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Diary of the 2018 World Cup: Round of 16 aka “Getting Real Now!”

They (whomever “they” are) say things happen in threes.  For instance, the Round of 16 in this 2018 FIFA World Cup’s knockout stage was Three-tastic! Three 1-1 contests ultimately decided  by “Kicks from the penalty mark” as penalty shootouts are officially called on Page 55 of the FIFA “Laws Of The Game” … Three goals in the opening 10 minutes of those games … Three second-half stoppage-time goals … Three of the eight matches won by the higher ranked team in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Rankings … Three of the FIFA Top 10 ranked teams remaining in the Quarterfinals (Brazil, Belgium & France) … Three times Neymar should have been carded for simulation (at least) … Three ways to say Switzerland has #GoneFishing …

I could go on! Instead, a look back at other facets of what transpired from my ongoing World Cup Diary, before assessing each of the Quarterfinal games tomorrow and Saturday. While the bracket appears imbalanced, with four of the five highest ranked remaining teams on one side, underestimate the supposed relative minnows (Croatia, Sweden and host Russia) at your own peril. As always, click the links to see highlights and more …

6/30

France 4:3 Argentina – This thriller lived up to the billing, and was the result I expected, if not the score. A quick descent from hero to goat for Marcos Rojo in the 13th, France’s Antoine Griezmann coolly slotting home the penalty kick that wunderkind Kylian Mbappé drew from Rojo, a sign of things to come as Mbappé tore the Argentinean backline to shreds all day long … Second half, Les Bleus’ laconic play let Argentina grab a 2-1 lead in the 49th, Gabriel Mercado deflecting Messi’s shot past a wrong-footed Hugo Lloris and creating the first pressure France had faced all tournament. Argentina appeared to have taken control of the match, a script that held all of seven minutes until Benjamin Pavard unleashed a wicked curveball from the corner of the box, and Mbappé flipped that script with two world class goals in a four-minute span that justified straight away his status as the Most Expensive Footballing Teenager in the World … As the inquest begins, let’s remember, Argentina struggled in qualification for this World Cup, having to go to the Intercontinental Playoff and beat Honduras in a home-and-away tie. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are who we should have thought they were. Despite appearing in three major tournament Finals (One World Cup sandwiched between two Copa Américas), it never seemed Argentina could build a coherent squad around their generational talent, too many cooks spoiling the soup #FueronAPescar. As for France, if the second half version shows up the rest of this tournament – maybe with a little tightening on defense – the rest of the world has no chance.

Uruguay 2:1 Portugal – Edinson Cavani’s early “facer” (not so much a header) in the 7th, from a near perfect cross by Mr. Bitey, put the Fighting Ronaldos on the back foot. Uruguay had a 594-minute competitive match shutout streak end when Pepe’s header leveled the match for Portugal in the 55th, seemingly grabbing the momentum for A Seleção das Quinas. But Cavani said “Not Today!”, scoring an even better goal off an even better pass from Señor Chompers seven (7) minutes later (seems to be a theme today, 7 minutes) to put La Celeste up for good. I thought Fox’s John Strong was going to run out of breath at the end, but I never thought a tying goal was coming … Key to me was Uruguay’s midfield outplayed Portugal’s despite ceding 60% of the possession … Portugal only have themselves to blame, their service so bad, cross after cross flailing, their offense reduced to Ronaldo having to chase down the ball himself and take desperate shots. Clearly not their best effort; In fact, it’s been pretty much downhill from the Spain game #FoiPescar.  

Everyone after these games was pointing out how the best two players in the world were sent home, but last I checked, this was a team sport, and the better teams won that day. It appears Cavani won’t be available for Uruguay tomorrow, so The Celeste will have an uphill climb against a France squad starting to find their form; Suarez The Impaler can’t do it all by himself. Uruguay’s best chance will be to score the first goal and rely on their rock solid defense to frustrate the French attack much like Portugal did in the 2016 Euros Finals. I’m just not seeing it, I think France is just starting to roll.

