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Soccer Gratification Only A Year Delayed, Not Denied

BLOGGER’S NOTE: We are firing up the ole Blog again, and while this post is about one of my sporting passions, soccer, or “football” to some, we will be expanding this blog to other cultural topics of my interest besides sports, to include food, travel, cinema, and more. So please check back every so often for new and hopefully readable content. Thanks! – Bobby True

Only one game remains at the 2020 UEFA European Championships – Italy faces England in the Final tomorrow (Sunday, July 11, 2021, 12:00pm PST), in front of a “75% capacity crowd” at 90,000-seat Wembley – and I’ve watched every minute and all 140 goals of every match.

This isn’t to brag, or a source of pride for that matter.  Despite how swimmingly my lifestyle fit with pandemic realities, and the volumes of sporting television that thankfully followed, this happenstance was truly a function of relative unfamiliarity with the teams going into this tournament, their rosters, and the formations and tactics they would employ. Although I had watched plenty of European and North American club soccer, international soccer had fallen thorough the pandemic cracks in both reality and my sporting attention span, so I needed to actually see these teams in unfriendly action before I formed an opinion on them.

Also, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is a mere 16 months away, so chances are at least half of the squads here will a.) Ultimately qualify for the World Cup (Currently, 8/10 Group leaders in the UEFA World Cup Qualification standings made the Knockout Stage), and b.) Be comprised of largely the same rosters, which does not always happen with the usual 2-year cycle in between.

Let’s call this a “Simultaneous Preview and Review” of the 2020 (Err.. 2021) Euros. With 3-6 games seen from each team, I finally have a sense of how good and/or bad these teams are, and how those who later qualify for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup should be projected. What follows is a ranking of the Euros participants in reverse order (Tournament Finish in parentheses), not wholly determined by where each team finished, along with observations and analysis.  

THE DREGS

24.) Turkey (4th Place, Group A) – They really should not be here, they have several topflight talents playing across the English Premier League (EPL), Serie A, and Ligue 1, as well as the top clubs in Turkey that often make the Champions League, but they were definitively the worst side of this tournament. Most goals allowed and worst goal differential in the Group Stage, and were often completely disorganized, then later discouraged. They even lead UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group G currently, so we may still get to see them in Qatar despite the soccer malfeasance they displayed; Here’s hoping for better to come from The Turks.

23.) North Macedonia (4th, Group C) – You just gotta love evergreen Goran Pandev, the 38-year-young striker who has spent his 20 year professional career largely in Italy’s Serie A, and who not only Captained the side for the Country Formerly Known as Macedonia at their Euros debut, he scored the very goal that qualified them, and factored into both goals North Macedonia scored here, netting one and drawing the penalty that led to the other. Under-talented for the most part beyond Pandev, North Macedonia were organized, tactically sound, and cohesive, which may serve them well in the UEFA World Cup Qualifiers to come (currently 2nd place in Group J), as their biggest win of the year was not in the Euros, but in a 2-1 victory over Germany in Germany (!), in a World Cup Qualifier at the end of March.

22.) Scotland (4th, Group D) – I really wanted to list them at #24, as I believe they are the least talented team in the tournament.  Their two best players – Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney – are left fullbacks by trade, so they have to play Tierney in the midfield and have them overlap on runs down the flanks, which did not really work. Their third-best player is arguably Scott McTominay, another defensive-minded midfielder who struggles to get a regular spot with his club Manchester United.  Although I cannot fault their effort, I won’t be holding my breath on the Scots’ qualification for Qatar, in the same group as Denmark, Austria and Israel, it’s just not an inspiring roster nor a winning formula.

21.) Russia (4th, Group B) – A mere shadow of the host side that made the Quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup, even as they played two of their three Euros matches in St. Petersburg. Only reason they are not rated lower is because they beat Finland, and yet they still finished behind the Fins on goal differential. Unsure if a last hurrah from an aging roster will be enough to get to Qatar, much less what they could do in a major tournament away from friendlier confines.

TOUGH OUTS

20.) Slovakia (3rd, Group E) – A perception problem I have is I always refer to them as “the other half of a united Czechoslovakia”, or in more recent times, “the team with that dude with the Mohawk” (Marek Hamšík, who had an illustrious 15-year career in Italy for Brescia and Napoli and currently plays for Trabzonspor in Turkey). A red card against Poland aided their sole win, only to lack answers against Sweden and come completely undone in the heat of Sevilla, a 5-0 loss to Spain where they conceded the worst own goal I’ve ever seen … at least until five days later. Nevertheless, there is quality beyond Hamšík, such as Inter Milan’s Milan Škriniar and FCC Cologne’s Ondrej Duda, that leads me to believe they continue to factor in Europe during the next few cycles.

19.) Finland (3rd, Group B) – The other European Championships debutantes, early on they showed some “Iceland 2016” potential and deserve more credit for their 1-0 victory over Denmark in spite of those particular circumstances.  Losing out to Ukraine on a berth in the knockouts on goal differential (Ukraine -1 to the Fins’ -2) was a sobering end for a squad that was difficult for two of the better sides at this tournament (Denmark, Belgium) to break down, and showed heart and grit if not overwhelming physical talent. Plus, they had three MLS players on their roster, which I applaud.

18.) Poland (4th, Group E) – Unluckiest team in the tournament – four (4) shots hit the goal frame in three (3) games – or just The Best Striker In the World and the 10 Dwarves?  You decide, but Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski almost single footedly got Poland into the knockouts with three (3) outstanding goals against Spain and Sweden.

