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Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again

We are now entering the 6th year of my macro-level, view-from-10,000 feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and there’s something about my bracket that leaves me uneasy. A familiar rainy-day feeling. The rain won’t be in my actual weather today; it’s going to be bright, hot and sunny where I live (apologies to my friends still digging themselves out of Stella).

Rather, I get the distinct sense that despite the hundreds of hours logged watching college basketball this year, and the sleepless nights this week poring over data and conference tournament film (well, not exactly “film”, but the DVR was full last week), it won’t be long before the clouds appear and take away my bracket sunshine. Not only is my wastebasket is full of tossed drafts of the one bracket I submit for every pool, but sorting the field into my tried and mostly true categories has been quite the chore for this edition of the Madness.

You see, I endeavor to give the reader a sense of what I think will happen, not through examining particular matchups, but by organizing the field into bite-size pieces, groups and categories that should frame expectations for every invitee to the Dance. Yet, I find myself suggesting below that over a third of the 68-team field has a realistic or honest chance to win it all (between Contenders and Darkhorses), and otherwise favoring way too many higher seeds to advance for my liking. Which, if history tells us anything, means soon my tears will be falling like rain.

Without further ado, let’s compartmentalize the NCAA Tournament field. My chalky bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which will surely be crumpled up in the trash can by Saturday night.

Championship Contenders – Regular readers of this feature – all 7 of you – will no doubt be familiar with the three Championship Tests created by the basketball gentleman and scholar Peter Tiernan of the long defunct BracketScience.com website. If not, you can refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, under the same “Championship Contenders” heading, for a detailed breakdown of each Championship test. Tiernan identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion from 2003-2013. Since then, these tests have become subject to more variables. The differentiated and unforeseen paths of recent champions, from 2014 Connecticut blowing out the coaching experience, seeding and offensive metric criteria which led to a modified “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser offensive efficiency (Offensive Efficiency Ranking equal or better than #39, as opposed to #18 in the original Raw test), to 2015 Duke flipping the defensive switch and lowering their season-long AdjD by almost 4 points per possession on their way to the Championship, demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can play their way into Title form. Meanwhile, the recent advent of the 30-second shot clock and continuing emphasis on “freedom of movement” have seen Ken Pomeroy’s early suspicions that efficiency, pace, shooting and scoring would see a net positive effect come to fruition.

While I’m still sorting out the value of Raw Data thresholds from what can now be referred to as a prior era, these tests are still useful to separate the wheat from the chaff – especially the relative aspects of the Rankings test from year to year in addition to the historical record of the Tiernan Criteria – as well as to spot teams on the verge of making that leap into title contention. Testing this year’s field, a whopping 20 teams meet the Pomeroy Raw Data test (compared to 9 last year), while 11 teams meet the original Pomeroy Rankings Test, and another 12 satisfy the UConn Standard (also appreciably more than last year). Eight (8) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria; North Carolina, defending Champion Villanova, Kansas and Kentucky pass all three tests, while Arizona, Louisville and Oregon satisfy the UConn Standard in addition to the other two tests. Duke is the other team to meet the Tiernan Criteria, as they also meet the Rankings Test and have roughly the same AdjD entering the NCAAs as they did in 2015 (albeit this year a 96.1 AdjD ranks them 20 spots higher at #37). Gonzaga is the wild card entry here to make it nine (9) Contenders; They will never meet the Tiernan Criteria because they are not in a Power (high-major) Conference and correspondingly will hardly ever have the requisite strength of schedule, but they easily pass both KenPom tests and meet all the other Tiernan Criteria, are the # 1 ranked team by KenPom, are one of only two teams (Villanova) to rank in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency , are ranked 8th in the RPI and 2nd in both polls, and despite their star-crossed tournament history, are to be ignored at one’s peril. Coincidentally, and slightly troubling since it is not my favorite metric, these are the Top teams in the RPI as well. If that’s not enough for you, the crew at FiveThirtyEight project these nine (9) teams have approximately a collective 72% chance of winning the National Championship.  From more to less likely, one of these Nifty Nine will cut down the nets on April 3:

  • North Carolina
  • Villanova
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Duke
  • Arizona
  • Louisville
  • Gonzaga
  • Oregon

Darkhorses – Here is where I cast most of the other teams that passed one or more of the Championship Tests yet contain more glaring flaws. An admittedly slim margin separates Darkhorses from the Contenders above, due to deficiencies that cause these teams to either be “jack of all trades/master of none” or be acutely one-dimensional favoring offense or defense, and further exacerbated by either being situated in a weaker conference or having a non-conference schedule that fails to provide adequate challenges. Although operating at a relatively high efficiency compared across the entirety of Division I, these 16 Darkhorses in the No. 3-10 seed range fall short in one or more key areas of both production (rebounding, turnovers, rim protection, perimeter shooting, making free throws) and personnel (an over-reliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth, or roster imbalance due to injury or attrition), acting in concert to reduce the margin for error and raise the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for Title contention. In prior years, I would have separated some of these teams into a different category I called “Feast or Famine”, to indicate the high ceiling/low floor character of teams I once considered a step down from Darkhorses, but the gap between these two sets of teams have narrowed so much as to make separate categories redundant. After all, 2014 Connecticut was the last of my Darkhorse candidates that year, and every game was so close that their Feast could have become Famine in every round.