7/1

Spain 1:1, 3:4 Russia – Hijuela. Not sure why it didn’t occur to me before, but this had to be the most daunting road game for Spain since “Tiki-Taka” became a thing. It took all of one minute into Russia’s National Anthem at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for the game to feel like “Rocky IV: Soccer Bugaloo.” … Bit of a surprise that La Roja started without Andres Iniesta, as if Manager Fernando Hierro was taking the training wheels off for Spain’s next generation in the midfield, just to see if they would ride or crash (Hint: They crashed) … As most of Spain’s opponents do, Russia kept 10 behind the ball and crowded the midfield, waiting to counter. It worked, as Gerard Pique might’ve had his Baby Mama on his mind when he gave up a stupid handball in the box in the 41st. I thought the stadium was going to lift off into planetary orbit after Artem “Zubaz” Dzyuba blasted home the ensuing penalty to tie it up. The 2nd Half, for me as a Spanish partisan, consisted of yelling various obscenities at the television in two languages. Spain played with the apathy that often comes with arrogance … Isco, Marco Asensio and Koke were hot garbage; Verging on the pedantic, Iniesta coming on for David Silva and Dani Carvajal for Nacho was like for like, lacking tactical nous and impact, while Iago Aspas was just as feckless as Diego Costa. Only Rodrigo, the last Spanish sub, provided a spark that failed to light a fire. More of the same going into extra time, only with less energy, and the rain in Moscow fell mainly on plain Spain. Spot kicks decided it, Koke choked, and Akinfeev kick-saved Russia into the Quarterfinals.  The End. #HanIdoAPescar

Croatia 1:1; 3:2 Denmark – At a local pub, I’d barely taken a first sip of my beer, said “Hello!” to my mates, and Denmark scores. Another sip, another handshake, Croatia equalizes. Both goals were the product of pinball and confusion in front of the 6-yard box … From there, the tempo faded and the match settled into a tight scrum, many chances gone begging, through to extra time into the 114th minute when Croatia’s Ante Rebic was brought down in the box on a breakaway. First of all, how did Rebic not get a foot on the ball after he deked the goalie? Second, how was that not a straight red card for the goal-scorer Jorgensen, who on every replay I saw denied Rebic a clear goal-scoring opportunity? All the refs blew that call … Third, I’d ask how Luka “I Live On The Second Floor” Modric flubbed that penalty kick, but this one’s easy: Modric telegraphed, and Kasper Schmichael got away with leaving his line early to make a great save, securing the Danes to spot kicks on Spot Kick Sunday! (Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!). Schmichael again kept hope alive for Denmark, matching Danijel Subasic save for save until the 5th round when Ivan Rakitic snuck one by and sent Croatia on to the Quarters against the Hosts in Sochi. Shootouts don’t favor the favorites, so it was impressive to see The Mad Phat Croats overcome their setbacks and underwhelming play (and for Modric to redeem himself in the shootout) to find their way. Denmark was always going to be a tough out, and they lived up to that #DeErGåetFiskeri.

Only the second time in World Cup history where two games on the same day went to penalties, the other being the 1986 Quarterfinals where France bested Brazil and West Germany survived hosts Mexico. I’d say that’s crazy, but that’s just been this World Cup. Croatia and Russia is probably the least anticipated match for neutrals of the four Quarterfinals, but I think it will be a sneakily entertaining affair, as the best central Midfield in the World, Croatia’s Modric and Raketic face a supremely confident Russia side playing with house money (Literally, since they are the “house”). No result would surprise me, but I’ll ride with Croatia here.

7/2

Brazil 2:0 Mexico – For added flavor, I watched this on Telemundo, which went as expected: Breathless reverence for Brazil or obvious excitement anytime Mexico did anything positive, that’s just part of the deal. While the other commentators were superfluous at best, the always-enjoyable Andres Cantor has the best “Gooooooooooool” call in the business, and I particularly love hearing “Choooooky Lozano”… I could tell Mexico was in trouble during the anthems, when several of their players had bleached their hair blonde, while Brazil to a man had cleaned up their coiffure, including Neymar cutting off that bowl of spaghetti from atop his head. Brazil was all business, while Mexico appeared to be managing some anxiety. El Tri actually started brightly and had their best chance in the 2nd minute, but like so many forays into Brazil’s box thereafter, found no joy as their collective impertinence got the best of them. One cogent point Cantor’s partner Manuel Sol made was that starting Old Man River Rafa Marquez in central midfield “complicated” Mexico’s efforts to cover Brazil as they took advantage of his relative immobility by launching long runs off the ball from every angle, especially Mexico’s right flank as Edson Alvarez had trouble containing Neymar, causing Mexico to pull Marquez off at halftime for newly blonde Miguel Layun. Not that the halftime adjustment worked; Layun, Alvarez and the rest of Mexico’s defense were caught sleeping on a cheeky give and go six (6) minutes into the 2nd as Neymar circled left and beat them to Willian’s cross in the 6-yard box to put The Selecao up 1-0, hastening Alvarez’s departure soon thereafter. My favorite part was when Cantor said “‘Si Se Puede’, the Mexican fans are shouting!”, only for Neymar seconds later to plunder Mexico’s right flank and set up Bobby Firmino’s goal in the 88th that closed the door on Mexico’s trip to Russia. #NoSePudieron! … Make no mistake: This was a beat down, and Mexico is the same as they ever were, the 7th consecutive World Cup they depart in the Round of 16. CONCACAF Out, without so much as even a whimper.