PLUCKY INTERLOPERS

17.) Wales (2nd, Group A, Round of 16) – At first glance, the Welsh have a few real pros, and a bunch of dudes who could be confused for Sunday pub-leaguers. Dig further, Wales has two World-Class footballers (Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey), and several first-tier talents (among them Joe Rodon, Neco Williams, Ben Davies, and Daniel James) who could ply their trade lucratively anywhere. Silver lining for The Dragons is that while they could not replicate their 2016 Euros Semifinals run, 15/26 roster members were 25 or younger, all of whom play in England’s Top two tiers, so the future could be bright.

16.) Ukraine (3rd, Group C, Quarterfinals) – I am liking what Manager and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko has brewing in the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. He has an attack centered on three outstanding talents in Olek Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Roman Yaremchuk, backed by a resolute defense willing to absorb pressure to launch forward when the opportunity presents, as fully demonstrated in the waning moments of their Round of 16 win over Sweden. While the margin among these “plucky interlopers” is razor thin, squads like Wales and Ukraine are not as deep as those listed below.

15.) Austria (2nd, Group C, Round of 16) – Although I was impressed with Austria’s discipline, cohesion, and positive play, pushing Italy to extra time in the Round of 16 before bowing out, all I really want to add is I really enjoy watching jack-of-all-trades David Alaba play soccer, and hope the twilight of his career at Real Madrid is successful.

14.) Hungary (4th, Group F) – By far the best team not to make the knockouts, and what really made the “Group of Death” live up to that hype. Held Portugal at bay for 82 minutes (until Portugal stopped messing around, sent on Renato Sanches, and scored 3 goals), then went toe-to-toe with the reigning World Champions in front of a thunderous home crowd, and should have beaten Germany. This, despite having the least amount of possession in the Group Stage (34.7%, as much a function as playing three ball-dominant teams as anything). I have little doubt they would have qualified for the Knockouts from any other group, and the fact they were not an easy out definitely factored into the other 3 Group F teams’ performances in the Round of 16.

13.) Czech Republic (2nd, Group D, Quarterfinals) – Casual observers might think of the Czechs as gritty upstarts, but they enjoy a long history of success in major tournaments, mostly as “Czechoslovakia” when they were 1934 and 1962 World Cup Finalists and the 1976 European Champions, and as the current Czech Republic when they were the 1996 Euro Finalists the last time the Euros Final was held at Wembley in 1996. Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick has been a revelation, at least for me, tying Cristiano Ronaldo for goals scored in the tournament with five (5), one of which was the goal of the tournament so far. Even though a boneheaded red card abetted their win over the Netherlands, the cagey Czechs were relatively even with the Dutch up to that point, and overall exceeded pre-Euro expectations.

12.) Sweden (1st, Group E, Round of 16) – After their last-gasp exit to Ukraine, a match they should have won in normal time, and upon further reflection, how “good” was Sweden actually? Sure, Clockwork Yellow won a group that included Spain, but was too much stock put into their 0-0 draw with La Furia Roja where they ceded 85% of the possession? Did their 3-2 win over Poland flatter to deceive, considering they ranked 24th (i.e., last) in Passing Accuracy and 23rd in Possession % during this tournament? Were they too dependent on RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, whose powerful right foot scored four of their five goals? Maybe so on all counts, but I did watch a Sweden side that was well-organized, methodical, and resolute, and that beat the teams they were supposed to beat … at least in Group play.

DARKHORSE CONTENDERS

11.) Switzerland (3rd, Group A, Quarterfinals) – Gutty, organized, tough, patient, will make you earn it, ever poised for a clinical counterattack, and a bit of magic in the boots of their talisman Xhedran Shaqiri.  Ultimately, their margin for error was too thin, as they lived (France) and died (Spain) by the sword of Kicks from The Mark. They will always have that barnstorming comeback against the World Champions to look back upon with fondness.

10.) Croatia (2nd, Group D, Round of 16) – Squint, and you can still see the visage of the 2018 World Cup Finalists; I don’t need to tell you about the class of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. The issue for this side, is that Father Time is undefeated.  Curious to see if they qualify for Qatar (currently leading UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group H), and if so, who shows up, as 12 from the current roster will be 30 or older by then.

9.) Germany (2nd, Group F, Round of 16) – I cannot remember a time when I thought Germany was 9th-Best in Europe at anything, but here we are, at a crossroads for Die Mannschaft after their second consecutive disappointing major tournament result. As long-time manager Joachim Löw rides into the sunset, it’s abundantly clear they are in need of fresh ideas. The attacking talent is undeniable, and Manuel Neuer is still one of the best netminders in the world at 35, but that back line needs a revamp, and tactically new manager Hansi Flick must put burgeoning talents like Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner, Jamal Musiala, and Serge Gnabry in better positions to exploit their abilities.

8.) Denmark (2nd, Group B, Semifinals) – These Great Danes are the obvious feel-good story of these Euros. Although it is hard to ignore what happened to their talisman Christian Eriksen 10 minutes into their first match against Finland – I won’t mince words, everyone watching that match saw a man die on the pitch before being brought back to life – put that aside for a moment.  Denmark had one of the best offenses of the tournament, Top 4 across the board in goals, shots on goal, assists, chances created, total attacks, touches in the Attacking 3rd, and corners taken, both per game as well as totals. And while they were clearly galvanized by the continuing recovery of their best player, this is a team full of quality players who populate top European clubs such as Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Tottenham, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Barcelona, among others. They outplayed Belgium for most of their match, and dominated Russia, Wales, and (except for a 4-minute blitz to begin the 2nd half) the Czechs thereafter, before pushing England to the brink in a true road game. Truly, no one should be surprised Denmark made the semis; They certainly had a decent opportunity to do so playing with Eriksen, so it’s little wonder FIFA’s #10 ranked side did so playing for Eriksen.

