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Super ‘Nova’s Inferno Burns Down The Alamo(dome)

Donte DiVincenzo picked the right night to have the game of his life.

At the start of Villanova’s 79-62 victory over Michigan in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship™ Final, it was Michigan who was landing the first punch combinations. Marvelous Moritz Wagner scored 11 of Michigan’s first 21 points in the opening nine (9) minutes of the game, racing out to a quick five (5) point lead that for several minutes Michigan seemed to be on the verge of expanding into double digits. John Beilein’s Wolverines were getting to the rim at will and looked the better, more confident and focused team.

Meanwhile, Jalen Brunson, the 2018 Citizen Naismith and AP National Player of the Year, was in the midst of his worst game of the year. After a strong first minute where he scored Villanova’s first two baskets, he struggled the rest of the game, shooting 2-11 from the floor over the final 39 minutes, on his way to only scoring nine (9) points, two (2) assists, and committing four (4) fouls. Without their offensive fulcrum in full effect, Villanova was having rare difficulty finding open looks from three, and as a result labored to get to the rim, as the gears were slowly grinding to a halt in the face of Michigan’s proactivity. Their struggle, as the kids say, was real.

Enter DiVincenzo. Much like ‘Nova’s Phil Booth did two years ago against North Carolina in the second half of the 2016 Final, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year first kept the Wildcats afloat,  then spearheaded a 23-7 run to close out the last 11 minutes of the half that flipped the game in much the same way Villanova had against Texas Tech in the National Quarterfinal (I’m really trying to make that term stick). Scoring 18 of Villanova’s last 29 points in the first half with an assortment of three-point bombs, finger-rolls and rim-rattling dunks, on the way to a game-high 31 points to go with five (5) rebounds and three (3) assists, DiVincenzo was a one-man wrecking crew to Michigan’s title hopes. Punctuated by the shot block of the tournament, the redshirt sophomore’s several shining moments earned him the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and became the first player since Michigan’s Glen Rice in 1989 to score 30-plus points and make five (5) three pointers in a Championship game. Apparently NBA scouts don’t care (nor do I) that he deleted his Twitter account due to immature tweets he (allegedly) posted when he was 14, he might have just made himself millions of dollars.

In addition to DiVincenzo’s tide turning triumph, and future NBA Lottery Pick Mikal Bridges turning in a “Best Player in a Supporting Role” performance with 19 points and four (4) rebounds, Villanova relied upon two fundamental tenets of basketball to bring them back: Defense and Rebounding. Despite a pedestrian shooting night (.474 FG%, .370 3P%, both below season averages), ‘Nova crushed Michigan on the boards, 38-27, including 12 offensive rebounds which created 10 second-chance points. After Michigan jumped out to that early lead, Villanova ratcheted up the defensive intensity led by Bridges on the perimeter, forcing Michigan into numerous rushed shots and empty possessions while limiting offensive rebounds for several long stretches.

Naturally, the question comes: Is Villanova a dynasty?  In the last four years of Jay Wright’s stewardship, Villanova has won 136 games, more than any other team has won over a four-year span. Winning two National Titles in three years are also hard to argue against, becoming only the fourth program since UCLA’s Wooden Dynasty to do so, with Duke (1990, 1991), Kentucky (1996, 1998) and Florida (2006, 2007) the other three to accomplish that feat in the past 43 years. During their two title runs, Villanova covered the spread in all 12 NCAA games, with an average scoring margin in those 12 games of +20.0 points, and winning 10 of those 12 (including all six in 2018) by double digits. So by those standards, even in a year of alleged parity (guilty as charged), I’d have to answer that question in the affirmative, especially in light of their aforementioned historically great offense.

Put another way, Villanova is pretty, pretty, pret-tay, pret-tee good.

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The Seeming Inevitability of It All …

Turns out I just predicted the wrong final game.

Since the final of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships™ that I had predicted – Virginia vs. Michigan State – had died by that first Sunday afternoon, eliminating my bracket from every pool, my interest in March Madness has waned a touch. Sure, I watched all the National Quarterfinals except Loyola-Kansas State (as I said I would), and both Final Four games this past Saturday. Best thing I can say is that the games were mostly entertaining, especially Kansas-Duke in the Midwest Regional Final, and watching Villanova blitzkrieg Kansas from the three-point line. Yet there is and has been a considerable sense of inevitability to the proceedings.

The two teams I did pick correctly to make the Final Four, Villanova and Michigan, are the ones playing tonight for all the marbles. I’m still a bit red-faced at having picked Michigan State to win it all, mistakenly putting my faith on the come in what I thought was the best starting lineup in the country (and their ability to figure out Syracuse’s zone), instead of going with the team that I had thought was actually the best team I’d seen play all season, regardless of potential and talent and reputation. I won’t make that mistake tonight.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: (3) Michigan vs. (1) Villanova (6:20PM PST, TBS) – Both teams won on Saturday because they did what their opponents did, only better. Michigan closed their game against the Fighting Sister Jeans on a 38-16 run because they started taking better care of the ball – eight (8) first-half turnovers compared to three (3) second-half turnovers, while causing 11 of Loyola’s 17 turnovers in the second half – and finally started hitting their jump shots, which then opened the lane for Michigan’s guards to run a layup drill.  Villanova ran away and hid from Kansas, continuing their Final Four string of lights-out shooting in Texas Football Stadiums in shooting .554 FG% from the floor. In a clear display of the mathematical trend of the modern game, Jay Wright’s squad personified the ideals of volume (18 threes) and efficiency (a tidy 45%) from outside the three-point arc. When the threes momentarily stopped falling for ‘Nova in the middle of the second half, and Kansas was starting to look a little frisky in narrowing the lead to 14 with just under 10 minutes to go, Villanova kept Kansas at bay by finding endless cutters to the basket and driving the lane, the residue of their “outside-in” design.  Not only does Villanova have shooters at every position, they have guys who can attack the rim at every position, which has resulted in not only the best offense in the country (#1 in both points per game at 86.9 and AdjO at 127.6 points per 100 possession, there’s that volume and efficiency thing again), but the second most efficient offense in the “KenPom Era” (since the 2002 season, only the 2015 National Runners-up Wisconsin team has had a higher AdjO, 129.0).  Michigan has a lot of those same qualities  too on offense with a similar approach, as well as a statistically stingier defense (#3 AdjD in the country at 90.4), and their biggest “outside-in” threat Moritz Wagner will present a different challenge for Villanova’s defense than anything Kansas and Udoka Azubuike could muster. Michigan could get hot from outside, with four players who shoot between 37-40% from three, and open up Villanova’s defense in the lane much like Villanova has done to their opponents on Saturday and all season long. Yet the stars seem to be in alignment here. Vegas favors Villanova by a touchdown. Everyone at ESPN save for one holdout has picked Villanova, and two major historical trends since 2004 – Tournament Scoring Margin (team in the Final with higher margin entering the game wins) and the Week 6 AP Poll (every national champion was ranked in the Top 12 in Week 6)  – also favor Villanova (who was ranked #1 while Michigan didn’t even get a vote). I am not going to buck any of that. Villanova has a Top 14 Adj D themselves, and across the board shoot the ball better (Top 11 in Overall FG%, 2P%, 3P%, and FT%) then Michigan. Michigan may have the longest current winning streak on college basketball, but Villanova is the best team I’ve seen all season, and they will cut down the nets tonight. Which would continue quite the year for Philly.

