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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.

Strike up La Marseillaise and Parade Down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, France are World Champions Again!

What a game. What a World Cup! I’ll let my diary entry speak for itself, then share some parting thoughts on what transpired over the last two fortnights.

7/15

The Final

France 4:2 Croatia – France’s Flair vs. Croatia’s Flare was a fitting finale to this World Cup. Both teams overcame tentative starts to produce a spectacle, trading menacing attacks and moments of brilliance in a highly entertaining match. Antoine Griezmann dove to draw the free kick that resulted in France taking the lead from Mario Mandzukic’s autogol in the 18th, and the refs were taken by it. I’ve seen worse dives not called, but I understand the complaints from Croatian fans and neutral observers about the unfortunate circumstances that led to that own-goal. On the other hand, I am fine with the hand ball call on Ivan Perisic in the 34th, it was deliberate to me even as it was well disguised. Ask yourself this question: Where would that corner kicked ball have landed had Perisic not moved his hand into the path of the ball? I mean, the ball was two feet away from Perisic while his hand was not in the path of the ball, and within a split second he handles it. The only issue I had with those proceedings were that it took almost five (5) minutes from that corner kick to the penalty that Griezmann easily put away to put France ahead for good. Croatia’s goal that had tied the game in the 28th was a screamer, and might have been the best taken goal of the day as Inter Milan’s Perisic had become as important to Croatia as any of his more famous teammates. Overall, Croatia had the better of the play in the 1st Half and the worse of the luck going into their locker room down a goal. A wild 2nd Half ensued. In the 52nd, the game took a pause as World Cup security forces failed to keep members of Russian political performance artists Pussy Riot from rushing the field. France’s “subliminal” N’Golo Kante came off the field in the 55th for the first time in this tournament, his yellow card in the 27th minute for clipping Perisic’s heels to me a bit harsh and arbitrary, nevertheless hampering the French defenses in midfield to that point, but Steven Nzonzi deputized well. Paul Pogba in the 59th earned his moment, breaking the game open with a thunderstrike that caught Croatian goalie Danijel Subasic unsighted and wrong-footed. Six minutes later, Kylian Mbappé became the first teenager to score in a World Cup Final since Pelé at Sweden 1958, rifling a shot from 25 yards out to put Les Bleus up 4-1 and sewing up his inevitable Best Young Player Award.  Hugo Lloris, heretofore the best “sweeper keeper” at this World Cup, relinquished that title with one clumsy touch, Super Mario applying the pressure and the scoring touch for his own team this time in the 69th to keep things interesting, but the Croatian Sensations’ reality of falling short of glory was inescapable. Raketic’s pratfall in the 83rd reacting to having to restart a free kick was emblematic of Croatia’s frustration with the referee, the game and their fate. Croatia was Team Heart And Soul in Russia, but I’d be dishonest if I said they didn’t look a half-step slow in the 2nd Half, the toll of all that extra time played that would never be offered as an excuse by Zlatko Dalic’s charges, but nonetheless remains true. Having more of the possession does not necessarily mean you had the better of the play the whole match; Croatia were clearly outclassed when it mattered. As a friend said to me afterwards, Second Place in the World isn’t too bad for a country smaller than Greater Metro Phoenix, Arizona. Luka Modric was the deserving Golden Ball winner, cementing a legacy as one of the finest midfielders of his generation, while bigger clubs need to sign players such as Ante Rebic (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Domagoj Vida (Besiktas). How Pogba didn’t score in the 93rd is beyond me, but that just would have been window dressing. The final whistle blew, and Moscow’s skies opened up shortly thereafter, making for quite the rain-soaked celebration. Les Bleus are World Cup Champions for the second time in their burgeoning soccer history, and deservedly so as the unequivocally best team in Russia, winning the trophy precisely because they became as much, if not more than, the sum of their talented and resolute parts.

French Manager Didier Deschamps joins Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as the only three men to captain their sides to World Cup Titles as a player and as a manager. Some observers would characterize Deschamps’ tactics in France’s unbeaten run through this tournament as more pragmatic than dynamic, but I find that a bit unfair, and difficult to say a team was “pragmatic” when they were the second-highest scoring team of the tournament (behind Belgium) and scored four (4) goals in the World Cup Final, while nearly half of the World Cup games (31 of 64) involved teams that couldn’t score one goal.

