplish and congratulations to the Buckeyes for doing so. But more than even conference titles and league tourney titles, teams - make that programs - are measured on their success in March, on the national stage, in the NCAA Tournament.

Given what I have seen over two months of conference play and four months of basketball, the Big Ten will once again make some noise in the Big Dance. And just because a Wisconsin or Michigan State or Indiana might be a 6, 7 or higher seed, don't count them out just yet. The Big Ten teams know each other so well that it makes conference play a battle of who can play the most perfect. Come tournament time, that factor goes away and the coaches and players get a chance to shine against teams who don't know their every tendency. This is why a program like Michigan State does so well almost every year during March Madness. This is why a team with a coach like Bo Ryan could be the bracket buster that makes it to the Elite 8 or beyond. This is why we love the month of March.

Looking Back...
Back in November, I took a look at everyone in the Big Ten and put some guesses on where they'd end up. Of course it is tough to predict things like losing two key bench players in mid-season (Wisconsin), or losing key players to injury late in the season (Michigan State) or how previously good, but not great juniors would develop into real winners (Ohio State and Iowa).

Following is how I sized up the teams four months ago, how they really finished with a self-grade placed on each prediction (right on for B10 play = A, within 1 game = B, within 2-3 games = C within 4 games = D, 5 or more games off = F).

Michigan State – 12-2 / 13-3 (T-1st) / 25-5 / NCAA Berth
Illinois – 12-2 / 13-3 (T-1st) / 25-5 / NCAA Berth
Wisconsin – 11-2 / 12-4 (3rd) / 23-6 / NCAA Berth
Iowa – 12-2 / 10-6 (4th) / 22-8 / NCAA Berth
Ohio State – 9-2 / 9-7 (T-5th) / 18-9 / NCAA Berth
Indiana – 8-3 / 9-7 (T-5th) / 17-10 / NCAA Berth
Minnesota – 9-2 / 8-8 (7th) / 17-10 / NIT Berth
Michigan – 9-2 / 7-9 (8th) / 16-11 / NIT Berth
Purdue – 8-3 / 3-13 (T-9th) / 11-16
Northwestern – 7-5 / 3-13 (T-9th) / 10-18
Penn State – 7-4 / 1-15 (11th) / 8-19

Ohio State – 11-0 / 12-4 (1st) / 23-4 / Grade: C
Illinois – 14-0 / 11-5 (T-2nd) / 25-5 / Grade: C
Iowa – 11-3 / 11-5 (T-2nd) / 22-8 / Grade: B
Wisconsin – 10-3 / 9-7 (T-4th) / 19-10 / Grade: C
Indiana – 8-3 / 9-7 (T-4th) / 17-10 / Grade: A+ for nailing it across the board!
Michigan State – 12-2 / 8-8 (T-6th) / 20-10 / Grade: F
Michigan – 10-1 / 8-8 (T-6th) / 18-9 / Grade: B
Penn State – 8-3 / 6-10 (T-8th) / 14-13 / Grade: F
Northwestern – 8-4 / 6-10 (T-8th) / 14-14 / Grade: C
Minnesota – 9-2 / 5-11 (10th) / 14-13 / Grade: C
Purdue – 6-5 / 3-13 (T-9th) / 9-18 / Grade: A

Average overall grade: within 2.09 games = C

All Big Ten:
I look at All Big Ten teams as the five guys I would want on the floor given the chance to pick a team of five that could take on and beat anyone in the nation. I.E. the best players, regardless of stats. Glue guys. Guys that you can count on to make a key bucket, stop, pass, free throw or rebound. Second team is the bench that I'd want to have. Without further ado:

C - Paul Davis (MSU)
F - Terence Dials (OSU)
F - Alando Tucker (WIS)
G - Shannon Brown (MSU)
G - Dee Brown (ILL)

F - Greg Brunner (IOWA)
F - Geary Claxton (PSU)
F - Vedran Vukusic (NU)
G - Daniel Horton (M)
G - Jeff Horner (IOWA)

Honorable Mention:
F/G - Robert Vaden (IU)
F - Marco Killingsworth (IU)
G - Adam Huluska (IOWA)
G - Maurice Ager (MSU)
G - Jamar Butler (OSU)

The coaches and media, however, beg to differ.

Looking Ahead...
The Big Ten Tourney is almost upon us and aside from maybe Purdue, I sense that almost any team could make a run at the title. Three teams - Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota are hanging on for dear life for an NIT bid. Indiana and Michigan are as close to bubble teams for the NCAA Tournament as the league has, but in my opinion, are both in. This is how I expect things to play out in Indy this weekend...

#8 Penn State over #9 Northwestern
#7 Michigan over #10 Minnesota
#6 Michigan State over #11 Purdue

#5 Indiana over #4 Wisconsin
#1 Ohio State over #8 Penn State
#2 Iowa over #7 Michigan
#3 Illinois over #6 Michigan State

#5 Indiana over #1 Ohio State
#2 Iowa over #3 Illinois

#2 Iowa over #5 Indiana

After that...
After a wild Big Ten tournament, won by Indiana golden boy Steve Alford, the Big Ten will send at least Penn State and maybe a .500 Minnesota team to the NIT and seven to the Big Dance.