7.) Portugal (3rd, Group F, Round of 16) – I rate them this high on talent alone, and many observers opined before the Euros started that this was the most-talented roster the Seleção had assembled in support of their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. An interesting assertion considering they are the Defending European Champions for another day. Their performance was truly less than the sum of their talented parts, despite (or due to, you choose) Ronaldo being the leader in the clubhouse for the Euro 2020 Golden Boot, possibly emblematic of a generational clash between Ronaldo’s mid-30s contemporaries and 16 players on the roster younger than 28. Much of that young supporting cast – Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Fernandes, Diogo Jota, João Félix, all of whom should help Portugal contend for the next two World Cups – was not deployed in a coherent manner, and strangely became the only 3rd Place team who qualified for the Knockouts that did not win their Round of 16 match, falling meekly to Belgium. At least they are still the reigning 2019 UEFA Nations League Champions, whatever that is.

THE CREAM

6.) Spain (2nd, Group E, Semifinals) – End of the day, an exit in the Semifinals feels about right. According to UEFA statistics Spain has the top offense in this tournament, largely on the strength of two 5-goal games. Talented and deep, they will possess the ball like they own it against any team in the world, yet lack a cutting edge on that finishing touch, especially when oft-maligned Alvaro Morata – Whose slander must stop, even with his spot kick misses – is not in the game. I’ll go a step further: Spain goes as Morata goes. I for one hope he can fix whatever is going on between the ears, because when he is “on”, Spain is as good as anyone. Fun fact: Spain’s National Anthem “Marcha Real” has no official lyrics. The 17 Autonomous Regions of Spain could never agree on any version of lyrics, so once Generalissimo Francisco Franco died (and he’s still dead), his version and all others were abandoned. Amazing they unite for anything really.

5.) England (1st, Group D, Finals) – Far be it from me to suggest that “Football’s Coming Home”, but England has their best chance at a major trophy in 55 years, playing 6/7 total matches in this tournament at their national stadium and soccer cathedral, Wembley. Shout out to Raheem Sterling, who was pilloried in this very space for his wasteful performances at the 2018 World Cup but has come correct for The Three Lions with gusto and opportune incision. Nice to see Harry Kane come to the fore in the knockout stage as well. For me, Luke Shaw has been their most important player, overlapping for runs down the flanks and providing accurate crossing and set piece delivery to the tune of three (3) assists so far. I also think England are best when Jack Grealish is on the pitch, even if they are a touch more methodical. If they are courageous as they should be buoyed by a raucous home crowd, they will have a puncher’s chance to lift that trophy.

4.) Netherlands (1st, Group C, Round of 16) – As much young talent as they have – I think they could become one of the favorites for Qatar 2022 if they can find one more striker, and Virgil Van Dijk can fully recover and return to his pre-ACL injury form – Clockwork Oranje really should have done better than getting bounced by the Czechs in the Round of 16. I fancied them making the Final from that draw, but an ill-timed red card was too big a thread to not unravel that Oranje sweater; If Matthijs De Ligt wanted to dribble with his hands, he should have played basketball instead.

3.) Belgium (1st, Group B, Quarterfinals) – Ranked #1 in the mysterious FIFA World Rankings, the sun began setting on the Red Devils’ “Golden Generation” in Munich, with no gold to show for their longevity and servitude. Didn’t help that they were handicapped in attack between Kevin DeBruyne’s broken face (who then played through their Quarterfinal loss to Italy with torn ligaments in his ankle) and Eden Hazard’s ongoing hamstring issues.  Most of this side will likely get one last chance at glory in Qatar, and the Best Non-Lewandowski Striker In The World, Romelu Lukaku, was in prime form, but the back line is already old, and Belgium must hope the rest of their core doesn’t age in dog years before then.

2.) Italy (1st, Group A, Finals) – Converse to Portugal, Italy is the “Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of The Parts” team of the 2022 Euros. Only a fading Giorgio Chiellini and the rising Gianluigi Donnarumma would ever be considered superstars outside of Italy, but from what I can tell there is no drop off at the bottom of the roster. The World’s Best Counterpunchers fought their way to the Final0, displaying a vertical threat that prior versions of the Forza Azzuri and their catenaccio tactics lacked. A name to remember: Federico Chiesa. He has “it”, whatever “it” is in soccer mysticism, exemplified by his goal against Spain, a perfectly placed part strike/volley into the opposite corner of the net. Win on Sunday as I expect, and they have to be one of the three (3) favorites to win the Cup in Qatar, along with Brazil (see below), and the one team I’ve yet to mention. By the way, “Il Canto degli Italiani” is my favorite National Anthem from a musical perspective, so jaunty, I feel Italian when I hear it, and I have zero Italian ancestry.

1.) France (1st, Group F, Round of 16) – Yes, like you I watched the reigning World Champions bow out unceremoniously against the Swiss in the Round of 16. Choose your automotive metaphor, they played this entire tournament stuck in a low gear, full of swagger and panache yet lacking fortitude, save for 17 exquisite minutes in the 2nd half against the Swiss when they showed their class and fury. I also saw Kylian Mbappe have a subpar tournament throughout and up to his final penalty miss against the Swiss, but I cannot blame France’s overall performance on just that. Nor will I blame it on rumored potential chemistry problems caused by the return of Karim Benzema after an almost six-year absence, who showed flashes of brilliance scoring four goals in their last two matches. Where Les Bleus go from here, is anyone’s guess, and we’ve seen their disappearing act before (South Africa 2010 anyone?), but what is undeniable is that they are have one of the two deepest talent pools in World Football (along with a stacked Brazil), seemingly able to field a completely different 26-man squad than the one sent to this tournament and still likely contend for the trophy. I’m still going to ride with that assuming they make it to Qatar.