Efficient and cagey might be better descriptions, as France were talented, committed and disciplined enough to beat you with their game or at your own game. This was the France I expected to see all tournament long, the team I picked to win it all beforehand, a choice I no longer regret (proof that you can’t put too much stock in the first game of a tournament), made possible in large part because Pogba and Mbappé rose to the occasion as  everyone expected. And, with the second-youngest roster at this World Cup – 15 of the 23 players on the World Cup roster were under the age of 26, and surely Kante and Griezmann (both 27) have another World Cup in them, not to mention a phalanx of young stars who missed this tournament due to injury, or were just left home – they may have only just begun, conjuring the next footballing dynasty before our very eyes. Allez Allez!

Diary of the 2018 FIFA World Cup: Glory Awaits

Zero hour is upon us as the Final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, France versus Croatia, beckons. I’m sticking with my pre-tournament pick France, as I believe their manager Didier Deschamps and the seven (7) veterans from that Euros 2016 runner-up squad that will likely start tomorrow have learned the right lessons from their “French Mistake” in the 2016 Euros Final, and that they have the necessary mettle to emerge victorious.  But what can Croatia learn from that 2016 Euro Final? What pages can the Croats take out of Portugal’s book, what can they divine from the workmanlike blueprint that the reigning European Champions laid down against a favored, more talented Les Bleus side two years ago?

I’ve no doubt Croatia – the second-smallest nation in World Cup history to make the Final – has the requisite commitment, and will stick to the same plan of steady defensive pressure and outside-in attacks that has landed them in the Final. I do wonder if they’ll have the legs, having played the equivalent of an extra full games-worth of soccer in the Knockout stage compared to France. As good as Luka Modric and Ivan Raketic are, they might have met their match in Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, and whomever wins the majority of this skirmishes in the midfield will likely win the day and the Jules Rimet trophy.

Once again, we look back to look forward …

7/10

France 1:0 Belgium – Anticipation for this match was thicker than the ketchup we Americans put on our frites. Belgium started as the aggressor, briefly neutralizing the French midfield through simple possession, as the first of many close calls came in the 15th, Eden Hazard fizzing just wide right of Hugo Lloris’ goal. France replied by invading Belgium’s box the next minute, then Belgium responded in kind, the tit-for-tat providing end-to-end action as The Red Devils were slightly more dangerous on offense, and slightly more welcoming defensively. France turned the tide as the 1st Half progressed, accumulating an 11-3 shot edge despite ceding 58% of the possession (the trend holding for the match, Belgium was outshot 19-9 overall despite 60% possession). That French engine of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante won more balls in the center of the pitch, while Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann took turns running at the Belgian fortifications. France took advantage of a set piece in the 51st to grab a lead that would ultimately stand, Samuel Umtiti beating Marouane Fellaini to Griezmann’s corner with a glancing header that blazed past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois. France continued to show their savoir faire in the 56th, a 4-touch passing sequence that had Belgium’s Mousa Dembélé scurrying to divert. Belgium Manager Roberto Martinez replaced the ineffective Dembélé in the 60th, attempting to overload France’s left flank with sub Dries Mertens and Kevin DeBruyne. The result was more crosses into France’s box and increased pressure for the last half hour plus stoppage, but no joy as Les Bleus were content to absorb it all and run the clock out on Belgium’s Golden Generation. Martinez’s men showed desire and moxie throughout this tournament, and Courtois was a man between the posts, but today they lacked that final touch to ripple the net #ThirdPlaceMatch #IlsSontAllésPêcher. Olivier Giroud is clearly having a crisis of confidence, his timing completely off as he squandered several opportunities. He does a lot of good work that goes unnoticed and makes some things easier for Griezmann and Mbappé, but can France afford another seven (7) misfires in front of goal with the World Cup one win away? I think France Manager Didier Deschamps stays the course, but it’s something to note as Sunday’s Final approaches.

Everyone loves to talk about the plethora of French attacking talent, but defensively this was France’s best performance, Kante patrolling in front of a sturdy and dynamic backline, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris at his acrobatic best. I still believe they haven’t hit their collective peak yet, which is a scary proposition for Croatia.