Momentum will make all the difference for these squads, many of whom were criminally underseeded by the Tournament Committee, with the true Darkhorses among this group to be revealed by Sunday evening. One note: It may seem strange to see UCLA listed as a “Darkhorse” when they sport a Top 3 offense, the sportsbooks have them listed among the Top 8 favorites for the title, and they are 6th most picked team (7.9% of entries) to win it all on ESPN. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: UCLA does not defend well. After losing 96-85 to Arizona on January 21, allowing the Wildcats to score 20 points above their season-long average, UCLA’s team to a man committed to playing better defense. Since then, over a 12-game span they have improved their AdjD from 102.5 (#128) on January 24 to 99.8 (#76) on the eve of the tournament.  To put that in perspective, UCLA would have to improve their AdjD by more than that spread, and more than what Duke did in 2015, in only 6 games, just to meet the defensive efficiency threshold of the KenPom tests. That’s not happening; I doubt they’ll be able to outscore six (6) teams to a title, but stranger things have happened. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • UCLA
  • Michigan
  • Notre Dame
  • Virginia
  • Baylor
  • West Virginia
  • Florida State
  • SMU
  • Purdue
  • Florida
  • Iowa State
  • Wisconsin
  • Cincinnati
  • Wichita State
  • Butler
  • St. Mary’s

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four Cinderellas – What does this term even mean anymore? Was the normally blue-blooded Syracuse a “Cinderella” last year when they reached the Final Four as a #10 seed? No, they were merely one of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Can one consider teams such as Gonzaga, St. Mary’s Butler, Dayton (with my man Scoochie making his 4th NCAA appearance) and Wichita State real “Cinderellas” anymore, regardless of seed or conference affiliation, in light of their recent history of bracket busting and barnstorming success? I would think not. Thankfully March Madness, indeed the whole of College Basketball, still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. So the following teams are only relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, but chances are one of these teams will be a household name by Sunday night. Something else to note is that everyone listed below except Northwestern – who gets included here despite being in the Big Ten because it is their first-ever NCAA Tournament Appearance – either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final. For the record, however, I like the first three (3) teams listed better than the others, and I have none of these teams in my Elite Eight:

  • Northwestern
  • Rhode Island
  • Middle Tennessee State
  • Nevada
  • Dayton
  • VCU

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – As a reminder, these are the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to the double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers of Baton Rouge that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all nine (9) teams here a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded No. 6 or worse, c.) Have nine (9) or more 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. While most of these teams fall by the wayside early, one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can peg the right team, your bracket will have a big edge on others as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 2 seed in the Second Round. Didn’t you just know that Michigan State would find their way here?  Also of particular note is Oklahoma State with the #1 ranked offense in the country per KenPom, Maryland with experienced guard play led by Melo Trimble, and a USC team that could surprise (more on that below):

  • Michigan State
  • Oklahoma State
  • Maryland
  • USC
  • Miami
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Seton Hall

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t understand despite multiple attempts to observe them, typically resulting in a sense of basketball ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to identify what exactly that “more” would be. This year, major injuries to star players (as in the case of Xavier and Creighton) seem to have added to the confusion. As a result, I usually have them gone sooner than later:

  • Minnesota
  • Vanderbilt
  • Creighton
  • Xavier
  • Marquette
  • South Carolina

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness. Considering that in the last seven (7) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 15-13 vs. their #6 seed counterparts, that scenario is no longer an “upset”. Meanwhile, #12 seeds are 2-6 over the last two tournaments against #5 seeds, so that seems to be the present line in the sand. Conditions for these disparate seed upsets require competitive “parity” to actually occur, often from the clash of high-major conference teams with substantial roster turnover and inconsistent results with mid-major teams who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters. As such, it’s no mere coincidence that all of the teams listed below have Darkhorse teams as opponents:

  • East Tennessee State
  • Florida Gulf Coast
  • New Mexico State
  • Winthrop
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Bucknell

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – These double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). No #16 seed has beaten a #1 seed in the Men’s Tournament since it expanded to 64 in 1985, so I’m only including them by reference. Just like last year, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds, although that bit me in the rear with Middle Tennessee State beating #2 seeded Michigan State last year (Middle Tennessee State won’t be sneaking up on me this year!). Nevertheless, we forge ahead:

  • Troy
  • North Dakota
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Jacksonville State
  • Iona
  • Kent State
  • Vermont
  • Princeton

And Now … Three Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … I’d favor USC over Kansas State in this calculus. I don’t think USC defends well enough to make the Final Four (KenPom ranks them 91st in defensive efficiency), and I don’t think Kansas State scores the ball well enough (their 72.4 ppg is 198th out of 351 Division I teams). However, starting with VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament, Wichita State continuing the streak last year by beating Vanderbilt and Arizona, and I won’t predict a bucking of this trend. USC already beat their Friday opponent SMU 78-73 back in November, and while both teams have progressed since, SMU will still have issues containing Bennie Boatwright as they did four months ago, and USC should be able to impose a faster tempo on SMU. Boatwright, USC’s leading scorer since returning from injury February 1 in their win over Washington, had 24 in USC’s comeback win over a similarly undersized Providence last night, and if he’s on again, midnight may come quickly for SMU. I think Cincinnati will be too much of a challenge defensively for Kansas State, despite a respectable showing in the Champ Tests (barely meeting the Raw Data and barely missing the UConn Standard for the Rankings test by 4 spots).