P.S. – The Copa America has been ongoing concurrently, and while I have not watched every single one of those games – because, you know, I like sleep – I have seen every one of the 10 teams play at least once and watched every game in the knockouts so far. The seemingly premeditated Final, another Brazil vs. Argentina Superclásico, is later today (Saturday, July 10, 2021, 5:00pm PST, FS1) in the famed Maracanã in Rio, and I just get the nagging sense that Lionel Messi is about to become 0/10 in major tournaments, playing the role of Charlie Brown to Neymar’s Lucy-with-the-football and all that comes with Brazil being the progenitors of the Jogo Bonito. Heck of a weekend to be a soccer fan.

Some Passing Thoughts On A National Title Game Few Expected, or Wanted

Taking a glance at some of the statistics of the participants in tonight’s NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™ game, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the first team between Virginia (34-3) and Texas Tech (31-6) to 40 points will cut down the nets.

First, both teams play at what can generously be called a “glacial” tempo; Virginia is the slowest team in Division I, #353 in KenPom AdjT (possessions per 40 minutes, adjusted for opponent) at 59.3, while Texas Tech is only slightly more uptempo, #237 at 66.5. Both teams rank Top 3 in the country in Points Allowed per game (#1 Virginia 55.5 PA/G, #3 Texas Tech 58.8 PA/G) and Top 5 in KenPom’s AdjD Efficiency (#1 Texas Tech 83.3, #5 Virginia 88.7).  Both Virginia and Texas Tech take care of the ball and can defend without fouling, averaging 10 or less turnovers (Virginia is #1 in committing the least turnovers per game) and 16 or less fouls per game against the heightened level of competition that the NCAA Tournament provides.

This game has all the makings of a real grinder, a dogfight that some observers believe will not be the best showcase of college basketball. Real anathema to the “pace and space” game favored by the professional game, a potential gloomy foreshadowing of where the college game might be heading with high school talents heading straight to the pros in the near future.

I still hold out hope tonight’s NCAA Final will be more entertaining, and possibly even more positive offensively, than others think. Both teams have future NBA Draft Lottery picks in DeAndre Hunter (Virginia) and Jarrett Culver (Texas Tech), capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor. Both teams shoot well form the field overall, with both in the Top 50 in FG% (Virginia 47.4%, Texas Tech 47.0%), as well as above average percentages from the free throw line (Virginia 73.9%, Texas Tech 72.9%).

As such, I believe this game will likely be decided by which team shoots better from three, and who can generate opportunities on the offensive glass. Blueprints for victory can be found in the few losses each team suffered earlier in the season to teams similar in nature to tonight’s opponent. One of Virginia’s three losses this year was to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, a physical team with length much like Texas Tech (albeit with even more height inside than Texas Tech) that dominated Virginia on the boards (33-18, including a 24-12 edge on the defensive glass) and neutered their perimeter shooting, holding the Cavaliers to 20.4 3P% (5/24). Texas Tech had a similar experience in a loss at Kansas State, getting outrebounded 31-24 (25-17 on the defensive glass) and held to 21.7 3P% (5/23) by a scrappy, quick Kansas State team that ended their season ranked #3 in AdjD (88.4). Both teams only had seven (7) offensive rebounds in those losses. Despite shooting well below their 3P% season average in the NCAA Tournament – 31.0 3P% compared to their season-long 39.3 3P% rate, good for #8 in the country – Virginia has four rotation players shooting above 40% from three, whereas Texas Tech has three, so the potential for a hot shooting night is there.

Whoever wins tonight, the program will be a first-time NCAA Men’s Basketball Champion, and the coach (Virginia’s Tony Bennett or Texas Tech’s Chris Beard) will become the 50th coach to win a NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. I think Virginia wins this game by three, maybe even on a late three-pointer by Saturday Night hero Kyle Guy, in a game where both teams exceed 65 points, but don’t hold me to that.

Cream Rising To Top, But Are There Spoilers?

Embarking upon the 8th Edition of my macro-level, view-from-10,000-feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, I found it tough to escape the pervasive notion that there are a group of teams that have separated themselves from the field. That, while typical March Madness may prevail in the earlier rounds of the tournament (13 seeds over 4s!  Double-digit seeds making the Sweet 16!), order gets restored by the Elite Eight, where most if not all of the #1 & #2 seeds vie for spots in Minneapolis, the site of this year’s Final Four.

Unlike last year, when the tournament seemed wide open, only for a familiar face like Villanova to emerge and lap the field again, this season appears to have reverted to a familiar separation of teams at the top, with the parity coming right after that. Looking at every Top 12 seed to see how many could either win it all or get to the Final Four, I often kept coming back to those same eight (8) teams that most pundits also had advancing. Chalk dust everywhere.

Be that as it may (imagine the record needle scratching to a stop), I believe there are a couple of potential spoilers that could barge their way into the VIP section of this party, and in the process shred a lot of brackets.

As always, the goal of this preview isn’t to seek the perfect bracket – although some of this could be useful in that pursuit, if you’re reading this in the last few minutes before games start – as much as it is compartmentalizing the field to frame expectations for every team entering the Madness. This is my bracket, as a matter of disclosure, the printed copy of which will likely be composting in my garden by Sunday afternoon.

Contenders – Since 2014, I have utilized three “Championship Tests” to determine legitimate contenders to the crown. Created by basketball hobbyist Peter Tiernan of long defunct BracketScience.com, these tests identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion since 2003. If you don’t remember each test, refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, otherwise they’ll be incorporated herein by reference.

With the exception of Connecticut in 2014 (leading to my “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser Offensive Efficiency), these tests have held up to the extent that the eventual champions (like 2015 Duke and 2018 Villanova) work their way into all the thresholds. ESPN’s John Gasaway is is 3-for-3 so far with his efforts to determine the same thing in a data-intensive fashion; I am 6-for-7 in placing the eventual Champ in my “Contenders” column, so, that’s a feather I can stick in my hat and call macaroni. Which is nice.