7/11

Croatia 2:1 England – To quote Sir Paul, this game was a long and winding road. Kieran Trippier got The Three Lions off to a flying start with his clinical free kick bender in the 5th, and all was possible for England, but little did we know that would be their only shot on goal. Croatia meanwhile took their time to announce their presence, logging their first shot in the 19th, my choice for Man of the Match Ivan Perisic firing just wide left of England’s goal. From there, the Croats began knocking on England’s door more frequently, upping the direct midfield pressure on England’s possession. Dejan Lovren should have been yellow carded in twice in the 1st Half, but the lack of action only increased the impunity with which Lovren and his teammates acted. Still, England probably should have extended their lead with golden chances in the 30th and 36th. Needing a heightened sense of urgency, Croatia went into the 2nd Half with their hair on fire, the match becoming chippier as Lovren continued his extracurricular aggression, while England settled for sparse counterattacks. Perisic foreshadowed the equalizer with a strike in the 65th blocked by Kyle Walker and The Family Jewels, these two tangling again three minutes later as Croatia got level through Perisic off a diagonal cross from Sime Vrsaljko, beating Walker’s head to the ball with a potentially high kick that was not called. Perisic’s persistence almost put Croatia ahead as he punted off the post in the 72nd, England’s backline stuck in analysis paralysis with equally poor back passes and indecisive clearance, and their midfield wilting under Croatian pressure, unable to string passes together and falling into a ballwatching stasis. Both teams had chances to score a winner in regulation, only for extra time to be needed for the third successive Croatia game. The Iron Men of Croatia looked the fresher team, continuing to turn over England in the midfield; You’d never know the Croats were the side that played two consecutive extra time games, and had all four subs available for the added half hour. In the second minute of stoppage in the first half of extra time (technically the 105th+2, bear with me here) “Super”Mario Mandzukic collided with Jordan Pickford in front of the English goal, Pickford deflecting a Mandzukic shot off a cross that could have been called a foul were it not the goalkeeper late to that challenge. Mandzukic’s revenge wouldn’t wait long however, as Croatia scored the winner in the 109th off a poor clearance, Perisic backwards heading(!) a ball into Super Mario’s path who one touches it past Pickford inside the far post, England defender John Stones switching off just long enough for Mandzukic to show why he gets paid the big bucks at Juventus (then show why he’s called “The Sour One” spending much of the five minutes thereafter on the ground feigning cramps, but I digress). England used their last sub in the 112th, the Jamie Vardy Party in for Walker, soon after which Trippier went out with a groin injury leaving England a man down for the remainder and their World Cup hopes stranded another four years. England have only themselves to blame, mentally relaxing after their goal, and seeming to run out of ideas in the face of Croatia’s increased pressure. So close, and yet so far away #FishAndChips #ItsNotComingHome. 

And so, the Final I predicted after the group stage has become a reality, a rematch of the France 1998 Semifinal between France and the Croatian Sensations. While most observers didn’t see this coming before the World Cup started, it was evident in the Group stage that along with Belgium, these were two of the best three teams playing in Russia.

More than anything, what this tournament and this particular Final shows is the global shift in effective tactics that had begun in the big confederation tournaments of Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL) in 2016. France, Croatia, Belgium, and to a lesser extent the relative success of England, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico and Uruguay signals a switch from the Barcelona/Spain inspired “tiki-taka” and their derivations, soccer’s equivalent of Death by 1,000 Paper Cuts, to a variable possession-based attack that actively seeks the direct and surgical finish and values set pieces, the difference between trench warfare and bombing sorties. Spain were ushered out by the hosts Russia in the Round of 16 despite having three-quarters of the possession and completing 829 more passes than their opponents.  A distracted and ultimately deficient Defending World Champion Germany bounced out in the group stage. Tikitalia (Italy) and Total Football 2.0 (Netherlands) couldn’t even qualify for this World Cup with their possession-based strategy. Once the vanguard, they are now among the giants of the game who will have to find new answers during qualification for the next big tournaments.

As such, I think we’ll see a mix of midfield possession and long balls into the box from all over the field today, both teams poised to spring on the counter with dangerous wingers and incisive playmakers. Croatia might do well to ugly it up a bit when France has the ball, although they will need to be even more careful than they were in the Semifinal at allowing corners and free kicks near their own box – England only had five free kicks in Croatia’s half last Wednesday, and still scored on one of them.  Give France an early set piece goal, and they might make that stand as they did against Belgium.