The NCAA Once Again Reaps What They Sow

Spending a few minutes looking at the National Quarterfinals a.k.a. the Elite 8 of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships™ …

SOUTH REGIONAL FINAL: Kansas State (9) vs. Loyola-Chicago (11), 6:09PM EST, TBS – What the **** is this?  You know the NCAA Selection Committee has done an abysmal job when this is the remaining matchup of a regional to decide a Final Four berth. Schlock like this is why I lambasted the Selection Committee in my March Madness Preview; When you do a poor job of seeding and matching up teams, you end up with this type of imbalance, where three of the Top 6 overall seeds remain on one side of the bracket, and only one of the Top 30 overall seeds (No. 11 Michigan) on the other.  You couldn’t pay me to watch these two teams play each other in December – Even though I love basketball – Why the heck should I watch them in late March? Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, and her bobblehead, is a wonderful story, the Ramblers reinvigorating the concept of the “Cinderella” by winning their three (3) NCAA games by a total of four (4) points. Bruce Weber has been doing good work in The Little Apple, his Wildcats on the verge of Kansas State’s first Final Four in 54 years without their best player Dean Wade. Yet, with all apologies to Wildcats and Ramblers fans, I will find something else to do during this game. No further analysis here, except to suggest the first team to 55 wins (likely Kansas State). Let me know what happens …

WEST REGIONAL FINAL: Michigan (3) vs. Florida State (9), 8:49PM EST, TBS – On the other hand, I may find a screen for this one. Michigan is where I expected them to be, looking every bit the Final Four team I anticipated, albeit with a great escape needed against Houston in the Second Round.  Florida State for once has capitalized on their usual plus-athleticism against highly seeded mid-majors in Xavier and Gonzaga (I won’t say overseeded … Oops, I just said overseeded … there it is again!) to get Leonard Hamilton his first shot at a Final Four in his 30th year as an NCAA Division 1 head coach. They have a puncher’s chance, especially if they can solve Michigan’s perimeter offense, who found their mojo against Texas A&M, going 14/24 (58.3%) from three after going 13/46 (28.3%) combined in their prior two NCAA Tournament games. Although FSU’s length will bother Michigan a bit, a defense that lives up to the spirit of their school mascot the Wolverine, ranked 4th in the nation with an adjD of 91.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, should punch John Beilien and his Wolverines’ ticket to San Antonio.

EAST REGIONAL FINAL: Villanova (1) vs. Texas Tech (3), 2:20PM EST, CBS – Although I am mildly surprised that Texas Tech is here, no one should be shocked that they beat Purdue without Isaac Haas, despite Purdue Engineering’s best efforts. Especially since the Red Raiders’ head coach Chris Beard had beaten Purdue in the NCAA Tournament two years ago while at Arkansas-Little Rock. I must admit, I thought Villanova was in trouble last night against “Press” Virginia with about 11 minutes to go, down 60-54. Then I blinked and ‘Nova had flipped the game, using a 22-6 run to go up 76-66 and never looking back. Jay Wright has assembled a team of shooters at every position, and when it is clicking, it is a thing of beauty.  The Mountaineers caused 16 turnovers, roughly six (6) above Villanova’s season average, but gave up 90 points (their 2nd most allowed of the season) to the #1 offense in the nation, proving once again you live by the press, and die by the press. Texas Tech will pose a different challenge, the highest-rated defense left in the field, providing their resistance in the half-court with the #3 adjD in the nation, 91.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. Texas Tech has seen great point guards in Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham and Oklahoma’s Trae Young, but I don’t think they will have an answer for Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, who was a one-man press breaker against West Virginia, and is the straw that stirs ‘Nova’s drink.

MIDWEST REGIONAL FINAL: Kansas (1) vs. Duke (2), 5:05PM EST, CBS – The obvious marquee matchup of the four Elite 8 games, CBS saved the best for last. Kansas demonstrates how important it is for the top teams to get a #1 seed, having Penn, Seton Hall and Clemson no more than 200 miles from campus between Wichita last week and now Omaha. Even with primarily playing a zone defense, Duke is back to their eminently hateable floor-slapping selves, holding their three NCAA Tournament opponents to under 68 points. Kansas often deploys four guards around center Udoka Azubuike, while Duke surrounds senior lightning-rod Grayson Allen with four supremely talented freshman, including likely NBA 1st Round picks Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, and Trevon Duval. Look for this matchup to be decided by how well Duke’s fourth starting freshman, Gary Trent Jr., plays at both ends of the floor. If Trent can give Duke a reliable 3-point option, to counter the Jayhawks’ collective 43.3% efforts from three, as he did in their first two NCAA Tournament games, I like the Blue Devils’ chances. Get the popcorn ready.

Predicting the Future is Hard

This is the 7th Edition of my macro-level, view-from-10,000 feet preview of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and I feel like I know less than I ever did. My goal with this yearly preview isn’t to analyze every matchup and tell you who to pick on your bracket (there’s a little bit of that anyway), as much as it is organizing the field into bite-size pieces, separating the field into groupings that should frame expectations for every invitee to the Dance.

