Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What an Opening Weekend: Madness in March Indeed!

March Madness is back, and began with a great first weekend. It all started Thursday, with one of the greatest single days in the history of the tournament. There was a record five games decided by one point, and another four by three points or less. Friday restored order a little with all but one (Providence) of the higher seeds winning, but Louisville did just squeak by UC Irvine by two, Wichita State was challenged by Louisville and Maryland were given a tough test by little Valparaiso. The weekend saw more upsets and close games, with the #1 seed Villanova taken down by NC State, #2 seed Virginia falling to a lower-seeded Michigan State for the second year running, Utah blasting past Georgetown, Wichita State crushing a Kansas team that couldn’t make a shot, Notre Dame needing overtime to cruise past Butler, and West Virginia surprising with a statement win over Maryland. Some thoughts on the first four days of the tournament (excluding those two qualifying games) and who is looking good to get to the Final Four.

1. Michigan State’s March Magic: as a youngster, I was an Indiana fan, and still root for them whenever they play. But forgoing the Finals a decade back, they haven’t been the same team since Bobby Knight took his leadership and temper to greener pastures. I also came around to rooting for Michigan when the Fab Five showed up and did everything except win a Championship. But little by little, I couldn’t help but gain increasing respect for Tom Izzo and his ability to get one team after another to perform in the tournament. This appeared to be one of his weaker squads in recent memory and yet they are on to the sweet 16 again, and have a good chance to make it back to the Final Four. A lot of fans must be happy he didn’t make the jump to the NBA a few years back.

2. Villanova Blow it Again: Jim Wright is a quality coach that has pushed Villanova to the next level, reinventing the team that hadn’t done much since the Cinderella victory over Georgetown in 1985. But one thing he has not done is found a way to build a team that can really compete in March. The past two years, he led his team to the #2 and then #1 seed in the tournament, but poor shooting performances saw them go out to eventual champion Connecticut last season and then fellow 80s Cinderella story NC State on Saturday. In the past, it has often been the case that his teams didn’t have the pure shooter necessary to win tight games, but this year they became one of the best jump shooting teams in the country. Not on Sunday though, as they missed shot after shot, including over 10 lay ups, and flopped out when their final pass flew over the heads of everyone. Is Wright the man to lead Villanova back to the Final 4? I’m starting to have real doubts.

3. ACC Accolades: The latest victim of Michigan State was, of course, Virginia, the #2 seed in the same bracket as Villanova. But that was the first and only loss for ACC this weekend, with Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Notre Dame and Louisville still in the dance party. Pretty impressive, particularly when compared to the Big East, who have had a terrible tournament with only Xavier still hanging around a year after winning it all. The Pac 12 isn’t doing so badly themselves, though, with UCLA proving the critics wrong, Arizona favored by many to reach the Final Four and Utah still in it.

4. Kentucky Carpetbagger: one might argue John Calipari is a greater recruiter than he is coach, building one incredible team of blue clippers after another. Yet getting those young stars to gel, as he has done for most of his career, even as so many of them depart after a year or two at Kentucky, is certainly impressive. Calipari has won coach of the year three times, led 21 20-win seasons, nine 30-win seasons and been to the Final Four five times (with three different teams), and won a title with Kentucky in 2012. But he has also been a part of two vacated seasons, the 1996 U. Mass team that made it to the Final Four and the Memphis team that did the same in 2008, making him the only coach to ever accomplish that rather dubious accomplishment. He was implicated in neither case, but it hard to believe he didn’t have any knowledge of or participation in the alleged wrongdoing (including questions about Derrick Rose’s SAT scores leading to the “lost” 2007-2008 season). What he has done this season could validate his controversial career, particularly if Kentucky win their last four games of the season to complete an undefeated season for the first time since Bobby Knight’s Indiana in 1976. Based on their performance in the first two games, they will be hard to beat.

5. No Cinderella Story Left: one thing missing from a great first weekend is a true Cinderella team that has pulled off a couple of shockers to make it to the Sweet 16. UCLA, Michigan State and NC State all pulled off upsets, but they are perennial participants and have all won titles in the past. In fact, UCLA and NC State are the only teams left with a seed higher than 7, and Michigan State, Wichita State and Xavier the only ones with seeds higher than 5. This should make for quality games across the second weekend, with arguably no “bad” or “weak” team left in the bracket.

My picks for the next round of games are as follows: Notre Dame over Wichita State (though this is a tough one), North Carolina over Wisconsin, Kentucky over West Virginia (of course), Arizona over Xavier, UCLA over Gonzaga (this is a pick from the heart, but I do think the Bruins have a real shot for the upset), Louisville over NC State (another tough one), Duke over Utah and Michigan State over Oklahoma. Let the games begin … again!

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