Thursday, March 27, 2014

Robbins Rants: 16 is Oh So Sweet!

**I am covering March Madness for the "Louis Live" show on  Check back here for weekly updates on March Madness.  This is the third post in the series.  Click here to read a previous post.**

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Well that was awesome.  They call it March Madness and the first two rounds of this year's NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament definitely did not disappoint.  After six overtime games, multiple other games decided in the final moments and a host of classic games, we have arrived at the Sweet 16.  It was dicey at times for some teams--and even dicier for people who had those teams in their brackets--but the 16 teams playing tonight and tomorrow have all earned their right to March on.

In the words of a certain beverage company who did not pay for the rights to have their name printed in this blog, "Here We Go!"

Miller Bros.
On Saturday night, Archie Miller, head coach of the Dayton Flyers, led his team to a hard-fought upset over struggling Syracuse.  It capped off a tough season for Syracuse that saw the Orange finish with a 28-6 record after beginning the season 25-0.  But this game should not be classified as a Syracuse loss:  it was a Dayton win that propelled the 11 seed Flyers and their third year head coach into the spotlight as the closest thing remaining in this Tournament to a Cinderella.  Miller has done a phenomenal job at Dayton, turning the program into a success story that is in the Sweet 16 for the first time in three decades.  After upsetting in-state rivals Ohio State 60-59 to ruin most people's brackets in the first game of the Tournament, Dayton avoided a late Syracuse run and last-second attempt by star point guard Tyler Ennis to defeat the Orange 55-53 in the second round.  While their combined margin of victory in the first two rounds was three points, Dayton positioned themselves to win both games, and reminded the world that "Survive & Advance" is all a team needs to do in March Madness.

On Sunday evening, one seed Arizona faced off against eight seed Gonzaga in a game with an ungodly tip-off time of 9:53 p.m. Eastern.  (Tonight's tip-off is even more ridiculous for people who have to function on Friday mornings, as Arizona is not scheduled to tip-off until 10:17 p.m. Eastern, which means there is a good likelihood that the game will start after 10:30 p.m.)  A highly-anticipated matchup between a Gonzaga team that looked strong in dispatching Oklahoma State in the first round and an Arizona squad that seemingly had to prove itself despite being ranked number one for eight straight weeks this season, ended in a rout as Arizona had the game all but wrapped up at halftime.  As close friend and Huffington Post blogger Lewis Krell put it before the game while we were discussing what Arizona needed to do to beat Gonzaga, "Turnovers lead to easy points, easy points lead to March wins."  The Wildcats obliterated Gonzaga, converting the 21 Gonzaga turnovers it forced into 32 easy points.  The Wildcats looked like not only the top defensive team in the country, but a fluid offense that is and always has been about unselfishness and teamwork.  The unselfish style of play, work ethic and success that Arizona exhibits on the court is due to its leader and head coach, Sean Miller.  Miller is widely considered to be the "Best Coach to Never Make a Final Four," leading both Xavier and Arizona to huge success in his relatively short amount of time at the schools.  In addition to having the Wildcats posed to make the trip to North Texas for the Final Four, Sean Miller is the older brother of Dayton head coach Archie Miller.

Although he is one of the brightest young coaching minds in college basketball, Archie Miller was a relative unknown before Dayton's run.  Those who did know him outside of Ohio, most-likely knew him as the younger brother of Arizona head coach Sean Miller.  When Archie left his position as associate head coach at the University of Arizona to take the Dayton job, big brother Sean praised him as a great coach who would do fantastic things for the Dayton program.  Three years later, as they both prepare to coach their teams in this year's Sweet 16, Archie proved that big brother knows best.  Last weekend was a pretty darn good weekend to be a Miller.  For the sake of Dayton & Arizona fans, lets hope this weekend turns out to be an even better one.