Yet, the combination of  increased parity and external factors have turned my crystal ball into a snow globe (with apologies to those digging out of their most recent Nor’easter).

For instance, this whole FBI business. While I don’t have any additional evidence besides the facts available to everyone, I – and clearly others – suspect that the NCAA Selection Committee had a clear bias towards any program involved in the FBI’s investigations into college basketball corruption. Bubbles burst for several of the teams involved, including USC (which was a felonious act without historical precedent), Louisville and Oklahoma State, the latter two of whom were understandable omissions any other year, but it’s difficult to separate that from the current context. Although there is seed-line flexibility built into the process, it’s possible (Probable?) that Arizona (Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Champions) and Auburn (SEC Regular Season Champions) were purposefully underseeded and shipped away from their regions (Arizona’s in the South Regional, starting in Boise then Charlotte if they advance; Auburn is in San Diego then would proceed to Omaha), and only Miami seemed to get a fair shake.

Nevertheless the FBI investigations are a discussion and a rabbit hole for another time.  I only mention them because whatever influences the Selection Committee’s decisions on each team not only affects those teams, but the teams they will and could play. You think Kentucky and Virginia are happy to see Arizona in their half of the South Regional? Auburn as a #4 seed in the Midwest could also have impacted Duke and Michigan State having to meet in the Sweet 16, another potential crime against basketball (more on that later).

Parity is really the bigger influence on the current proceedings.  In my likely vain attempts to identify the small group of teams that are capable of winning the 2018 NCAA Title, not only did I examine no less than 40 teams who could conceivably win it all – or at least get to the Final Four – but I could only narrow it down to nine Contenders, and a phalanx of Darkhorse teams so numerous as to render the concept mute.  I have never seen a field so wide open, or the margins between teams and seeds so narrow. Recent seasons have seen a separation of teams at the top, and the parity coming right after that; This season, the sands shift as soon as you draw the line.

Without further ado, let’s compartmentalize the NCAA Tournament field. My scattershot bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which is likely be folded into a paper airplane and flown into the trash can by Sunday morning.

Contenders – Since 2014, I have utilized the three “Championship Tests” created by basketball hobbyist Peter Tiernan of the long defunct BracketScience.com website, to sift through the field and decide who has a legitimate shot at winning it all. For a detailed breakdown of each Test you can refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview, under the “Championship Contenders” heading, but generally these tests identified common characteristics and minimum statistical thresholds of every National Champion since 2003.  With the exceptions of Connecticut in 2014 (missing the coaching experience, seeding and offensive metric criteria which led to what I call the “UConn Standard” that allows for a lesser Offensive Efficiency) and Duke in 2015 (who played their way into meeting the KenPom defensive metrics, improving their season-long Defensive Efficiency by almost 4 points per possession and 45 spots in the rankings), the tests have held up rather well, as the last two champs Villanova and North Carolina passed all the tests by wide margins. If anything, those two outliers have demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can win their way into Title form.

ESPN’s John Gasaway also attempts to determine the same thing in a data-intensive fashion with his yearly “343 Teams That Will Not Win” feature, and he’s been 2-for-2 so far in identifying the eventual Champion from an eight-team pool of true contenders. Using Tiernan’s tests I am 3-for-4 since 2014 (missing Connecticut in 2014, who I had as a “Darkhorse”) in placing the eventual Champ in my “Contenders.”and 5-for-6 over the life of this perennial feature.  So, I got that going for me.

Testing the 2018 field, only 11 teams meet the KenPom Raw Data test (20 did last year), while  nine (9) meet the original KenPom Rankings Test, and another seven (7)  satisfy the UConn Standard (whereas 23 met at least the UConn Standard last year).  Only Five (5) teams met Tiernan’s Criteria, and only two (2!) teams pass all three tests: Michigan State and Duke.

Of course, as poor bracketing would have it, Michigan State and Duke are scheduled to meet in the Sweet 16, instead of being on the opposite sides of the field as they should have been. I was tempted to just predict the winner of Duke-Michigan State to win the Title, but in reality, neither are #1 seeds, and there are several more teams at or near their level. Michigan is the only team to satisfy the UConn Standard in addition to the other two tests. While Gonzaga will never meet the Tiernan Criteria, as they are not in a Power (high-major) Conference and accordingly will struggle to attain the requisite strength of schedule, they easily pass both KenPom tests like last season’s National Finalist. North Carolina misses Tiernan’s Criteria by 0.1 points allowed per game; They are also one of six (6) teams who meet the KenPom Rankings Test, yet likely due to the influence of the 30-second shot clock on tempo and defensive efficiency, slide just outside the KenPom Raw Data AdjD threshold. All but one of those six (6) teams (Auburn, Spoiler Alert!) are included below, on the presumption they could improve their AdjD as they win. Collectively these Contenders have a 61.9% chance of winning the National Championship according to FiveThirtyEight, which is about 10% less than 2017’s nine (9) Contenders, further speaking to the parity. From more to less likely to cut down the nets on April 2nd:

  • Duke
  • Michigan State
  • Villanova
  • Purdue
  • Michigan
  • Kansas
  • Gonzaga
  • North Carolina
  • West Virginia

Darkhorses – Here is where the 11 other teams that passed one of the Championship Tests fall, as well as six (6) other teams that either come within striking distance of meeting one of the KenPom tests or miss the Tiernan Criteria by one factor (usually seed). The hesitancy in this analysis is twofold, as 1.) I actually have two #1 seeds, Virginia and Xavier, categorized as “Darkhorses” based on their Championship Tests (which I think reinforces the idea that the Selection Committee had a poor outing); and, 2.) The sheer number of teams, 17 in the Nos. 1-10 seed range, almost renders this breakdown meaningless, as I am basically saying in addition to the Contenders, a quarter of the tournament field are potential challengers for at least the Final Four.

Further, these teams are separated from the Contenders above by the thinnest of statistical or categorical margins, typically due to being acutely one-dimensional (favoring offense or defense by a wide margin over the other) and falling short in one or more 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 reduces the margin for error and raises the degree of difficulty in stringing together the requisite wins for Title contention.