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Xavier.  Before starting point guard and NBA 1st round prospect Edmond Sumner went down for the year with a torn ACL on January 29, Xavier was ranked in both polls and had a #29 KenPom ranking. Since then, even Tom Petty thinks Xavier is Free Falling into the NCAAs, losing 7 of their last 10 games. To their credit, they won two games in the Big East Tournament including a win over then-#18 ranked Butler, and they still have dangerous shooters Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura at their disposal. It likely won’t be enough against Maryland.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2 for 4, and my Champion pick North Carolina was beaten at the buzzer in the Final. I still feel good about it that pick. The last two times a team had the opportunity to play for the National Championship less than two (2) hours from their campus, Butler barely missed a half-court shot to beat Duke at the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis, and Michigan State got blown out by North Carolina at the 2009 Final Four in Detroit. This year’s Final Four festivities happen to be at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, a two-hour drive up the I-10 from the Arizona Wildcats, and I’m going to cast my lot with the old adage that the third time is the charm for what would be a virtual home team. Aside from Michigan winning the Big 10 post-near-death airplane experience, only the Duke Blue Devils in the ACC were as impressive as the Wildcats during the conference tournaments, and I believe they will vanquish the defending Champion Villanova before falling to Arizona. Joining them in the Valley of the Sun will be the Oregon Ducks, who should still have enough to get to Glendale despite the loss of star big man Chris Boucher, and those North Carolina Tar Heels, who should overcome the plucky Ducks before once again losing in the National Championship game. Aside from my blatant homerism, the reasons I pick Arizona cut down the nets are threefold: 1.) Arizona is peaking at the right time, beating two Top 5 teams back-to-back to win the Pac-12 Tournament; 2.) NBA prospects Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier form as deadly and versatile a 1-2 offensive punch as there is in all of college basketball, and they have role players for every occasion in support; and 3.) The symmetry (on the 20-year anniversary of Arizona’s last and only title) combined with the potential for UOP Stadium aka “The Big Toaster” to become “McKale North on Steroids” with 50,000-plus Arizona fans packed to the rafters, was too good to pass up. Which means it probably won’t happen, despite Arizona having a more manageable path to Glendale than most of the other Contenders. I don’t believe Arizona is the best team in the country, but it’s quite possible they will be the team that is playing the best basketball come April. All I ask from the Basketball Gods on that Monday is for clouds not to appear to take away my sunshine.

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Basketball Christmas Time is Here! Time for Joy, and Time for Cheer!

Just to torture this analogy a bit more … The brackets are almost trimmed, the chicken wings are sauced, and the chimney is ready for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee to slide on down and let us know who has presents under the NCAA tree, and who has NIT coal in their stocking. Selection Sunday is upon us, a prelude to the 12 Days of Basketball Christmas that is March (and early April) Madness, where at 5:30pm EST, we’ll see the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2017 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

Merely an amateur “bracketologist” at the moment, I’m calling my shot at the 68 teams in the field, leaving predicted seeding, locations and matchups to those who get paid for a living to do so. Last year I only had 65/68 teams correct, missing on one of my “Locks” for the first time ever (South Carolina).  This year’s bubble seems especially smaller than prior years, while the amount of teams that could find their way to Glendale in the first weekend of April (More to come in my preview this Wednesday) seems larger than in any prior season.

For now, here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, what I think that I think I know, and my educated guesses at who will be of good cheer during this most wonderful time of the year (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives that aforementioned coal.

We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, including for the first time, the Ivy League Surprise! It’s Princeton); seven (7) of which repeated from last season (marked below with a *) while a whopping 17 of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader) went on to win their conference tournament (marked with a ^).

American Athletic – SMU^

America East – Vermont^

ACC – Duke

Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast*^

Atlantic-10 – Rhode Island

Big 12 – Iowa State

Big East – Villanova^

Big Sky – North Dakota^

Big South – Winthrop^

Big Ten – Michigan

Big West – UC Davis

Colonial – UNC Wilmington*^

Conference USA – Middle Tennessee*^

Horizon – Northern Kentucky

Ivy – Princeton^

Metro Atlantic – Iona*

Mid-American – Kent State

Mid-Eastern – North Carolina Central^

Missouri Valley – Wichita State

Mountain West – Nevada^

Northeast – Mount St. Mary’s^

Ohio Valley – Jacksonville State

Pac-12 – Arizona

Patriot – Bucknell^

SEC – Kentucky*^

Southern – East Tennessee State

Southland – New Orleans^

Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern^

Summit League – South Dakota State*

Sun Belt – Troy

West Coast – Gonzaga*^

WAC – New Mexico State

This leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. Looking at several metrics, the official NCAA RPI as well as CBS Sports’ “Nitty Gritty Report”, Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix and volumes of bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, and what I have personally observed this season having watched every team play at least once, here are the teams that should be locks, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (1): Cincinnati

ACC (7) – North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech

Atlantic-10 (2) – Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth

Big 12 (4) – Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State

Big East (2) – Butler, Creighton

Big Ten (5) – Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin, Northwestern

Pac-12 (2) – Oregon, UCLA

SEC (3) – Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina

West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

That’s a grand total of 27 teams that should be safe, which would leave nine (9) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference

ACC (2) – Syracuse, Wake Forest

Big 12 (1) – Kansas State

Big East (4) – Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette

Big Ten (1) – Michigan State

Missouri Valley (1) – Illinois State

Mountain West (1) – Colorado State

Pac-12 (3) – USC, California, Utah

SEC (1) – Vanderbilt

That is only 14 teams competing for the last nine (9) spots, the second year in a row with a relatively small bubble, partially due to the large amount of #1 seeds who won their conference tourneys. Flipping coins and rolling dice, here’s my best guess as to the Semi-Fine Nine, in order from safest to least safe:

Michigan State

Marquette

Xavier

Syracuse

Wake Forest

Seton Hall

Kansas State

Illinois State

USC

My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Vanderbilt, Providence, California and Utah. If it were up to me, I’d leave Syracuse out as well with their RPI #84 and Ken Pom #50 rating, but their 8 RPI Top 100 wins will be hard for the committee to ignore. Vanderbilt would be the first 15-loss at-large invitee, and I just don’t like that precedent. I just can’t leave USC out, 24 wins, #42 RPI and a win over UCLA is a hill I’m willing to die on. Plus with Illinois State, I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, although their RPI #33 should suggest they are good enough.

The NCAA Selection Show will be underway in roughly 5 minutes, with its usual bag of surprises and head-scratchers, so we’ll know shortly who was on Basketball Santa’s Naughty list.

As always, Happy March Madness Eve, and an early Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!

EDIT 4:27 PST – With the field announced, I had 66/68 teams correct above, with the bubble bursting for Syracuse (Yay!) and Illinois State (Boo!). Syracuse was obviously dinged for its 2-11 road record, while Illinois State was made an example of due to their poor non-conference schedule, with only 2 RPI Top 100 wins.  Then again, show me a Power 5 school willing to schedule a home-and-home or even a 2-for-1 for a game in to come to Normal, Illinois.  Providence and Vanderbilt were selected instead. According to The 2017 Bracket Matrix, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi got 67/68 teams right, missing USC for Syracuse (East Coast Bias perhaps Joe?) while correctly picking Vanderbilt and Providence and excluding Illinois St. In fact, 35 of the 73 brackets recorded by the Bracket Matrix got all 68 teams right, so relatively anti-climactic. Kansas State and USC were the last two teams in according to the NCAA’s Seed List, while Cal, Illinois State, Iowa and Syracuse were the first four teams left out according to the official NCAA March Madness Twitter, earning (for lack of a better word) #1 seeds in the NIT. I’ll leave the NIT “Bracketology” to someone else …

RIO OLYMPICS – Day 0

First in a series of intermittent observations, thoughts, analysis, poor attempts at humor,  and random oddities regarding the Summer Games of the 31st Olympiad, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. 

From the comfort of my recliner, I thought the Opening Ceremony of the 31st Olympiad was great, actually. Told the good, bad and ugly history of Brazil in an evocative and colorful manner. From Samba to Bossa Nova, Funk to Tropicalia, Capoeira to Hip-Hop, traditional to post-modern, and echoes of Carnival, it was nothing less than I would have expected from a Carioca opening ceremony.

I appreciated the commentary from the creative directors, including “City of God” and “Constant Gardener” director Fernando Meirelles. Thoroughly enjoyed most of the music, the costuming, and all of the projected visuals. Speaking of a vision, Gisele Bundchen (aka Mrs. Tom Brady) makes me want to hop on the next plane and visit Ipanema. Fantastic final cat walk strut, & quite the dancer too.

Double love the idea of an Athlete’s Forest. Unlike some to be sure, I appreciated the environmental message they gave to the World – Startling to see that by my rough calculations, the Global average temperature has risen 1.1°F since I was born in 1971, and I better get to Amsterdam, Miami, Shanghai and Rio before they’re underwater – and as alarming as it was, hearing it from Judi Dench made it slightly less dire. I would hope their own Government could lead the way with proper shepherding of their rainforest and their rivers and oceans. I’m all for more trees.

I’m not buying that some Brazilian dude named Alberto invented flight 3 years after the Wright Brothers. The green hand in a “peace sign” and rooster head were a bit discordant, I must have missed the significance (beyond the obvious). Yet minor personal ignorances aside, the first phase of the Ceremony was an entertaining spectacle.

Some random thoughts on the Parade of Nations, which I thought went on a bit long: Still unsure about those wacky trikes to lead each contingent (even if they were carrying the seeds for the Athletes’ Forest); Loved Bermuda’s Bermudas, the Crying Bolivian, Bhutan’s flag, Cook Islands’ shirts, Hungary’s dresses, all the hats (too many to single out, but I had a soft spot for any with a gaucho style); I had no idea that Cape Verde & Comoros were autonomous & IOC-recognized competing nations; More Federica Pelligrini please; And what the heck does the Sultan of Brunei do with 5,000 cars?!? Then again I wouldn’t know how to speed any of that procession up. Interesting that they ordered the 202 competing nations using the Portuguese alphabet as opposed to the traditional IOC French of the past.

Got a little dusty in my living room when the Refugee Olympic Athletes marched into the stadium, joyous and resplendent in some of the snazziest uniforms of the parade.

NBC’s rolling commentary wasn’t always germane or even sensual. Hoda Kotb needed to roll her tongue back into her mouth a couple times (Dahomey … Dahomey …), especially when the Tongan contingent came in and the shirtless, muscular flag bearer was all oiled up and “shiny”. Apparently he has become a sensation.