The Shockers
On Sunday afternoon, the Wichita State Shockers faced off against the Kentucky Wildcats in the best game of the Tournament, thus far.  In a Tournament that has been this exciting and garnered the best ratings in 19 years, having the title of "best game" is no joke.  Wichita State came in as the 35-0, in-the-record-books mid-major team looking to prove itself to everybody.  Kentucky came in with a recruiting class for the ages that had been ranked number one in the nation during the preseason before faltering throughout the regular season.  Kentucky finally came together as a team towards the end of the season, running through the South Eastern Conference Tournament, ultimately losing to Florida by a point in the Title Game.  Wichita State entered the matchup as the only one seed to look strong in its first round matchup.  Kentucky entered the game with all of its talented freshmen finally clicking, exhibiting the chemistry that had eluded them all year long.  This was a matchup that many argued never should have been set up in the Round of 32 (with Kentucky deserving much higher than an eight seed in the tournament) and numerous pundits and the coaches of both teams remarking after the game that it was reminiscent of a Final Four game--if not a National Title game.

After a back-and-forth battle that showcased all of Wichita State's stars and included the dunk of the tournament and 31 points from Cleanthony Early, and the skills that made Kentucky's recruiting class the unquestioned best in the nation, Kentucky bested Wichita State 78-76 to advance to the Sweet 16. Immediately the conversation focused on Wichita State's credentials:  were they deserving of the one seed they were given?  Were they as good as their 35-0 start?  Had they earned the top seed in the Midwest Region of the Tournament?

The answer is yes.  To any questions about Wichita State's ability, to any questions about its coaching and its players, to any questions about its resume and its qualifications and accomplishments.  2013-2014 Wichita State was a great team led by Gregg Marshall who should runaway with every "coach of the year" award.  After leading the team to a Final Four last year, Marshall brought them back and kept them extremely focused despite the distractions and extra-incentive for other teams that inevitably follow undefeated teams.  They were scrutinized, they were picked on, and they prevailed through it all.  Coming into the Tournament, I had Kentucky beating Kansas State in the first round, to set up the exact matchup we witnessed with Wichita State on Sunday.  I had Kentucky winning the matchup because of its athleticism--a type of athleticism Wichita State did not have to face all year.  And I, someone who picked Kentucky to upset Wichita State, am here writing that there is no doubt in my mind that Wichita State deserved their one seed.  I do not care what conference you play in:  going undefeated in the regular season and conference tournament gives you elite status.  They were a well-oiled machine that ran through their schedule, as soft as parts of it may have been.

In March Madness, athleticism often wins out, especially when teams from smaller conferences ("mid-majors") face teams from "major" conferences.  I picked Kentucky to win for that reason, but there is no doubt in my mind that Wichita State is the better team overall.  On Sunday, Wichita State was a great team that came up against an unfortunate opponent.  Had Kentucky been seeded differently, Wichita State would still be dancing.  The fact that they are not should not take away from what they accomplished this season.  Wichita State set records and won in a way that had never been seen in a single season in NCAA History, during a time when unprecedented media coverage and technology allow anybody to be a pundit.  They turned the microscope into the limelight and triumphed all season long in spite of it, before ultimately losing a Title Game-esque matchup to a Kentucky team that played as well as it possibly could have.  Wichita State is back in Kansas this weekend, likely wondering what could have been.  They and everybody else should focus on what was, because their season was a thing of beauty and their team was one for the ages.

Back-Weighted Brackets
Historically, I have been great at picking the first round games, even going undefeated in my bracket through the first weekend one year.  (By comparison, one person in all of Yahoo! Sports brackets and zero people in ESPN's brackets were perfect after the first round this year.)  As any die-hard bracketeers know though, it is the later rounds that matter the most.  I was discussing this with OMG Poetry fan and fellow Arizona Alum. David Abraham last Thursday while we were watching the first round of the Tournament.  David had plenty of upsets in his first round, making sure that he also picked the teams he actually thought would make it, to go far in his bracket.  This gave him Dayton over Ohio State and Mercer over Duke, while only costing him some 12/5 match ups.

David's strategy is a good one when it comes to differentiating oneself from the other people in your pool.  The scoring for most brackets is skewed towards the later rounds, meaning that correctly picking a Sweet 16 game is worth more points than picking a First Round game.  I had a shaky first round by my standards, going 24-8.  This dropped me towards the bottom of both of my brackets and left my prospects looking bleak after day two.  However, I was not despondent, as I knew a bounce-back Second Round would have me right back in contention.  I had already lost three of my Sweet 16 teams, Duke, New Mexico and Ohio State.  Out of the 13 possible remaining teams, I went 12-1, missing out only on the Wisconsin/Oregon matchup.  I had top seed Wichita State losing to Kentucky, as well as second seeds Villanova and Kansas, and third seeds Syracuse and Creighton losing.