In prior years, some of these teams were separated into either “Stepsisters”, or a different category I called “Feast or Famine”, to indicate the high ceiling/low floor character of teams I used to consider a step or two down from Darkhorses, but the gap between “Darkhorses” and “Feast or Famine” teams have narrowed so much as to make separate categories redundant, albeit with one exception this year (see below). The true Darkhorses among this group will be revealed by revealed by Sunday evening; As an aside, I have Auburn here despite having an almost identical dataset as West Virginia, due to the fact they weren’t in the NCAAs last year, and whereas Arizona and Virginia are in Gasaway’s pool of eight potential winners, my analysis relegated them to Darkhorse status. In order of likelihood of deep advancement:

  • Virginia
  • Auburn
  • Ohio State
  • Houston
  • Tennessee
  • Texas Tech
  • Clemson
  • Cincinnati
  • Xavier
  • Kentucky
  • Florida
  • Butler
  • Arizona
  • Wichita State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Seton Hall
  • Creighton

Cinderellas – Another effect of parity is that the very notion of “Cinderellas”, what observers used to conceptualize as mid-major or lesser teams who reached the Sweet 16 or further, has been relegated only to the seed attached to one’s name, and not the “provenance” of one’s conference affiliation. Yet college basketball still relies on the supposition that the proverbial glass slipper might fit anyone. Although relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, it’s worth noting that everyone listed below except TCU – making their first NCAA Tournament Appearance in 20 years – either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final. At least, that’s a rough outline of what it could mean to be a Cinderella going forward. For the record, none of last year’s six (6) “Cinderellas” made the Sweet 16, and I have only one of these six (6) teams in my Sweet 16 (Nevada):

  • TCU
  • Nevada
  • Rhode Island
  • Providence
  • Loyola-Chicago
  • San Diego State

Stepsisters – As a reminder, these are the underseeded or underachieving teams capable of a deep run, the high-major conference corollary to the modern mid-major “Cinderellas”. A more descriptive name for this category would be 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. But I like the fairy tale symmetry. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all six (6) “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 usually lingers at the Dance until the second weekend as the rest hurry to catch their stagecoach buses waiting outside, and pegging the right team will give your bracket a substantial edge as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 3 seed in the Second Round.  Of particular interest here is Texas A&M, a Top 10 team going into January until injuries and suspension ravaged their depth, before recovering in February to solidify their NCAA invite; North Carolina State and their five (5) wins against Top 25 ranked teams; and Missouri, who will have future NBA Lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. for their 3rd game this season, with another whole week of practice to integrate him into their flow. In order of my preference:

  • North Carolina State
  • Texas A&M
  • Arkansas
  • Missouri
  • Florida State
  • Kansas State

Feast or Famine – Last year I did away with this category as all the teams I would have put here were either qualitative Darkhorses or quantifiable Stepsisters in disguise. HOWEVER …there is one team that bucks both categories, fitting the literal definition of the phrase “Feast or Famine” because they are the quintessential high ceiling/low floor team of this tournament: Alabama.  Led by a dynamic freshman in Collin Sexton, an NBA Lottery point guard as soon as this summer, and a plethora of tall, athletic wings and bigs with the quickness and length to bother any team, their run to the SEC Conference Tourney semis has reversed their momentum after a 5-game losing streak (and prevented them from Freeeeee … Free Fallin’ into the Dance). To me, the Crimson Tide have not underachieved, so they aren’t really a Stepsister, their SEC affiliation negates traditional Cinderella potential, and I can’t really see them stringing together four wins to get to San Antonio either, but I can see them beating Virginia Tech and giving Villanova all they can handle, or losing to Virginia Tech by 20, so who knows?

  • Alabama

Free Fallin’ – Normally, these “Tom Petty Memorial” teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or notable downward shifts in performance from earlier in the season. In better days they share much in common with the Stepsisters or the Feast or Famine teams, except now they’re in a famine.  Oklahoma, despite having certain All-American Trae Young and rising as high as #4 in the rankings, lost 11 of their last 15 games. Syracuse lost five (5) of their last eight (8) before beating Arizona State (who would have been here as well had they won) their First Four game yesterday.

  • Syracuse
  • Oklahoma

“No Idea” – As in, I truly have no friggin’ idea about these teams despite several viewings, 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, injuries to starting guards seem to have added to the inconsistency. Texas has been .500 for 2018 despite the emergence of NBA Lottery talent Mo Bamba, while Miami is 10-8 over the same time frame. The best thing I can say about the Bonnies having watched them beat UCLA on Tuesday in their First Four game, is that they are well-coached and scrappy, even as I don’t trust their 14-4 Atlantic-10 conference record with all four (4) conference losses to other Top 4 Atlantic-10 teams. As a result, I usually have all of them gone sooner than later:

  • Texas
  • Miami
  • St. Bonaventure

Likely Upsets – Although these upset picks might actually happen, as I said last year the term “Upset” has become a misnomer in the parlance of March Madness. Recent trends have continued to support a line of demarcation on what an “upset” actually is, between the #11 and #12 seeds, as in the last eight (8) NCAA Tournaments, #11 seeds are 18-14 vs. their #6 seed counterparts (3-1 last year), while #12 seeds are 3-9 over the last three (3) tournaments against #5 seeds (1-3 last year). With the increase in parity this year, conditions for these disparate seed upsets arise from the clash of high-major conference teams with substantial roster turnover and youth with mid-major teams who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters. No coincidence that all of the teams listed below have Darkhorse teams (or in UNC Greensboro’s case, a Contender in Gonzaga) as opponents:

  • New Mexico State
  • South Dakota State
  • Davidson
  • UNC Greensboro
  • Charleston
  • Stephen F. Austin

Unlikely Upsets  – These are the upset picks that probably won’t happen, the double-digit seeds that 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 (Although I do think Penn will give Kansas a tough game, and Texas Southern might stay with Xavier for a half). Just like the last two years, I am not buying any of the #15 seeds, although I am slightly tempted by Georgia State. Other teams like Buffalo, Montana, and Bucknell  would be worthy, even alluring candidates with different matchups, but the ones they were given (Arizona, Michigan, Michigan State) preclude their consideration in my book.