But what a venue for such a party, the venerable Maracana, which shone throughout the Ceremony. Could there have been a little more Samba, or a more enthralling torch lighting (Sad that Pele was not well enough) with that trippy chandelier-like sculpture behind the cauldron? Sure. Yet, as they did in 2014 for the World Cup, Brazil once again demonstrated that despite all the critics and naysayers who wanted these games canceled or moved, and all of their governmental and administrative issues in preparing for these Games – many far larger in scope then a two week Olympiad – they can always pull it together for a party.

P.S. – My prediction for the Final Top 5 Medal Order:

1. USA
2. China
3. Germany
4. Brazil
5. Australia

The French Mistake

Without the The World’s Best Player Not Named Messi, stretchered off the pitch in the 25th minute of yesterday’s UEFA 2016 European Championship Final against France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Portugal found a way and a goal from substitute striker Eder in the 109th minute to beat the hosts 1-0 in Extra Time. Amid the cries of “anti-football” from commentators and so-called experts, Portugal were truly deserving European Champions, much rather “Innocent as doves, and wise as serpents…” as per their manager Fernando Santos. A Seleção das Quinas may have only won one (1!) game in 90 minutes (the Semifinal against Wales last Wednesday) at these Euros, but they were never beaten, showing the most resolve throughout the tournament resulting in the most timely of scoring.

Truthfully, this was a choke job to waste that home field advantage by Les Bleus. France was tight, entirely predictable in their game plan and got away from what had earned them their spot in the Final. They made three (3) questionable substitutions – I’ll never understand why France Manager Didier Deschamps subbed out Dimitri Payet in the 58th minute, the only player in a blue shirt with a bit of magic in his boot, and Andre Pierre-Gignac was just a more lumbering, less tactically aware version of the man he replaced in the 78th minute, Olivier Giroud – and blew every single chance they had, seemingly running out of steam and endeavor in the Extra Time.

Yet, that’s not mutually exclusive of Portugal’s efforts. Most scribes and talking heads thought Portugal only had a puncher’s chance, needing lockdown defending and a moment or two of brilliance from their captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who was the foremost reason Portugal wasn’t already sitting at home watching the Final. Without CR7 they would have lost to Hungary in the group stage and never made the knockout stage, much less his goals and assists that propelled them to eventual victory in the preceding knockout rounds against Croatia, Poland and Wales. He was a complete non-factor on the pitch in the Final, and yet Portugal was able to rally around their fallen talisman, replicating the triumph of other squads in these Euros whose whole had exceeded their collective talents.

For me, the zeitgeist of the entire tournament was expressed in Steve McManaman’s commentary during ESPN’s broadcast of England’s 2-1 loss to Iceland (available until 7/27/16). In the 74th minute, “Macca” ranted: “It’s as if everybody in a white shirt has decided to have the worst England game of their lives … All at the same time … I’ve never seen a team give the ball away, so often, as I’ve seen in the first 74 minutes of this game.” As time kept on slipping into the future, poor Macca was at wit’s end, whinging about how England’s team had lost the plot and become wholly predictable, rightfully complaining that squad only had one winger – Raheem Sterling, who was completely awful in this tournament – and “about 55 central midfielders”.

In the dying embers of the match, England desperately flailing in their efforts to find an equalizer that never came, Macca cut to the heart of not only that game, but the issue that befell every colossal side in these Euros: “It’s like every man for himself!” He was absolutely correct; England comprised a mixed bag of egos that lacked cohesion and ideas, resulting in an often tepid, meek and negative approach to offensive football when the stakes increased. England, like so many other favored sides in these Euros, had played not to lose for most of these Euros, ironically only playing to win against Wales.

To varying degree, the same malady befell Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and now France in the Final. Heck, even Portugal throughout the tournament, if you are to believe the pessimism of the maddening crowd.  Are we to blame the expansion of the Euros to 24 teams?  The long grueling domestic club seasons for most of the players? Suffering the weight of over-inflated expectations, succumbing to fear of the moment, an unforgiving press and distraught fanbase? Or as I suspect, were all the losers of this tournament ultimately deficient of something fairly elementary that winners always have – the requisite commitment?

Allow a slight further digression to articulate my thrust, as I turn back to England for a second (also, because it’s fun!). With some time to reflect & analyze, could it be that the Three Lions were just too Spursy? In a cruel twist, England tumbled out of these Euros in part due to a desire to manufacture chemistry on the pitch by starting five club teammates from Tottenham Hotspurs, but in retrospect that might have been three too many, all coming to a head against Iceland. Why was an ineffective Harry Kane continuing to start every game and taking all the free kicks against Iceland? Why depend on Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to make bad cross after bad cross? Why play Dele Alli completely out of position? Why sub out Eric the Dierwolf at halftime? Why sub in Marcus Rashford for Wayne Rooney against Iceland and only give him six (6) minutes when he was clearly the most positive and least fearful attacker of the lot? Many questions for English observers and fanatics to ponder while Roy Hodgson enjoys his forced retirement from managing the National Team.

England Football, now in free fall. Crisis, a footballing #Brexit. On paper, England 1-Iceland 2 is one of the greatest upsets in international football history. But not on the field. The better team had won then. The team that wanted it more, executed their plan and played for each other had won then. Iceland did not park the bus, they attacked for 90 minutes, created the better chances, and rightly deserved the result.