Finally, some thoughts about yesterday’s Third Place Match, which Belgium won 2-0 over England, earning the Red Devils their best World Cup finish. Nothing demonstrates the difference between the USA Sports Fan and the rest of the world’s sports fans than attitudes towards the World Cup’s Third Place Match. Most Americans wonder why it’s even played, while many fans around the world both welcome the extra match and appreciate the determination of a Third Place team on the field. Wearing the American on my sleeve, I was a touch surprised that both teams fielded relatively strong lineups, but I applaud them for going out to try and win this game, as there was nothing to lose in the bigger picture, beyond the game itself. Typically, these games break one of two ways, verging towards the rather boring or extremely open and exciting with little room in between. Our clue as to which way this game would break came in the 4th minute as Belgium got their winner through Thomas Meunier, who had completed a shockingly efficient 4-pass sequence from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to the back of England’s net. England did not lack for endeavor, with 57% of the possession and three more shots (15-12), but relegating Belgium to running the World’s Most Dangerous counterattack would ultimately be a losing proposition, Eden Hazard netting the door-shutter off such a counter in the 82nd. Both these teams will now turn their attention towards the 2020 Euros, where they will be among the favorites.

As will today’s combatants.  Before then though, some business to finish today; France can win their 2nd World Cup, or Croatia can become the 9th country to win it all.  To the victor, go the spoils.

 

P.S. – Not to harp on this subject, but Raheem Sterling is still yesterday’s detritus. I don’t care what the “experts” have to say about what he does to opposing defenses with his speed and how he occupies their minds, he still does next to nothing with the ball. No surprise that England Manager Gareth Southgate (to whom they should hand over a 4-year contract extension forthwith) pulled Sterling off at the half yesterday. England’s prospects for the next few big tournaments are especially bright, as they had one of the younger rosters in Russia, and their youth teams have accumulated a lot of tournament hardware in the prior cycle; Maybe they can find a more clinical option on the wing than Sterling from the youth ranks this next cycle.

My Diary of the World Cup Runneth Over …

We are down to what many American sports fans refer to a “Final Four”, the semifinals of the FIFA 2018 World Cup.  France plays Belgium today in St. Petersburg, while Croatia and England meet in Moscow tomorrow, the winners playing each other on Sunday for the trophy.  An all-European Final Four for only the 3rd time since 1970 (Spain 1982 and Germany 2006 the other times), and while historically European teams win World Cups held in Europe – Brazil in Sweden 1958 is the only non-European team to win on European soil – the influencing factors are a bit more specific now, as much of the top talent for the South American contenders and Mexico also play in Europe.

More pointedly, with 40 of the 92 players left in Russia plying their professional trade in the English Premier League (EPL), it’s no coincidence that the teams with large contingents of English Premier League players – all of England’s 23, plus 11 on Belgium’s squad, 5 on France and 1 on Croatia, not to mention several other players who have EPL experience – have met with success in Russia. Fresher legs often win games, and aside from the four players from Liverpool (England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson, Croatia’s Dejan Lovren, and Belgium’s Simon Mignolet), all of those EPL players, and their national team as a result, benefited from not playing Champions League games in April or May, the consequence of every EPL team besides Liverpool being eliminated before the semis.

At this point, with the stakes raised again, factors like geography and professional affiliation fade away. So, what will happen now? Once again, to my diary of the quarterfinals, in search of clues …