  • Murray State
  • Marshall
  • Buffalo
  • Montana
  • Bucknell
  • Georgia State
  • Lipscomb
  • Cal-State Fullerton
  • Iona

And Now … Six Audacious Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make The Final Four … I don’t think any of them fit this bill.  UCLA to me, on sheer talent alone, was the most likely candidate, but they failed to show  up against the Bonnies. Syracuse’s match-up zone is always problematic, so maybe they have a better shot against a green TCU squad, even as Horned Frogs’ Head Coach Jamie Dixon had plenty of experience coaching against Jim Boeheim’s zone at Pitt. I don’t rate St. Bonaventure’s chances against Florida that highly, as the Gators have six (6) Top 25 wins despite having some consistency issues similar to the “No Idea” teams above. Although history favors one of Syracuse or St. Bonaventure winning another game – Starting with VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games in every tournament – this might be the year that trend bucks, and I can’t see either of them getting to San Antonio.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Oklahoma. Their recent form detailed above in “Free Fallin” aside for a moment, the idea that a fresh start in the NCAAs away from Big 12 opposition would be beneficial from a scouting perspective has some currency, in that non-conference teams will be less familiar with the Sooners than their Big 12 foes. None of  that precludes the idea that Oklahoma has just become too reliant on Trae Young, and that his surrounding cast is wanting. Atlantic-10 Regular Season Champs Rhode Island won’t be a picnic either.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Kansas. Duh! Truth be told, I‘ve been arguing with friends all season that Kansas is Fraudulent.  Sure, I could see Xavier losing in the Second Round to either Missouri (more below) or Florida State, but of the #1 & #2 seeded teams, only Duke and North Carolina face potential opponents in the Second Round as dangerous as Kansas.  Either North Carolina State or Seton Hall could beat a guard heavy Jayhawks squad, especially with Udoka Azubuike a “game-time” decision. Despite their gaudy analytics and win totals, and despite the fact I have them as a Contender due to said analytics, I’ll believe Kansas gets to the Final Four this year when I actually see it happen, and not a moment before.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Purdue.  Many of the talking heads this week have made a point of saying that Villanova has a relatively easy path to the Final Four in the East Regional, phrases like “Cake walk” and “Easy Street” being tossed around.  That might be the case for their first two games, but I wouldn’t say West Virginia or Wichita State lives on “Easy Street,” and Purdue should be no one’s idea of a “Cake walk.” Spending 2018 ranked in the Top 13 of the polls, 5th overall in KenPom and Sagarin, and 9th in the RPI, the Boilermakers start four (4) seniors and a Wooden Award Finalist in sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. They barely miss all three of the championship tests, and would pass them if a.) They allowed 0.6 points-per-100-possessions less, and b.) Head Coach Matt Painter had reached an Elite Eight in his 10 NCAA appearances at Purdue and Southern Illinois. Both FiveThirtyEight and The Power Rank have Purdue among the Top 7 favorites to win the NCAA Title. Simply put, they are a team built to last in the NCAAs.

Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field? … Dubious, but if I had to make a bet on it, I would look at the SEC. Missouri, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida are all in that Nos. 6-8 seed range, all have winning records against Top 25 teams, and have the requisite star talent and enough depth to make a deep run against highly rated opposition. Unlike 2014 Connecticut, who won their conference tournament, none of those teams won a game in the SEC Tournament this year, so the momentum is lacking.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 2 for 4, which for me is par for the course. Like Davy Crockett, I’m sticking to my guns this year at the Final Four (couldn’t resist an Alamo reference). Despite the rampant parity, I have to go with what I believe to be the Best Starting Five in College Basketball, the Michigan State Spartans, to be sitting in the last chair when the music stops. I think the Best Defense in College Basketball (and historically great at that) will propel the Virginia Cavaliers to the Title Game (a Darkhorse by my analysis, but the #1 overall seed according to the NCAA). I think the Best Offense in College Basketball, the Villanova Wildcats, will also make it to San Antonio, and I’ll pick what some would consider to be the Hottest Team in the Nation, winners of 11 of their last 12 and the Big 10 Conference Tournament, the Michigan Wolverines, to round out the party. Many worthy candidates for Champion, but I suspect Sparty will feel the most at Home in San Antone.

Into the Great Wide Open that is This College Basketball Season …

Forgive me as I try to resist referring to the site of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four as “San Antone.” I’m as giddy as a 7-year old on Christmas morning, for Selection Sunday is upon us, a prelude to the 12 Days of Basketball Christmas that is March (and early April) Madness, where at 6:00pm EST on TBS, we’ll see the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2018 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

Upon further reflection, I won’t deign to even call myself an “amateur bracketologist” as I did last year. I’m not pretending to know or predict where teams will be seeded, or what cities they’ll get sent to, just lobbing an educated guess at the 68 teams in the field – and really, only the 36 invites, as the 32 automatic qualifiers are, well, automatic. I’ll leave predicted seeding, locations and matchups to those who get paid by media conglomerates, or those who enjoy it as a serious hobby.

Last year I had 66/68 teams correct, missing on Syracuse and Illinois State for Providence and Vanderbilt, where factors like road record and strength of schedule were ultimately decisive. Unlike last year’s bubble which appeared smaller than prior years, this year’s bubble looms large, and the amount of teams that could find themselves under them skies of blue in San Antone err.. San Antonio, the first weekend of April (More to come in my preview this Wednesday) extends all the way to the fringes of that bubble. A Wild West shootout in a Wild West town beckons.

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 speculation 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 dreaded coal in their tube socks (Do basketball players even wear tube socks anymore? Never mind) from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, including for the second time, the Ivy League; A whopping eleven (11) of which repeated 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) went on to win their conference tournament (marked with a ^).