Analyzing the 2019 field, 17 teams meet the KenPom Raw Data test (only 11 did last year), while  21 satisfy at least the UConn Standard for the KenPom Rankings test  (whereas 16 did so last year).  While only five (5) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria, four (4) of those pass all three tests: Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. Tennessee barely misses the Defensive Efficiency baseline, yet could easily meet it during the tourney.

Four (4) more teams, however, are one criterion away from passing all of Tiernan’s Criteria; Virginia and Michigan don’t quite score 73 points per game, otherwise they would pass all three tests, while (surprise!) Purdue and Virginia Tech meet both efficiency tests and are closer in quality to the elite, Top 2-seeded teams than the rest of the field. Lastly, Gonzaga will never meet the Tiernan Criteria as long as they are not in a “Power Conference”, as despite their best efforts – Fun Fact No. 1, Gonzaga is 1-2 this season against teams seeded #1 or #2, beating Duke but losing to North Carolina and Tennessee – struggle to attain the requisite strength of schedule, yet for the third year running easily pass both KenPom tests. Collectively, these Ten Contenders have a 85.1% chance of winning the National Championship according to FiveThirtyEight, which is about 23% more than 2018’s nine (9) Contenders.

As poor bracketing would have it, my Top 4 Contenders, Michigan State and Duke, as well as Kentucky and North Carolina, are scheduled to meet in the Elite 8 instead of being spread across different regions. Last year Michigan State and Duke were seeded to meet in the Sweet 16, which I guess is an improvement. Per the seeding Virginia Tech awaits Duke in the Sweet 16 as well, while Purdue could knock Tennessee and Virginia out in succession; Either result upends bracket contests across the country. In order of likelihood, I am certain one of these 10 teams will cut down the nets on April 8th:

  • Duke
  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
  • Michigan
  • Gonzaga
  • Purdue
  • Virginia Tech

Darkhorses – Usually the separation between Contenders and the teams herein is wafer-thin. This season the gap has widened a bit. While all of these six (6) teams that passed at least one of the Championship Tests and miss the Tiernan Criteria by one factor, these teams are either acutely one-dimensional (favoring offense or defense by a wide margin over the other) or lack the strength of schedule as a proof of concept against elite teams (but otherwise have an elite scoring margin, in these instances greater than +14.0 ppg) to be considered actual Contenders. That said, these teams have what I would call “Final Four Upside”, given they survive early matchups in the first weekend when actual Darkhorses reveal themselves by Sunday evening. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • Auburn
  • Florida State
  • Texas Tech
  • Houston
  • Nevada
  • Buffalo

Feast or Famine – I did away with this category one year as the teams I wanted to put here were upon further analysis either qualitative Darkhorses (see above) or quantifiably Stepsisters (see below) in disguise. Nevertheless, there are several Power Conference teams seeded in the upper-half of the field that fit a “high ceiling/low floor” designation with an exceedingly thin margin for error in this field (more than usual), falling short in key areas of both production (rebounding, turnovers, perimeter shooting, free throw percentage) and personnel (over-reliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth, or roster imbalance due to attrition), all of which increases the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for legitimate Title contention. In short, these teams just aren’t as good as the Darkhorses, regardless of their tournament seeding, and although it’s hard to say they’ve underachieved (like Stepsisters), they also defy traditional Cinderella potential. I can’t really see any of them stringing together four wins to get to Minneapolis, but could I see one or two of these teams in the Elite Eight under the right circumstances? Oh You betcha! In order of that deep run likelihood:

  • Kansas
  • Louisville
  • Maryland
  • Marquette
  • Iowa State
  • Mississippi State
  • Villanova
  • Wisconsin
  • Kansas State
  • Cincinnati

Cinderellas –  As the very notion of “Cinderellas”, what used to be seen as mid-major or lesser teams who reached the Sweet 16 or further, has become more about the seeding and less about conference affiliation, college basketball still relies on the supposition that the proverbial glass slipper might fit anyone. It bears noting that everyone listed below either won a share of their conference’s regular season title or their conference tournament, which is as good an outline of what it could mean to be a Cinderella going forward.  May the odds be ever in your favor:

  • Utah State
  • Wofford
  • Belmont
  • St. Mary’s
  • Virginia Commonwealth

Stepsisters – These are the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, the underseeded or underachieving teams capable of a deep run, the high-major conference corollary to the modern mid-major “Cinderellas”. LSU reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession as a double-digit seed in 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11), and the fairytale symmetry is fitting. Like those LSU squads, all of these “Stepsisters” a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded #7 or worse, c.) Have double-digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games.

One of these teams typically lingers at the Dance until the second weekend as the rest hurry to catch their pumpkin buses outside, and nailing the right one will boost your bracket as all of these Stepsisters will likely have to beat a Top 4 seed in the Second Round. My eye is on Oregon, the preseason Pac-12 favorite before injuries wreaked havoc with their continuity, until they found a groove with the holdouts and won their last eight (8) games including the Pac-12 Tournament. Florida is also intriguing, with 11 of their 15 losses against teams in the NCAAs, while the Baylor-Syracuse survivor plays a type of zone defense that can confound even the best of teams. In order of my preference:

  • Oregon
  • Florida
  • Baylor
  • Syracuse
  • Ole Miss
  • Ohio State
  • Minnesota
  • Seton Hall
  • Arizona State

Free Fallin’ –  Iowa fits the prototype of these “Tom Petty Memorial” teams, trending downward due to inconsistency or notable downward shifts in performance from earlier in the season. The Hawkeyes have lost six (6) of their last eight (8) games, making them the proverbial “Feast or Famine” team stuck in a “Famine.”  LSU, however, goes against type. Currently without their head coach Will Wade, indefinitely suspended amid allegations of improper conduct stemming from the ongoing federal investigation into college basketball, LSU has gone 1-1 in his absence, losing in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, yet prior to the SEC Tourney had actually trended upward, winning nine (9) of their prior 10 games. It might be more appropriate to place them in the next category, having “No Idea” what they will do, as they otherwise would be a Darkhorse with coaching stability. However, Yale is tricky and smart with a guard in Miye Oni that is rocketing up NBA Draft boards, and an opponent that under the best conditions would pose a serious threat. It may just be that LSU’s freefall is a short one.