Stark in contrast to the disconnected and uncommitted England squad, Semi-Finalists Wales were the anti-England. Not merely desire, passion, and pride for the national shirt, but unwavering commitment to their overall approach, from their tactical plan to their roles, and to each other. The fact that they made semifinals of the Euros defied all expectations and most attempts at logic, and yet they, along with Iceland and Poland, were part of the blueprint for Portugal to construct their title run.

And so the “Miracle on Iceland” was emblematic of these Euros and the final outcome. Yet, it’s been more than a month for upsets and underdogs across the sporting landscape. In these Euros alone, Italy dispatched two-time Defending Champion Spain in the Round of 16, “TikIitalia” ending the “Tiki-Taka Era” of World Football. Tiny Iceland over the inventors of the Beautiful Game. Wales over World Ranked #2 Belgium in the quarterfinals. Elsewhere, Chile beat #1 Argentina in the Copa America Final (again). Serena Williams lost the French Open Final in straight sets to some gal named Mugaruzu. World #1 Novak Djokovic had to spread his early exit in the Wimbledon 3rd round to American journeyman Sam Querrey over two days. Cleveland’s Cavaliers roared back from 3-1 down to stun the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. A Cinderella Coastal Carolina Chanticleers beat a quasi-underdog Arizona Wildcats in the longest NCAA College Baseball World Series in history. Yesterday, Defending 200m Olympic Champion Allyson Felix couldn’t make the 2016 Track & Field Olympic team in that event, faltering by 1/100th of a second (She’s still going to Rio as the odds-on favorite in the 400m). Even the Pittsburgh Penguins were slight underdogs to win Lord Stanley’s cup when the NHL Playoffs began. C’est la Vie.

It’s been a weird summer, and with the Tour De France underway, the Midsummer Classic beckoning and the Summer Olympics on the horizon, this sporting summer is far from over. It has however already been an abject lesson in having a plan, and sticking to it.

Masters Lesson Nos. 12 and 89 in Never Assuming …

Jordan Spieth was cruising. A one-stroke lead to start the Final Round of the 80th Masters Tournament had blown up to five (5) strokes on the field through Augusta National’s Front Nine, turning what is usually one of the best days on the American Sports Calendar, into a yawner. At -7, four consecutive birdies for the Best Putter in the World, each more impressive than the last, had given him an almost unassailable advantage.

I grabbed lunch and took my car for an oil change. Forgetting the old maxim that the Masters doesn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday, I checked scores on my phone and thought I wouldn’t miss much until I got back home for Spieth’s eventual coronation walk up the 18th, Jim Nantz cooing over the repeat conquest of the once and future King of Golf.

But as with Man and his plans, a funny thing happened on the way to Amen Corner. That “funny thing” being an epic collapse by Spieth; By the time I cancelled a Costco run and scrambled back home, a 12 minute three-hole stretch of Bogey-Bogey-Quadruple Bogey on Hole Nos. 10-12 had turned a five-stroke lead into a four-hole deficit, an outcome that will haunt Spieth for however long it takes him to win another Masters, likely longer.

The beneficiary was Danny Willett, known among the English golf media as the “Yorkshire Terrier”, finishing just his 2nd Masters appearance 12 days after the birth of his first child, playing the patient, accurate, bogey-free, magnificent yet almost boring golf required of a Masters Champion. Carding a low-round 67, -5 for the day and the tournament, the World No. 1 ranked amateur in 2008 had started the round three strokes behind the Spieth and finished it three ahead of Spieth and perennial bridesmaid Lee Westwood.

Not bad for a 66-1 longshot whose victory on his wife’s birthday lost Sir Alex Ferguson an £8,000 (~$11,400) wager on Spieth. Willett almost even earned the respect of his brother P.J., who apparently still holds a grudge about a pet rat.

Yet this Masters will largely be remembered for Spieth’s historical failure as much as Willett’s triumph, on the 30th Anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ landmark victory in 1986 which required another epic collapse; Nicklaus made a five-stroke turnaround on the Third Round Leader Greg Norman that day, then waited in the clubhouse for Norman to finish his last four holes. Cosmically, both Nicklaus’s caddie (his son Jackie Jr.) 30 years ago, and Willett’s caddie Jonathan Smart wore bib No. 89. Nicklaus had led that tournament for all of his final two holes; Willett had only led for his final three holes, yet like Nicklaus with Norman, had to wait for Spieth to finish his last four holes before donning the green jacket.

Technically, the tournament wasn’t over. Resilient, gritty, requisite birdies at Hole Nos. 13 & 15 got Spieth back within striking distance at -3, but The World’s Best Putter blew a makeable birdie putt from six feet on 16, then put it in the sand on 17, and off to Costco I went.

Many saw hints of Spieth’s fragility coming at the end of Saturday’s round, including his swing coach Cameron McCormick who returned to Augusta Sunday morning after having left before the tournament as was his custom. Spieth went conservative at the Par 5s of Hole Nos. 13 & 15, laying up instead of going for the green on each second shot and eschewing eagle opportunities, then at -6 after the 16th, hit successive wayward tee shots over Hole Nos. 17-18 to finish Bogey-Double Bogey and give three strokes back to the field. The Defending Masters and U.S. Open Champion was fighting himself and his swing, losing conviction, aggression and giving the appearance of playing not to lose. All coming to a head Sunday on what Nicklaus once called the “most dangerous par-3” in Golf where Spieth left two successive shots short and wet – Eerily reminiscent of Norman’s freefall 20 years ago that opened the door for Nick Faldo’s round of 67 to capture the 1996 Masters, the last Englishman to win at Augusta before Willett – losing his 2nd Green Jacket to Rae’s Creek.