American Athletic – Cincinnati^
America East – U. Maryland-Baltimore County
ACC – Virginia^
Atlantic Sun – Lipscomb
Atlantic-10 – Davidson
Big 12 – Kansas^
Big East – Villanova*
Big Sky – Montana^
Big South – Radford
Big Ten – Michigan*
Big West – Cal-State Fullerton
Colonial – Charleston
Conference USA – Marshall
Horizon – Wright State
Ivy – Penn
Metro Atlantic – Iona*
Mid-American – Buffalo^
Mid-Eastern – North Carolina Central*
Missouri Valley – Loyola-Chicago^
Mountain West – San Diego State
Northeast – LIU-Brooklyn
Ohio Valley – Murray State^
Pac-12 – Arizona*^
Patriot – Bucknell*^
SEC – Kentucky*
Southern – UNC Greensboro^
Southland – Stephen F. Austin
Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern*
Summit League – South Dakota State*^
Sun Belt – Georgia State
West Coast – Gonzaga*^
WAC – New Mexico State*^

Simple math 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 a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, and what I have seen having watched volumes of college basketball this season (as I do), here are the teams that should be “Locks“, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (2): Houston, Wichita State
ACC (5) – North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech
Atlantic-10 (1) – Rhode Island
Big 12 (4) – West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas State
Big East (5) – Xavier, Butler, Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence
Big Ten (3) – Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State
Mountain West (1) – Nevada
Pac-12 (1) – USC
SEC (6) – Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas A&M

That’s a grand total of 28 teams that should be safe, which would leave eight (8) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference

ACC (5) – North Carolina State, Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse
Atlantic 10 (1) – St. Bonaventure
Big 12 (4) – Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Baylor
Big East (1) – Marquette
Big Ten (3) – Penn State, Maryland, Nebraska
Conference USA (1) – Middle Tennessee
Mountain West (1) – Boise State
Pac-12 (2) – UCLA, Arizona State
SEC (2) – Alabama, Mississippi State
West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

That’s an astounding 21 teams competing for the last eight (8) spots, the largest bubble in the last four seasons, with a glut of high-major conference teams at or near .500 in conference play and with double-digit losses overall. Throwing darts and drawing straws, what follows is my best guess as to the Not-so-Great-but-very-Good Eight, in order from safest to least safe:

UCLA

Florida State

North Carolina State

Middle Tennessee

Alabama

Notre Dame

St. Mary’s

St. Bonaventure

My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Louisville, Arizona State, Oklahoma, and Penn State. I’m almost never in favor of teams with sub-.500 conference records making the tournament, so that eliminates Arizona State, Syracuse and the Big 12 Bubble quartet. The exceptions I’d make would be Alabama, who finished 10-11 in SEC conference games after winning 2 games in the SEC Tournament, and Notre Dame, who like Alabama finished 10-11 in ACC games, and were missing a potential All-American in Bonzie Colson for most of the conference season, going 14-5 with him playing and 6-9 without.

Once again, with Middle Tennessee, St. Mary’s and St. Bonaventure, I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, all of whom have Top 40 RPIs that will be difficult for the Selection Committee to ignore.

The NCAA Selection Show beckons in less than two hours, with its usual bag of surprises, riddles, enigmas and mysteries. With apologies to the dearly departed Tom Petty, The future, is wide open.

As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

EDIT Tuesday, March 13, 2:20AM PST – With the field announced, I had an atrocious 64/68 teams correct above (seriously, my dog Mona Lisa could have done better). The bubble burst for Notre Dame, USC, St. Mary’s and Middle Tennessee (the first three of which, along with Baylor, were the first four teams left out according to the official NCAA March Madness Twitter, “earning” #1 seeds in the NIT), while I whiffed on Arizona State, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Texas. Four teams who had sub-.500 records in conference, which, why the heck even have conferences if losing the majority of conference games isn’t an impediment to an NCAA Tournament invitation, since the NCAA’s new-fangled “Quadrant” system for comparing teams have apparently cast non-conference wins and road/neutral court wins as the end-all, be-all. The little guys also got screwed, again, thanks in large part to this Quadrant system, as only 5 of the 36 at-large bids were scooped up by mid-majors (Houston, Wichita State, Nevada, Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure) outside the Top 6 high-major conferences (whose teams have little motivation and even less upside in scheduling mid-majors good enough to get into the NCAAs), but I digress. UCLA and St. Bonaventure, along with ASU and The Orange, were the last four teams in according to the NCAA’s Seed List. Notre Dame in fact was the first team whose bubble burst, knocked out by Davidson’s last-second win against Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 Tournament final, according to the NCAA Selection Committee Chair Bruce Rasmussen. According to The 2018 Bracket Matrix, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi got 66/68 teams right; Last year he missed USC for Syracuse, while this year he essentially missed Syracuse for USC – Like I and many others did, as only 23 of the 187 brackets recorded by the Bracket Matrix had Syracuse in the field – as well as also missing ASU for St. Mary’s. In fact, only one (1!) of those 187 brackets got all 68 teams right. So, I don’t feel too bad. Still, I may give Mona Lisa a shot next year.

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POSTCARD FROM MY RECLINER: I ALREADY MISS THESE GAMES

Some reflections, thoughts and middle-depth musings from the XXIII Olympic Winter Games of PyeongChang, while I continue to nurse my post-Olympics hangover …