  • LSU
  • Iowa

“No Idea” – As in, I have no freaking idea about these teams despite repeated viewings, resulting in serious confusion and a feeling of ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to identify what exactly that “more” would be. I can’t help but think these teams have some latent upset potential should they survive their first games, just not enough to take seriously as a possibility to reach the second week. Coincidentally, all three (3) of the teams below are #9 seeds, involved in a veritable coin flip; Fun Fact No. 2, since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament Field to 64 teams in 1985, #8 seeds are 68-68 against the #9 seed opponents.

  • Washington
  • Oklahoma
  • Central Florida

Likely Upsets – “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness, used cheaply to describe any result where a lower seed beats a higher seed. I support a line of demarcation on what an “upset” actually is, involving #12 seeds or lower. In the last nine (9) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 20-16 vs. their #6 seed counterparts (2-2 last year, including eventual Final Four participant Loyola of Chicago, shout out to Sister Jean!), while #12 seeds are 3-12 over the last four (4) tournaments against #5 seeds (surprisingly 0-4 last year). The prime prospects for these upsets are mid-majors who have managed to assemble deep, upperclassmen-laden rosters. No coincidence that these teams below have Darkhorses or Feast or Famine teams as opponents, and not Contenders. New Mexico State and UC-Irvine tickle my fancy based on their well-developed habit of winning games, both with 30 wins and five (5) or less losses on the season. Murray State has Ja Morant, a Top 3 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, while Yale strikes me for the reasons explained above. Liberty and Vermont get the nod here due to both teams being in the Top 10 percentile in free throw percentage and Top 20 percentile in avoiding turnovers.

  • New Mexico State
  • Murray State
  • Liberty
  • UC-Irvine
  • Vermont
  • Yale

Unlikely Upsets – Here are the lower-seeded teams with unfavorable matchups that should play to their seed (i.e., lose). The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers made history last year by becoming the first No #16 seed to beat a #1 seed in the Men’s Tournament since it expanded to 64 in 1985. I don’t see that repeating though, so I’m ignoring the remaining four (4) #16 seeds. Just like the last four years, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds either, although I would be slightly tempted by Montana if they weren’t playing the #2 most efficient defense in the country in Michigan. Of the rest, the teams I am most likely to be wrong about are Northeastern, who has faces a depleted Kansas, and Old Dominion, who is a really good defensive team that will test Purdue before succumbing to their size and athleticism. Georgia State is well-coached and spunky, but Houston is a blitzkrieg. Saint Louis and Northern Kentucky have opponents that simply will not underestimate them.

  • Northeastern
  • Saint Louis
  • Old Dominion
  • Georgia State
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Montana
  • Bradley
  • Colgate
  • Abilene Christian

And Now … Five Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … History favors one of Belmont or Arizona State winning another game – Since 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament – and both teams will pose trouble for their opponents. Belmont is a good matchup for a talented but inconsistent Maryland team that has played .500 basketball the last two months, while Arizona State Head Coach Bobby Hurley was the head coach of their opponent Buffalo before taking that job, and Buffalo’s current coach Nate Oats was Hurley’s top assistant at Buffalo, so scouting will be a little easier than normal. I don’t think either team will make the Final Four, but I can see both teams winning their next one.  I’ll give the edge to Belmont on account of them being the #2 scoring and #4 shooting team in the country.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Kansas. I feel this is a running joke at this point, as last year I had Kansas here as well, and they merely said “Joke’s on You, Pal!” on their way to the Final Four. But this Kansas team has lost two (2) of their best four (4) players in Udoka Azubuike (injury) and Lagerald Vick (personal issues) over the course of the season, and have only gone 5-3 in the last month, those losses by double digits.  I think they have enough to get past Northeastern, but then a game against a deeper opponent looms, either a frenetic Top 8 offense in Auburn, or a New Mexico State squad that they only beat by three (3) last December, in a virtual home game in Kansas City, and with a contributing Vick. I just don’t like their chances of seeing the next weekend.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Michigan.  At one time I thought Michigan was one of the Top Three teams I had seen play this season, decimating defending National Champion Villanova in a title game rematch and North Carolina back in November, on the way to opening  the season 17-0. Lately, they’ve had a pesky time getting past their intrastate rival Michigan State, losing thrice in the last month. Yet aside from a weird loss to Penn State, all their losses were against NCAA Tournament teams.  They have that aforementioned #2 Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) in the country, along with a #18 offense that can get hot in an instant, and that takes care of the ball better than all but one team (Virginia). Purdue fits this idea as well, a #3 seed flying under the radar in many respects, but Michigan has the bona fides as last season’s National Finalist, and about as good a chance of taking home the title as the other Contenders.

Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field? Possibly Auburn or Nevada, as both have the requisite star talent and depth to make a deep run against highly rated opposition. Cincinnati intrigues me, as they are more offensively capable than in years past under Mick Cronin while still retaining a nasty defense. But probably not.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2/4, Villanova and Michigan, but had neither in the Title game. This year, I’m rolling with the team responsible for the most impressive win I saw this season; While everyone around the college basketball world was in the grips of “Zion Mania”, Gonzaga was having none of that in the Maui Invitational Final, punching Duke in the mouth and leaving the Lahaina Civic Center as Maui Champions. I think these two meet again in one semifinal, with the same result as last time.  I like a Kentucky over that spoiler Purdue, Head Coach Matt Painter finally knocking that Final Four door down before bowing out. Zags prevail over Kentucky in the Final, Mark Few and his “International Men of Mystery” frontline Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie cutting down the nets in the Twin Cities, doing what they could not two seasons ago. Groovy baby, yeah!