Ohio State will land a 2 seed
Iowa will land a 3 seed
Illinois will land a 3 seed
Wisconsin will land a 7 seed
Indiana will land an 8 seed
Michigan State will land a 6 seed
Michigan will land a 9 seed

Of the seven, without yet seeing the draw of course, four will make the Sweet 16. Once the brackets come out, I'll get more specific. In the meantime, ESPN is updating bracketology daily now.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Congratulations to the Ohio State Buckeyes on clinching at least a share of the Big Ten title. If the Bucks win outright, they will be the first school in Big Ten history to produce a solo Men's & Women's title in the same year.

Off the Big Ten ... is anyone else with me that Dick Vitale is more out of control with his lust for Duke than ever? I can't even stand to see his face, let alone hear his voice. All he does is call Duke games and when they lose, he makes excuses or sings their praises for being so tough and resilient rather than touting the other team. Gag, barf, puke. He wondered aloud last night why everyone hates a winner like Duke? Let me answer that Duke, er Dick - because of blowhards like you!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Wednesday Afternoon Point Guard... Back from some much needed R&R with the fam in the warmth and sun of Florida and man has a lot happened in the past week. Michigan State lost Matt Trannon at the worst possible time given who they were playing (OSU and IU) and promptly played themselves out of the race. Iowa, once in the driver's seat, relinquished that to Ohio State who comes down the home stretch with two very winnable games and a solo title within reach - a full year ahead of schedule to boot (given the recruiting class that comes in next fall). Illinois and Wisconsin are still in the race, as is Iowa, but the potential seeding for the Big Ten Tourney is a mess and the Big Dance is as cloudy as ever, even though the Hoosiers may have extended Mike Davis' stay with the win over the Spartans.

Home is as sweet as ever... After a second-straight 9-1 week for home teams (not including the Minnesota loss to Illinois last night), the hosts stand at 58-21 overall - a win percentage of .734. More impressive than that is the overall home record of the top seven contenders in the Big Ten race: 44-6! Iowa is the only remaining unbeaten at home but no one else has more than one home loss. The league is as tough as I can remember and when you look at the big picture, it all comes down to who drew what when the computer spit out the slates for this league season...

Champ chase getting clearer... The past few weeks, I was certain that we'd have a four-way tie atop the conference. With two games left for most teams, I am here to tell you that unless Ohio State gets tripped up in Evanston tonight (a distinct possibility - just ask Iowa and Wisconsin) it will be the scarlet and gray sitting all alone in the top spot. From there, it gets cloudy. The seeding scenarios are all across the board when it comes to Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana. Hang on tight, it'll be a wild ride.

Upset of the week... Hands down, it was the way Daniel Horton more or less single-handedly beat the Illini in Ann Arbor. That was a huge, and unexpected win for the then bubble bound Wolverines.

Team of the week... The Buckeyes. They put themselves in a position to win this thing all by themselves with a huge road win in East Lansing and a nice home win over rival Michigan.

Back to seven... Barring a catastrophe this week, Indiana has played itself back into the NCAA Tournament and the Big Ten will again be sending seven teams, maybe more if someone like Minnesota or Northwestern shocks everyone with a four day run to the B10 Tourney title in a week.

Where do they rank? I'd put the following teams in my Top 25: Ohio State (10), Illinois (12), Iowa (20), Michigan State (23), and Wisconsin (24) with Michigan not far behind.

How it will go down... Ohio State will be your champ at 12-4. Iowa will finish second with a solid 11-5 record. Illinois comes in third at 10-6. Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin tie for fourth at 9-7 and Indiana finishes off at 8-8. Penn State and Northwestern will go 6-10, Minnesota 5-11 and Purdue 3-13.

Back to the NCAA Tourney talk... ESPN has it this way. I see it as follows:

I see Ohio State as a two seed, playing close to home. The only way they drop is with a one and done in Indy, but I don't see that happening.

I see Illinois as a three seed in what I consider the weakest bracket (one with Memphis as a one seed). They could sneak up to a two or fall to a four, but both are doubtful.

I see Iowa as a dreaded five seed with the potential to go out early or sneak all the way to the Elite 8 or beyond.

I see Wisconsin as a six with the potential to do the sort of damage that the 2000 team did.

I see Michigan State as a five seed. This team doesn't have the record of last year's but just played the toughest slate possible in the Big Ten and played a solid OOC schedule. Worst case, State is looking at 19-12, and that would mean more like an 8-10. Best case, they are looking at 24-9. I see them 22-10 and right at a five. Another team that could go out early or make a nice run.

I see Michigan as an eight or nine no matter what happens from here on out. Likely in a region with an "upset-able" one seed.

I see Indiana as an 11 seed, unless they lose both games this week and then it could be NIT for the cream and crimson.