  • I’ll admit it: Once Canada went up 2-1 on the USA in the Women’s Hockey Gold Medal Final, the next 25 minutes of game time ticked by agonizingly, an all-too-familiar snakebit feeling creeping into the pit of my stomach. That is, until Monique Lamoureux-Morando caught Canada on a bad line change and tied it up with a breakaway goal at 6:21 in the 3rd. Someone needs to sync up Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson’s “Oops I Did It Again” move that scored the winning shootout goal for USA to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” chorus. So catchy. Canada’s netminder definitely got lost in the game.
  • Ester Ledecka might have resolved the eternal war between the skiing and snowboarding cultures with her historic double Gold in the Alpine Super G (video therein from the World feed) and Snowboarding Parallel Giant Slalom. I was always a “Can’t we all just get along?” guy back in my skiing days, but snowboarding has always been frowned upon by the skiing establishment. Heck, even NBC’s live coverage of the Alpine Super G frowned upon the idea of a snowboarder upsetting the existing order, declaring Austria’s Anna Veith the winner with 26 skiers left (including the moonlighting Ledecka) and “had switched coverage to a simulcast of NBC Sports Network’s men’s figure skating free skate broadcast”, before breaking back in with a replay of Ledecka’s golden run that won by 0.01 seconds. Is it time for skiers and snowboarders to gather together and sing “Kumbaya” yet?
  • Anyone else think the “Miracurl On Ice” will lead to an explosion of “Curling Pubs” across the United States, like frozen new age bowling alleys, with wings, beer and poutine? I can see it now: “The 8th End”, “Five-Spot”, “CUUURRRLLLL!!” Sign me up!
  • Were these Olympics held 24 years ago, the USA would have only won two (2) Gold Medals: Mikaela Shiffrin’s Gold in the Women’s Alpine Giant Slalom, and Jessie Diggans and Kikkan Randall’s Gold in the Women’s Cross Country Team Sprint Free relay. Snowboarding, where USA won five (5) Golds, Curling, and Women’s Hockey didn’t appear in the Olympics until the 1998 Nagano games.
  • I’m curious, if you were to ask several Canadians whether Canada was successful in these games, what their answer would be? No team Curling medals (albeit Gold in the Mixed Doubles event debut), no Hockey Gold, and yet … 29 medals & 11 Gold, their largest medal haul ever (only 2010 Vancouver was more “Golden”). Dominated Freestyle Skiing with Gold in four (4) of the 10 events. Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir lept straight out of a naughty Dudley Do-Right cartoon to lead Canada to Gold in the Team Figure Skating event, then won Gold in Ice Dancing (although if I ever hear the Moulin Rouge soundtrack during a skate again, it’ll be too soon). Spreading some Medal love through Bobsleigh, Luge, Short Track Speed Skating, Snowboarding, and Speed Skating, I would argue Canada was a resounding success at these Olympics. Even if they didn’t win team Gold in either of their “national” sports.
  • Elsewhere, south of the Canadian Border, we have various media outlets such as Time (via The Associated Press), The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic (via CityLab), and even The San Jose Mercury News counting the ways USA underachieved in these Winter Games. It was USA’s lowest medal count – 23 total, 9 Gold – since the 1998 Nagano Games (13 total, 6 Gold). I mean, Lindsay Vonn somehow had to defend her Bronze in the Alpine Women’s Downhill, despite becoming the oldest woman to win an Olympic Alpine medal. Nonetheless, I believe the explanations are rather simple and obvious, between over-projections of medals by the USOC (37? C’mon now), and several near-misses. USA athletes finished 4th or 5th a total of 26 times (!) in PyeongChang (and 6th in another 9 events). One of those was Nathan Chen, who, after being anointed one of the faces of these Games by NBC in their preview coverage, suffered a disastrous short program that left him in 17th place. Yet Chen found redemption in the free skate with an Olympic Record score (215.08) that is the 5th highest of all time to contend for a medal, finishing 5th while becoming the first Olympian to land five quadruple jumps. A clear short program, and we’re talking about a different Gold Medalist and probably an all-time skating performance. Another was Jessie Diggins, the USA flagbearer for the Closing Ceremonies, who had finishes of 5th, 5th, 5th, 6th, and 7th in her other five Cross Country events. Yet it was her and Randall’s historic Gold in the Team Sprint Free by half the length of a ski that not only provided my favorite moment of these games – USA’s 1st Cross Country Skiing medal in 42 years since Bill Koch took Silver in the Men’s 30K in 1976 Innsbruck  – but THE announcing call of these Olympics, and one I dare say rivals any since Al Michaels’ “Do You Believe In Miracles?”. Yes indeed Chad Salmela! In other words, there is both success and beauty in each Olympic moment, and I flatly reject this media-driven thesis.
  • I tend to agree with Christine Brennan, as I’m not convinced the right Russian won Gold in Ladies Figure Skating. I thought Evgenia Medyvvedvedyyevva (I think that’s how you spell and say her name, I’m not sure, I’ve given up on learning Russian, it’s hard) put down a better performance than Alina Zagitovadespite having the same exact free skate score – and one that was Gold-worthy. I wouldn’t go as far as Brennan did in saying Zagitova “gamed” the system, even as her program was unbalanced, but those are the rules. Either way, give me Medvedeva, the artist with heart over the perfect jumper. Meanwhile, with one exception, (1964) USA Ladies Figure Skating had finished on the podium in every Winter Games from 1952-2006. A total of seven (7) Golds & 18 medals in all since 1956, among them several legends of the sport. However, no individual medals for the USA in the last three Olympics since 2006 Torino (Sasha Cohen’s Silver). I think it’s fair to ask what the heck is going on, and why they are now playing catch-up to not only Russia, but Japan, and Canada.
  • Shout out to Kelly Clark, becoming one of two (2) USA Women to appear in five (5) Olympics (Kikkan Randall the other, props to her).  Here are Clark’s five finishes in the Women’s Snowboarding Halfpipe at those Olympics: Gold, 4th, Bronze, Bronze, 4th. A remarkable run for one of the pioneers of her genre.
  • Having watched almost every event at these Olympics, I’d argue the best pressure performance I witnessed was Shaun White in the Men’s Snowboarding Halfpipe. Trading punches with Japan’s Ayumu Hirano (Silver) and Australia’s Scotty James (Bronze), White had the last shot in their game of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”, needing to best Hirano’s 95.25 to capture his 3rd Olympic Gold. The tension was palpable at the top of the hill as White waited out wind gusts and repeatedly checked his bindings. White plunged down the halfpipe, launching himself into each trick with abandon, every flight defying physics and redefining what it means to “go big”. After almost two minutes of number crunching, a score of 97.75 launched the waterworks for whom this Gold obviously meant so much. Long Live The Flying Tomato.
  • Norway “won “ these Olympics, winning the most medals (39) and tied for the most Golds (14), by those measures the greatest performance in the history of the Winter Games. I chuckled over talk of cultural modesty and how such success might be worrisome for the Norwegian “mentality”, a paradoxical concern that their domination would ruin many of the sports. To the point where the “Michael Phelps” of the Winter Olympics, 15-time medalist Marit Bjørgen, said after winning Bronze in the same Cross Country event where the USA’s Diggins and Randall made history, “…(I)t’s great to see the U.S. on the podium. It’s important for the sport.” I am part Norwegian by heritage, and I will say my family doesn’t seem to have problems with success or modesty … Irony maybe, but not modesty  …
  • Speaking of Norway, did some dude named Oyster Bratwurst actually win the Men’s Freestyle Skiing Slopestyle, beating out USA’s Nick “Win One For The” Goepper? No? Oystein Braaten, you say? And, who won two Silvers in the Women Alpine Skiing (Downhill & Giant Slalom)? Rocky and Bullwinkle? Ragnhild Mowinckel ? Talk about another language I’m not hearing right, I need to see an audiologist. Wait, I’m not alone? Never mind then …
  • Ever notice that Bronze Medal winners are often happier than Silver Medal winners?
  • Meanwhile, this woman hacked the Olympics. I don’t know whether to castigate or congratulate her, but I won’t name her. Here is a video of her run, and to call it “average” as the polite announcer did is flattering to deceive …
  • The 13-year-old guitarist Yang Tae-Hwan absolutely shredding Vivaldi’s “Winter” was the highlight of the K-Pop fueled Closing Ceremonies. No other words needed, just click the link and listen.
  • South Korea put its best foot forward during these games. No scandals, no last-minute construction catastrophes, presenting carved landscapes and a gleaming look at the future, they were the most welcoming of hosts. Honestly, I was not excited when PyeongChang was announced, and unlike prior Olympic destinations, I had little inclination to attend these games. Neverthelesss, nothing shows off a locale like the Olympics, and after hundreds of hours of watching I have seen the errors of my rush to judgment. South Korea has risen on the BobbyTrue travel bucketlist: I just hope to go when it’s a touch warmer.
  • Finally, the coolest thing IOC Chairman Thomas Bach ever says in his life is “In accordance with tradition, I call upon the youth of the world, to assemble four years from now, in _______ (this time, Beijing, People’s Republic of China), to celebrate with us all the _______ (24th) Olympic Winter Games. Thank you, & Bye-bye _______ (Korea).” Goosebumps every time …