 

When Holidays Collide …

Dusting off the ol’ blog to continue what has become a yearly tradition. Not only is Selection Sunday upon us – College Basketball’s Christmas Eve, a prelude to “12 Days of Basketball Christmas” a.k.a. March (and April) Madness where at 6:00pm EST on CBS, the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2019 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be revealed – but it is also St. Patrick’s Day, where many become “Irish For a Day” and celebrate to excess.

Which leaves me with the question of whether I fire up the tamales as we usually do on Christmas Eves of yore, or do I go with my family’s St. Paddy’s tradition of boiled corned beef and cabbage dinner?  Seeing as I already bought a loaf of rye bread, a sixer of Guinness and too much cabbage, I think the tamales will stay in the freezer.  But I digress.

Although this is merely my annual educated guess at the 68 teams in the field, and specifically the 36at-large invites (I leave predictions of seeding and locations to those with the time or the compensation to do so), I’ll say here and now that there should not be three (3) teams from one conference on the #1 seed-line, as many seem to project with Duke, Virginia and North Carolina from the ACC. Were it up to me, Duke (East & #1 Overall Seed), and Virginia (South) would get #1s, as well as Gonzaga (West; their hiccup against a solid St. Mary’s team doesn’t alter my impression of them), and Big 10 Champion Michigan State would grab that last #1 seed (Midwest). At some point, a team has to win either their conference’s regular season or tournament title, and North Carolina, as good as I think they are, won neither.

Last year I had a relatively dismal 64/68 teams correct, whiffing on Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Texas, and briefly contemplated giving my dog Mona Lisa a shot this year.  She doesn’t like basketball though, barking at the TV if the ref blows his whistle too loud or if I get too animated cursing out the refs for blowing their whistle in the first place.

The introduction of the official NCAA NET Rankings  (which has replaced the old RPI system) creates even more intrigue and doubt about my own evaluations. Seeing how the NCAA Selection Committee utilizes those rankings, and what they prioritize in making both their selections and seedings, among factors like Quadrant 1 record, overall road record, or non-conference strength of schedule, will be illuminating for next year’s process. Unlike last year’s bubble which was large compared to the prior year, this year’s bubble got smaller by the day during championship week.

Here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, what I think I think I know, and my informed conjecture about whose hearts will be glowing with tournament games are near (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives an orange in their stocking from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, with nine (9) of which repeating from last season (marked below with a *) while only 13 of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader) won their conference tournament (marked with a ^):

American Athletic – Cincinnati*
America East – Vermont^
ACC – Duke
Atlantic Sun – Liberty
Atlantic-10 – Saint Louis
Big 12 – Iowa State
Big East – Villanova*^
Big Sky – Montana*^
Big South – Gardner-Webb
Big Ten – Michigan State^
Big West – UC-Irvine^
Colonial – Northeastern
Conference USA – Old Dominion^
Horizon – Northern Kentucky
Ivy – Yale
Metro Atlantic – Iona*^
Mid-American – Buffalo*^
Mid-Eastern – North Carolina Central*
Missouri Valley – Bradley
Mountain West – Utah State
Northeast – Fairleigh Dickinson
Ohio Valley – Murray State*
Pac-12 – Oregon
Patriot – Colgate^
SEC – Auburn
Southern – Wofford^
Southland – Abilene Christian
Southwestern Athletic – Prairie View A&M^
Summit League – North Dakota State
Sun Belt – Georgia State*^
West Coast – St. Mary’s
WAC – New Mexico State*^

Simple math leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided.  As usual I also checked out several other metrics besides the NCAA’s, including Ken Pomeroy’s data, CBS Sports’ “Nitty Gritty Report”, The Bracket Matrix and a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, in addition to watching hours of college basketball this season. Here are the teams that should be “Locks“, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (2): Houston, Central Florida
ACC (6) – Virginia, North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Syracuse
Atlantic-10 (1) – Virginia Commonwealth
Big 12 (4) – Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor

Big East (2) – Marquette, Seton Hall

Big Ten (6) – Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa, Minnesota

Mountain West (1) – Nevada
Pac-12 (1) – Washington

SEC (5) – Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss

West Coast (1) – Gonzaga

 

That’s a grand total of 29 teams that should be safe, which would leave seven (7) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference:

American Athletic (2): Temple, Memphis

ACC (2) – Clemson, North Carolina State

Atlantic Sun (1) – Lipscomb

Big 12 (2) – Oklahoma, TCU

Big East (1) – St. John’s

Big Ten (1) – Ohio State

Ohio Valley (1) – Belmont

Pac-12 (1) – Arizona State

SEC (1) – Florida

Southern (2) – UNC Greensboro, Furman

That’s only 14 teams competing for the last seven (7) spots, including several hopefuls from what are normally considered one-bid conferences, and much less than sites like ESPN are considering. Flipping coins and drawing lots out of a hat, what follows is my best guess as to the The Mediocre Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

Florida

North Carolina State

Clemson

Oklahoma

Ohio State

Temple

Belmont

My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Arizona State, St. John’s, Furman, and TCU. Recent history aside (I’m looking at you Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Texas from last year), I refuse to believe that Indiana, Texas, Alabama, Creighton and Georgetown, all teams  under .500 in conference play and with double-digit losses overall, should actually be on the bubble (As I said last year, why have conferences if losing the majority of conference games isn’t an impediment to an NCAA Tournament invite?).

The exceptions I am making here are Clemson and Oklahoma, who have Top 40 NET and KenPom rankings, and Ohio State, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself other than everyone else seems to have them in, and they have fewer bad losses, a higher overall strength of schedule and KenPom ranking than all the other remaining bubble teams. As always, I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, although we learned last season that the NCAA Selection Committee is not, and thus I have Furman, Lipscomb and UNC Greensboro out, and Belmont as the last one in the door.