7/6

Uruguay 0:2 France – I might have mentioned this before, but Uruguay’s national anthem is quite the toe-tapper! An assertive La Celeste had several opportunities to get that early goal in the first 35 minutes but failed to capitalize while France’s defense ran a grade-school fire drill in front of their own goal. France shook their slumber in the 40th, scoring from a set piece off a free kick, when Antoine Griezmann stutter-stepped his run-up to see if Uruguay would tip their hand defensively. They obliged, freezing momentarily as Raphaël Varane snuck behind a diving line and headed the floater home. Uruguay barely missed their chance to equalize in the 44th, Hugo Lloris diving at the right post to keep Martin Caceres’ header out with Diego Godin skying the rebound. Uruguay in the 2nd Half continued to press and stunt Les Bleus’ attack until the 61st when Paul Pogba made a galloping run down the heart of the Uruguayan resistance, laying off to Corentin Tolisso, who left it for Griezmann. Uruguay goalie Fernando Muslera couldn’t deal with the velocity or knuckle of Griezmann’s volley, batting it into the net, virtually sealing the win for France. From there, it felt like the match went on “Señor Chompers Watch” waiting for Suarez The Impaler to once again let his teeth run amok. Yet he remained a non-factor as he had been throughout the match, zero shots on goal and often left stranded in the French box. Kylian Mbappé, his wings clipped by a combative and physical Uruguay midfield, embellished a shiver to his midsection from Christian Rodriguez that started a kerfuffle in the 67th which lasted several minutes and got both players yellow carded. That turned out to be Uruguay’s last salvo, as France closed out the match rather calmly, Uruguay seemingly resigned to their fate. #FueronAPescar. Not to belabor the obvious, but Uruguay really missed Edinson Cavani, not only his world class ability but his institutional knowledge of the French squad as a member of Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue One … France continues their Napoleonic march towards Moscow, this time in the summer. 

Brazil 1:2 Belgium – Probably the most anticipated potential matchup of the knockouts when the groups were drawn and the schedule announced last December, “Ordem E Progresso” lacked order or progress against the Belgian Argyle. Roberto Martinez made the obvious lineup changes demanded by their win over Japan: Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens out, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Felkaini deservedly in, causing a formational shift that pushed Kevin DeBruyne up to the forward line, which ultimately paid dividends. Marcelo returned from his back injury that forced him to miss the win over Mexico, which also paid dividends for Belgium. Both teams extended their ball press, as Brazil had the first great chance early, Thiago Silva’s header bouncing off the post softly for Thibaut Courtois to cover in the 8th. Brazil had another chance off the corner in the 10th, but it was Belgium who opened the books in the 13th, Fernandinho, deputizing for the suspended Casemiro, elbowing Vincent Kompany’s glancing header into his own net. Off a counterattack started by a Romelu Lukaku 30-yard run, DeBruyne unleashed a rocket through the space Marcelo ran past in the 31st to put Belgium up 2-0, the precision with which Brazil was being carved up bringing flashbacks of four years ago. Yet Brazil showed their steel, Courtois keeping them at bay in the opening half, saving or deflecting shots twice in the 15th, the 19th, 26th, and twice in the 37th. The Neymar Who Cried Wolf got no benefit of the doubt on any of his simulation attempts, often trying to take Belgium on by himself, attempting to dribble through 3-5 defenders at a time, to no avail … While Belgium remained ever dangerous on the counter, they became too comfortable in the 2nd Half. Courtois stoned the Samba Kings 55th, 62nd, 71st, and 75th, before finally letting newly substituted Renato Augusto head a beautiful cross from Phillipe Coutinho into the net in the 76th. Back to life, Brazil swarmed Belgium’s box, a gassed Red Devils backline allowing close calls in the 81st, 84th, 92nd, and 94th, Martinez making his first sub in the 83rd to insert defender Thomas Vermaelen and go with 5 in the back, which seemed to slow the bleeding just enough … Brazil, despite creating 26 shots, 9 on goal (to Belgium’s 8 overall), and accruing much of their 57% possession edge in the 2nd, were unable to turn their activity into achievement, exiting again in the Quarters for the third time in the last four World Cups despite being perennial favorites.  Proving all that is gold, does not glitter #ForamPescar … Fitting that the most “European” city in Russia, St. Petersburg, holds the Battle of Crepes vs. Waffles (or is it Wine vs. Beer?) as the best two teams left face off. 

Short of calling this the “Real Final”, as I believe any of the four teams left can win it all, the winner of France-Belgium will be a definitive favorite on Sunday.  Since my post-group stage predictions for the knockout phase have mostly come to fruition, including all four semi-finalists, I have no reason to deviate from that. France still has another gear, and Belgium’s defense has looked better than it is thanks to the stellar work of Courtois in goal. I’m not sure what tactic or trick Roberto Martinez has up his sleeve to prevent France’s Pogba and N’Golo Kante from winning most of the balls in midfield, and give France 26 shots, they will score more than one goal.