THE UNCOMMON PROSPECT OF A LOSE-LOSE TRADE

Obviously the biggest news of yesterday’s NBA Trade Deadline were the surprising maneuvers of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers, foremost among them the trade between the two franchises. When it comes to Trade Deadline deals, I ascribe to the long view of these moves, the context that turns the past into prologue, instead of grading each transaction in a vacuum.

Specifically, the biggest piece of “context” is the ongoing saga of LeBron James, and where he will ply his trade in the twilight of an all-time great career. My best guess, the presumption under which I have been proceeding all season long, is that LeBron will leave Cleveland again this summer. Beginning with letting go former General Manager David Griffin after the NBA Finals, then the Kyrie Irving trade last August (that de facto player personnel manager LeBron was never consulted about), it has apparently become exceedingly difficult for the Cavs to convince Lebron James they will challenge for the NBA Title in the coming years.

Correspondingly, Cleveland has begun preparations for an inevitable future without LeBron James, whether that starts next summer or years from now. The unprotected Brooklyn Nets 2018 1st round pick (most likely a Top 10 pick this summer) is the most prized asset of the Irving trade, a cornerstone of the looming rebuild that some observers suggested could or should be expended in the months and weeks leading up to the Trade Deadline, a last-ditch effort not only to bolster the Cavs’ Title chances but their chances of keeping LeBron. Certainly the finest of lines for Cleveland’s ownership and management to walk, along with a proper lens through which to view their roster makeover yesterday.

With that all said, lemme get this straight …

Cleveland in the last six months have turned:

– Kyrie Irving

– Channing Frye

– Iman Shumpert

– Derrick Rose

– Cavs own 2018 1st round pick

 

Into:

– Jordan Clarkson

– Larry Nance, Jr.

– Rodney Hood

– George Hill (who they could have signed in Free Agency last year)

– Ante Zizic

– Nets’ 2018 1st round pick

 

… With nothing else to show for their rentals of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the Heat’s 2020 2nd round pick from the Irving trade, all the while helping their likely most formidable competition for LeBron James in the offseason clear cap space to sign LeBron?!?

To borrow from Charles Barkley, that’s turrible! The only way the Irving trade with Boston looked promising last August was because of the season Isaiah Thomas had just had, but for the Cavs to punt on him after 15 games, as well as having to trade more assets to get something out of Thomas, is just disastrous.

At least the Cavs got younger, more athletic, and still retained the Nets’ pick, so the rebuild won’t be as catastrophic, but that’s truly the silver lining of a dark cloud.

As for the Lakers, the best thing I can say is that they’ve decided not to throw good money after bad, got back into the 2018 Draft, and create the cap space to pursue two “Max Free Agents” this summer, and/or the next summer.

Of course, they also continue to admit the sins of the Jimmy Buss Era, no longer having D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and (likely) Julius Randle as part of the costs of getting out from under the Timofey Mozgov & Luol Deng contracts. Consider that from the last six years of drafts, they’ll only have Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Jason Hart, Brandon Ingram, and Ivica Zubac left to show for it, and even with two Max Free Agents, they still need half a roster. Flexibility is great and all, but even if they sign LeBron and Paul George, I doubt that will be enough to topple the Warriors from their perch.

Finally, while I think these moves are already a prospective loser for the Cavs, if LeBron leaves “The Land” this summer, then it’s a virtual implosion. Further, if LeBron doesn’t choose the Lakers, then I don’t care who else they sign instead in the 2018 or 2019 offseason, this trade was a loser for them as well, as the only things left to show for developing and losing Clarkson, Nance and Randle will be “Plan B” Free Agents and whatever rookie Cleveland’s pick in the mid-20s this summer will yield.

The Lakers have made it clear that missing the playoffs as they have the prior four years (and likely a 5th consecutive year this season) is no longer acceptable. Sign two Free Agents to Max-salary deals not named LeBron, and the Lakers are quite possibly a playoff team next season, and depending on how the 2018 offseason shakes out, they could also be a player in the 2019 Free Agent pool. That won’t be enough for the faithful; LeBron James has to be the prize, the end of these means, as the difference between LeBron and any “Plan B” for the Lakers is still vast, even if he’s entered his proverbial Golden Years.

 

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