Mere minutes away, the NCAA Selection Show beckons with what’s sure to be some head-scratchers, poor decisions, enigmas and further questions. As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In their ongoing infinite wisdom (in case you can’t tell, this is dripping with sarcasm), the NCAA announced today on their website a series of legislative changes and reforms in the oversight of College Basketball. According to a joint statement by NCAA leaders (the NCAA President, NCAA Board of Governors Chair, and NCAA Division I Board of Directors Chair), “These changes will promote integrity in the game, strengthen accountability and prioritize the interests of student-athletes over every other factor.”

Most of the changes – summarized well here, and how these changes might actually operate are explained here – are in line with the recommendations made by the Commission on College Basketball in April, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. There’s a lot to unpack in what is obviously a direct response to the ongoing FBI investigation and related scandals, much of which should only inspire more skepticism.

  • First off, the NCAA was not previously prevented from using information gathered by other investigations; In fact, they often relied upon such to inform and guide their own investigations, as they did with their investigation into Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case. All this does is remove the requirement that they conduct their own separate inquiry to replicate or confirm those results, instead being able to directly utilize findings from outside investigations in its infractions process, whether that’s from an outside agency or the school’s authorized independent investigation. Plus, these new “complex case” bodies will still have to conduct their own investigation to confirm necessary information for their purposes. In the instant corruption case, this presumes the FBI would share part or all they have, which is not guaranteed as the FBI and DOJ are under no obligation to do so. It’s just as likely that the NCAA will be limited to the public record, and will have to investigate further on their own, which may be plenty enough for their purposes anyway. Regardless, they’re still going to have to wait for the FBI to finish their investigations, if not for the court proceedings to be completed. So to anyone expecting a quick conclusion to the NCAA investigations that will follow the close of the ongoing DOJ cases, I say don’t hold your breath.
  • I’m not sure the “University presidents and chancellors will be personally accountable for their athletics program following the rules” provision as stated on the NCAA website will last as currently written. Never mind that it’s not exactly what University presidents and chancellors signed up for when they took their posts. Sloppy language in the NCAA’s provision might open the question of whether they could be sued in court and held personally liable (read: financially liable) for financial damages caused by NCAA infractions. I would expect that to be “clarified” sooner than later. In any event, making this a contractual obligation for presidents, chancellors and athletics staff would provide the NCAA with a quasi-subpeona power to ensure cooperation with their investigations, which they lacked before, and the lack thereof had severely hampered previous inquiries. I’m not sure this is prudent either.
  • I’m good with increasing individual penalties for coaches getting caught cheating. Cynically, this will drive cheating further underground, and may not be enough of a deterrent, but increasing the costs for coaches is one of the only realistic avenues to curb corruption, and are more meaningful penalties than the “paper record” penalties where wins and titles are stripped, which is like trying to unring a bell.
  • I like allowing college players to return to school if they were undrafted, even though limiting it to those who participated in the NBA Combine will only help a few players each year. I like the scholarship requirement for those who return to school after their second year, although those who leave after one (1) year and go undrafted might be screwed. I’m concerned about the scenario where underclassmen drop out of school in March to prepare for the draft, go undrafted, then return to school in July and have academic issues of their own making to address before they can regain eligibility. Unless you’re on the quarter system (basically most of the universities in California, Oregon and Washington, as well as a smattering of other institutions including Dartmouth, DePaul, Louisiana Tech and Northwestern) where you can take a quarter off to prepare for the draft, this is a mess-in-waiting that the NCAA didn’t properly foresee or address. Scholarship management is also going to be trickier, and if the NCAA were smart (no guarantee), they would extend the end of the Spring Letter Of Intent period from late May to early July, so programs wouldn’t get caught with only 7-10 scholarship players in a given year. While it might affect only a handful of schools, they won’t be able to guarantee every recruit a scholarship, or backfill a lost roster slot, until they know whether a prior season’s player is drafted or returning (or leaving despite being undrafted).
  • The NCAA certifying agents is a mostly symbolic step that won’t change much. Bare minimum, the NCAA should require agents to be certified by the professional league in which they aim to represent players. But to step back a moment, I’m not sure allowing agents more access in general is a good idea.
  • I’m not sure allowing 10 official visits per recruit is wise, that’s another potential quagmire that the NCAA or the Commission on College Basketball did not fully think through. Nothing was wrong with allowing only five (5) official visits, a player should be able to reduce their list to five (5) schools, and if you give them a 6th, they’ll want a 7th, and so on. Combine that with the additional four (4) official visits allowed for each school to host (from 24 to 28 per year), and it’s a formula for the rich to get richer, as schools with bigger recruiting budgets will have even more of an advantage.
  • The net result of the changes to the recruiting calendar are that coaches will actually be on the road more, and see more of the top “elite” recruits from April-June for what will likely be 8-9 long weekends. While I agree with limiting apparel company influence through restricting the AAU events that coaches can attend, the apparel companies also have their tentacles in the high school Also, it looks like visibility for recruits outside the Top 100-150 of their class (i.e., the “non-elite”), as well as younger players and players who are not USA Basketball eligible, could be reduced or negatively impacted. Not that I’m in favor of 8th graders or high school freshmen being heavily recruited or having scholarship offers, but visibility for players not invited to camps has to be preserved.

All in all, while some of these changes will improve conditions for some athletes, it’s difficult not to see this as a blatant power grab by the NCAA, made in the interest of self-preservation and retaining whatever authority over college athletics or “amateurism” they truly still have, which frankly, lessens by the day. Nor do these changes adequately address the money and influence issues that the ongoing FBI scandals exposed.  With the track record of the NCAA, everyone is entitled to be wary of these changes.

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