Even though I lost one Final Four team (Duke), two Elite Eight teams (Ohio State and New Mexico) and three Sweet 16 teams (the aforementioned three teams) in the first round, my second round picking enabled me to bounce back and jump all the way up to second in both of my pools.  While the games could obviously not go my way the rest of the Tournament, I have put myself solidly in contention and I will win both of my pools if my National Champion pick (Arizona) comes through and wins it all, in spite of my tough first round.

This is a reminder to everybody for the future:  while upsets are fun and we all want Cinderellas to advance in the Dance, it is important that you are able to see which teams will be around during the second weekend when you peer into your Crystal Ball.  These are the teams that position you to win your brackets.  These teams are your Prince Charmings.

16 is Oh So Sweet!
With 16 teams to go and my bracket and results posted above, I figured now would be a good time to make my predictions for this weekend's games, and give a few brief sentences on my reasons why.  (My picks are bolded.)

West Region:
Arizona vs. San Diego State
Arizona and San Diego State both feature great defenses.  Arizona also has a great offense.  San Diego State has Xavier Thames.  He is a great offensive player, but he is not enough to beat this caliber of a team singlehandedly.

Baylor vs. Wisconsin
Baylor's offense was unstoppable against Creighton in the Second Round and its defense smothered the Blue Jays and their star player Doug McDermott.  Wisconsin is a better offensive team than it ever has been under Bo Ryan--it is also arguably the worst it has ever been on defense.  Baylor offense/defense overcomes Wisconsin's offense for the win.

Midwest Region:
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Kentucky looked incredible against Wichita State, playing as well as it could have.  Louisville hasn't looked great in either of its wins, but it was also coasting through the first two rounds.  Kentucky will have to be at its best to beat a Louisville team that I expect will come out with the best it has to offer. Kentucky won't be at its best.

Tennessee vs. Michigan
Tennessee is a hot team that is severely outplaying its opponents.  It has a bonafide star in Jordan McRae and a huge interior presence.  Michigan is lacking an interior presence, but it is a better team and a deserving two seed.  Michigan will stay on track and outshoot Tennessee, just as it did to Texas and the Longhorns' inside-outside game.

East Region:
Iowa State vs. UConn
Connecticut looked great knocking off a soft Villanova team.  Iowa State lost its leader and most versatile player to a broken foot in the first round--and still came back to beat a very good North Carolina team.  Iowa State may not be the same contender it was with Georges Niang in the lineup, but it is still better than UConn.  Look for UConn PG Shabazz Napier to have a good game in a losing effort.

Virginia vs. Michigan State
I picked Michigan State to win this matchup on my bracket and nothing I have seen in any of the four Michigan State and Virginia games I have watched this Tournament tells me to do otherwise here.  But I am going to.  I have a Cavalier feeling inside and I am going with Tony Bennett's team to score the "upset" over Sparty here, preventing Michigan State's seniors from reaching the Final Four.  (I might be a round off on this Michigan State loss, but I have to go with my gut--as small and finicky as it may be.)

South Region:
Stanford vs. Dayton
Stanford is too big inside, coming off of too big of a win, with too great of a scorer in Chasson Randle to lose their first game in the Tournament as a favorite.  Johnny Dawkins has this team clicking and rolling.  While Dayton is playing storybook basketball, their Cinderella Story comes to an end tonight.

UCLA vs. Florida
This was my second-hardest decision after UVA and Michigan State.  I have Florida beating UCLA in my bracket.  Florida is a one seed and has played that way for most of the season.  They are senior-laden and capable of winning it all.  But UCLA is pesky, with stars at almost every position and Kyle Anderson who is a 6'9 point-forward and matchup nightmare for any team.  What UCLA may lack on the interior, they make up for everywhere else.  Florida was shaky for the first 30 minutes against Pittsburgh.  UCLA will not excuse that shakiness.  Get ready for an all-PAC-12 matchup in the Elite Eight!

Until Next Time...
Enjoy the games, you beautiful readers!

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