To make a strange day even stranger, there were three hole-in-ones on the Par 3 16th, Shane Lowry, Davis Love III & Louis Oosthuizen (this one better with Spanish Soccer announcers) all holing out in a succession of fortunate bounces, kisses, backspins and rolls which momentarily replaced “The Bird’s Nest” at TPC Scottsdale as the most raucous 16th hole in professional golf.

As it was, Sunday was set for a day of intrigue prior to the aforementioned bizarre turn of events. The Top 3 ranked golfers in the World on the first page of the leaderboard, World #1 Jason Day & Rory McIlroy there to catch a fall, instead falling off themselves. Dustin Johnson and Westwood lurking in the weeds but coming up short once again. Bernhard Langer reeling in the years. Some dude named Smylie in the final pairing with the leader. All chasing a man who had led The Masters for seven straight rounds and who has never finished worse than 2nd in three Masters appearances. But some English kid who almost missed the Tournament for the birth of his first child emerged victorious, awkwardly receiving the Green Jacket (Spieth could barely stand up, almost tripping over his chair) from the very man who had it firmly in his grasp for the 2nd consecutive time, until a fateful Van De Veldian (or more appropriately, Normanian) moment at the 12th Hole scuttled the re-coronation.

Golden Indeed

For 39 minutes and 55 seconds of Monday Night’s 2016 NCAA Men’s National Championship slugfest between Villanova and North Carolina, the game’s Most Outstanding Player was Villanova sophomore Phil Booth. Who? Exactly. If I was in a phone booth with Phil Booth, I probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out in that crowd.

But there he was, scoring 13 of his up-to-that-point-in-the-game high 20 points over the previous 13:28, keying what would become ‘Nova’s game-turning 23-13 run over an 8:04 span in the second half that put the Wildcats up by 10 and on the precipice of a National Title. Calmly hitting two free throws with 35 seconds left during UNC’s furious rally over the last five minutes to keep the Tar Heels at bay, shooting 6-7 from the floor, (2-2 from three), 6-6 from the free-throw line, grabbing two key defensive rebounds down the stretch, making a crucial block and steal, Villanova’s “sixth man” Booth was THE man of the hour.

Time and again, sports history is written by the heretofore unknowns. Buster Douglas. Long John Daly (Twice!). Malcolm Butler. David Tyree’s Helmet. Cool Hand Luke Hancock.  Rarely, if ever, are they overshadowed in the event that was about to propel them to household name status.

But then Marcus Paige hit a jangly, double-pump 25-footer to complete North Carolina’s comeback and tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left. UNC’s classy senior leader and point guard had come through in the clutch, scoring 17 of his team-(and at-that-point-game-) high 21 points in the second half. A shot for the ages, overtime was in the air for the first time since the 2008 NCAA Final when Kansas survived Memphis, a fitting cap to what was one of the better NCAA Finals in recent memory. Cometh the Moment, cometh the Man.

Villanova had another Man however. Up stepped Kris “Big Smooth” Jenkins with the answer of a lifetime, hitting a three as the buzzer sounded and securing Villanova’s 2nd National Title, 77-74.  Aptly named “Nova”, that play called by Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright in the preceding timeout immediately became the greatest buzzer beater in NCAA History, at least since Jim Valvano was running around the court looking for someone to hug. Drop the mic, and the confetti.

As if the Basketball Gods’ scriptwriters weren’t already working overtime with storylines entering the game. Jenkins was adopted by the family of North Carolina’s Nate Britt in 2007, in an incredible tale of love and sacrifice, and here they were playing each other for a National Championship? Talk about family bragging rights. Jenkins had missed much of the first half with two early fouls, Wright opting to sit him for the final 15:41 of the first half, but much like the Wildcats from Philadelphia had in a larger sense this season, Jenkins saved his best for last.

Previously I had said in this space that “I doubt we see a repeat historical shooting performance” from Villanova in the Final, yet once again I was clearly mistaken.  For that matter, so much for the NRG Effect. Largely on the strength of Villanova’s historical shooting performances – .583 FG% last night after shooting .714 FG% two nights earlier, the highest team shooting percentage in an NCAA Final since UNLV’s .612 FG% in 1990 and fourth highest in a Final since their .786 against Georgetown in 1985 – the 2016 Final Four teams collectively shot .498 FG% in Houston, and the overall shooting percentage at the NRG Stadium had risen from .322 FG% in 15 games to .351 over 18 games.

I had also thought that rebounding would be the key, and while UNC outrebounded Villanova 36-23, the Wildcats had a .568 DRB% (21 defensive rebounds to UNC’s 16 offensive rebounds), and limited the Tar Heels to two (2) second-chance points in the entire game. Villanova also outscored North Carolina in the paint 32-26, and limited the most prolific 2-point shooting team in the country to 16-46 (.348 2FG%) inside-the-arc, easily UNC’s worst performance of the season in that aspect. Wright’s Wildcats strategically excelled at both ends of the floor, inasmuch because of, as despite the fact that UNC had their best 3-point shooting game (11-17, .647 3FG%) of the season.

Truth be told, I think Villanova’s 33-3 team last season was a better basketball team than the one who won this year’s National Championship (even as KenPom’s efficiency stats from 2015 and 2016 might suggest otherwise, as Villanova was slightly more efficient on both offense and defense this season), up and until the start of March Madness, but that season ended in the Round of 32 for those Wildcats (as had their season before that), while this postseason served as an object lesson in playing your best when it counts.