7/7

Sweden 0:2 England – What was scheduled to be a tight affair began as such, both teams threatening to threaten the other goal early on, until almost exactly the half-hour mark when the “World Cup of Set Pieces” lived up to the moniker (66 of 153 goals scored through this game came off set pieces) with Harry Maguire’s smashing header off the Ashley Young corner putting England up One-Nil. Sweden is not built to chase games, yet that was the position in which they found themselves… Raheem Sterling continued his awful finishing, blowing a sterling (no pun intended) breakaway opportunity in the 45th, and despite doing good legwork to occupy the attention of the Swedish backline, squandered several  opportunities throughout. Dele Alli had also had a mediocre tournament, but his tide turned with an authoritative header off a Jesse Lingard cross just short of the hour mark, the look of relief more than joy washing over his face as he half-assed a Fortnite celebration. Time ran out on Clockwork Yellow, forcing three saves out of Jordan Pickford, yet the final result was all but assured after Alli’s finish #DeHarFiskat. Meanwhile, England will party like its 1990, the last time they made the World Cup Semis, with the rest of the world having to celebrate, tolerate or mock EnglandFan’s assertions that “Football’s Coming Home!”, at least until Wednesday …

Russia 2:2; 3:4 Croatia – Not for nothing, but Croatia Manager Zlatko Dalić looks like the head waiter you would ask for more wine at your favorite restaurant (who is not quite a sommelier). Like any second his boss is going to walk by him and tell him to close the top button of his shirt. “Yes, we do sell a lot of the Pinot …” Again Croatia started a match slowly, as Russia was more comfortable on the ball in the first 5 minutes than they ever were against Spain. Even when Russia settled in and started waiting for the counterattack, they looked more dangerous. Denis Cherysev brought that to fruition when out of nowhere, he fired a 25-yard airbender to put the Hosts up 1-0 in the 31st. Croatia responded in the 39th, breaking down the Russian defense off a goal kick, “Super” Mario Mandzukic finding Andrej Kramaric with a neat cross for the tying goal. A cautious 2nd Half played out as if extra time was in the script, Croatia trying to stretch out a more compact and retreating Russian side … Croatian keeper Danijel Subasic, prostrate with hamstring cramps in the 90th, a metaphorical microcosm of the 2nd Half. A hobbling Croatia struck first in the added half-hour, as The Croat Spicoli, Domagoj Vida scored a blind header off a Luka Modric corner in the 101st to set the table for a roaring Russian retort. The feeling thereafter that Croatia was holding on for dear life was inescapable, Russia pouring forward to produce a tying goal by any means. A stupid hand ball – At this point, are there any non-stupid handballs? – by Croatia’s Josip Pivaric in the 113th set up a free kick just outside the right corner of Croatia’s 18-yard box, which sub Alan Dzagoev subsequently chipped to an unmarked Mario Fernandes, the Brazilian naturalized Russian citizen redirecting it into the net to tie it 2-2 in the 115th. Kicks from the mark would decide fates in consecutive rounds for both teams … After trading misses, extra time hero Fernandes opened the door for Croatia, his strike fizzing wide. Modric with just enough pace pinballed his 3rd round kick in off Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev and the post, Vida’s 4th round kick was Pura, and Ivan Raketic, cool as you like, was the hero again to send the exhausted and jubilant Croatian Sensations to their first World Cup semifinal since France 1998. Russia earned a lot of my respect with their play, putting together far and away their best game of the tournament, and honoring their role as host #Dasvidanya #OниOтправилисьHаPыбалку. Croatia meets England next Wednesday, a match that few predicted but everyone deserves. 

I’ll be rooting for a resumption of the War of the Roses, wanting The Three Lions to see their first World Cup Final since they hosted in 1966. Nevertheless, I look again to the midfield, and with apologies to France’s Pogba and Kante, Croatia has the best central midfield pairing in the world in Modric and Raketic; I suspect England’s midfield will have a difficult time coping with their enterprise defensively. France-Croatia for all the marbles would be a rematch of the France 1998 semifinals, while Belgium-England in the Third Place Match would be the 2nd time they would meet at this World Cup with little but pride at stake (hopefully the A-Teams would play each other this time).

However, that’s getting ahead of oneself.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be mad at any of these four teams taking home the Jules Rimet trophy. While I wouldn’t go as far as parroting the Fox Sports party line that this has been the “Best World Cup Ever!!”, any of the Final Four would be a deserving champion, which is all any non-partisan should want.

 

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