In case there was any doubt, we now know that when Villanova plays for the NCAA Title, something special is bound to happen. Phil Booth made the NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team, and teammate Ryan Arcidiacono (he of the final assist of the game) was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, but Big Smooth’s Moment was One Shining Moment to end all One Shining Moments. Cue Luther Vandross.

A Golden Anniversary Celebrated With A Potentially Golden Championship Game

An old adage prescribes that “styles make fights.” At least that’s what Grantland Rice used to say. Tonight’s NCAA Men’s National Championship Game between North Carolina and Villanova (9:19 p.m. EST, TBS, Team Streams on TNT and TruTV) promises to provide a study in contrast, between the perimeter-oriented, quick but deliberate Wildcats and the uptempo, imposing, long, rebound-dominating Tar Heels.

But that contrast pales in comparison to an NCAA Title Game that happened just over 50 years ago. Last Wednesday I watched ESPN’s rebroadcast of the 1966 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Kentucky & Texas Western (now known as University of Texas-El Paso, or “UTEP”). Played at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland, Adolph Rupp’s all-white “Rupp’s Runts” staring Pat Riley (yes, THAT Pat Riley), Louie Dampier and Larry Conley faced Don Haskins’ starting five comprised of all African-American players, the first time in NCAA Tournament history that an eventual champion fielded such a lineup. Texas Western won a foul-marred affair 72-65, with all 72 of Texas Western’s points scored by their African-American players, none of whom were recognized as All-Americans by the existing media, even as the best two players on the floor in that game were Texas Western’s Bobby Joe Hill and David “Big Daddy” Lattin.

Never mind the Hollywood version of events, as the game shall forever hold its own gravitas. It was a game that involved four Basketball Hall of Famers – Rupp, Riley, Dampier for Kentucky, and Haskins for Texas Western/UTEP. It was a game that in some not-so-subtle ways would help integrate athletics in the Southeastern Conference shortly thereafter in 1967. It was a game that demonstrated both social progress and the existing divide; an overwhelmingly white audience at Cole Field House supported Kentucky throughout and (embarrassingly) booed the final result. The ESPN Broadcast used the original audio play-by-play of longtime Kentucky broadcaster Claude Sullivan, who did the game for the Standard Oil Radio Network, which also added to the pro-Kentucky slant of the watching experience.

Yet beyond all of that, it was a striking contrast of basketball philosophy and approach, as well as a time capsule showing how much basketball has changed, and yet in many ways remained the same. The rules differences from the 1966 game to current college basketball that many now either may not remember or were never aware of were stark: No shot clock, no 3-point shot (watching the game with my Dad, it was fun trying to figure out which jumpers would have been 3-point attempts, and one gets the feeling Riley in particular would have been a 3-point specialist had that line existed then), jump balls for every tied possession (which I think they should bring back, for giggles), an actual emphasis on calling “walking” (AKA travelling) and “palming” (carrying) violations, and most markedly, the difference in the fouling and bonus structure (the one-and-one bonus after seven team fouls was a true bonus shot, as all fouls before then only merited one free throw attempt) which ended up weighing in Texas Western’s favor. Lastly, in a pleasant bonus, there were no media timeouts, as the ESPN rebroadcast including interviews and commentary last 90 minutes and still showed every play and almost all the dead-ball action.

Aside from the obvious differences, Kentucky’s approach to winning basketball also differed greatly schematically – playing a 1-3-1 zone the entire game, and trying to control the tempo of the game with deliberate passing – than Texas Western’s strategy of aggressive man-to-man defense and force feeding the interior. The end result was foreshadowed throughout the game, as Texas Western led by 2-11 points most of the way, Hill’s two consecutive steals in the first half becoming the fulcrum for Texas Western’s advantage, and their edge in the lane manifested by the foul (23 Kentucky fouls to Texas Western’s 12) and free throw (Kentucky was only 11-13 from the free throw line while Texas Western shot 28-34) disparity.  Texas Western won because they were able to dictate the terms of that conflict, speeding up Kentucky and making them have to beat Texas Western at their own game, ultimately failing to do so.

Which brings us back to tonight’s tilt. Whichever team imposes their style on the game should win.  I picked North Carolina to win it all three weeks ago, and I see little reason to materially change that pick.  However, Villanova is clearly the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament, and what they did to Oklahoma in the National Semifinal might have been borderline criminal in some jurisdictions. I doubt we see a repeat historical shooting performance – Villanova made 71.4% of their field goals Saturday night, the highest percentage of any team in a Final Four game since the 1985 Champions Villanova shot 78.6% to beat Georgetown in the NCAA Final –against a much more talented North Carolina squad.  Villanova’s path to victory will likely involve two keys: 1.) attacking the rim on offense to get North Carolina’s big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks in foul trouble, which would enable 2.) Villanova to battle North Carolina on the boards to a standstill, creating enough of their own second-chance opportunities and preventing runouts in transition by North Carolina off of Villanova’s missed shots.  Easier said than done however, and unlike Oklahoma, I think North Carolina has the length on the perimeter to bother Villanova’s guard trio of Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson. I think Roy Williams surpasses his mentor Dean Smith and wins his 3rd National Title for the Tar Heels, but in no way would it surprise me if Villanova slayed another giant for their 2nd.

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