Belgium 3:2 Japan – ¡Hijuela! In the Fox pregame Clarence Seedorf predicted Japan would press high and not bunker, relying on superb organization to not get caught on the counter, and he was correct, Japan announcing their intent with Shinji Kagawa shooting just wide of Thibaut Courtois’ goal in the 1st  minute … A scoreless 1st half became prologue to the 2nd, as Japan’s high press paid off when a Belgium turnover in the attacking end two passes later became a Japan goal at the other end in the 48th, Genki Haraguchi with a pinpoint strike between Jan Vertonghen’s lazily stretched leg and Courtois’ diving hands. Eden Hazard fired off the post a minute later, only for Japan to go up 2-0 three minutes thereafter on a 25-yard laser beam from Takashi Inui, again generated off their high press. Unbeaten in their last 22 matches, I was convinced Belgium was 40 minutes from a fishing trip. The Blue Samurai had several chances at a third goal before Belgium Manager Roberto Martinez inserted Nacer Chadli and Marouane “With The Afro 6-8” Fellaini in the 65th to jumpstart their rally. First, Fellaini earns a corner kick, which Japan could not clear and eventually launched across the box, the moon ball landing on Vertonghen, who redeemed himself and headed into goal from a crazy oblique angle. Then following Belgium’s next corner in the 74th, Fellaini rose above two Japanese defenders and put his head onto a pirouette cross from Eden Hazard that tied the match at 2. Madness fell over stoppage time … Courtois punched out a 40-yard dipping free kick from Keisuke Honda in the 3rd minute of stoppage, then in a sequence reminiscent of USA-Algeria eight years before, Courtois corralled the ensuing corner kick and rolled Belgium out on the counter. Kevin De Bruyne ran the fast break to perfection, finding a streaking Thomas Meunier 30 yards downfield, who one-touched a cross that Romelu Lukaku perfectly dummied onto Chadli, which he left-footed home for the game winner with the penultimate kick of the match. A comeback for the ages, consummated in ten magical seconds that broke hearts across The Land of Rising Sun. Honorable Japan never backed down, but fortune didn’t favor the brave, as pressing forward late for a winning goal was ultimately their undoing. #TsuriNiItta.

Will this be the tipping point, or the last hurrah for Belgium? They certainly have the offensive firepower to challenge Brazil, but do they have the defensive fortitude to withstand an onslaught from Coutinho & Co.? We’ll find out tomorrow, but it feels like a 5-3 Brazil win to me. Either way, two of the Top 3 ranked teams in the World (according to those dubious FIFA rankings) as well as the two most talented teams left (with the possible exception of France) face each other in a World Cup Final-worthy match. Giddeup!

7/3

Sweden 1:0 Switzerland – A match that had “One-Goal Game” written all over it, The Battle of the Methodical, Clockwork Yellow against the Swiss Metronome, went toe to toe in St. Petersburg. Both teams look lively but cautious in the opening half … 14 shots combined (7 apiece) but only 3 on target in the 1st, Sweden ceding 65% of the possession to the Swiss, which basically held for the entire match … Sweden got the winner in the 66th, Emil Forsberg’s on-target strike on benefitting from Swiss defender Manuel Akanji’s deflection (one of two Swiss replacements for their suspended defenders). A Swiss double switch in the 73rd that brought on Breel Embolo and Haras Seferović for more offense yielded a sustained period of livelier play, but no answer as the Swiss tried to corner kick the Swedes to death, without avail. #BinAngelnGegangen #IlsSontAllésPêcher #AndatoAPescare … Sweden continues their Viking march this Saturday against a familiar Major Tournament foe

Colombia 1:1; 3-4 England – The Round of 16 closed with a heart-stopper in Moscow. Full throttle from the start, neither team afraid of the other, the game eventually devolving into a prolonged schoolyard shoving match … The Hurricane Harry Kane broke the stalemate in the 54th, earning a penalty kick in the face of sustained Colombian provocations and time wasting, and smashing home the penalty in the 57th … Los Cafeteros grew more desperate as the clock ticked away, as American ref Mark Geiger went yellow card happy in a vain attempt to regain control … England also struggled with poise down the stretch, allowing frustration and fatigue to get the better of their efforts, then deciding to run the clock out the last 15 minutes, which predictably backfired. Substituting in Eric “The” Dier “Wolf” for their best creative force Dele Alli almost immediately failed, as Kyle Walker “Kyle Walker’d” Dier’s first pass into a Colombian counterattack, only for winger Juan Cuadrado to go high and wide … Meanwhile without Hamess, Juan Quintero was feeble in his stead, Cuadrado often having to play more centrally to help out, and it was no coincidence that Colombia became more effective after Quintero left the game in the 88th. Yerry Mina brought Colombia to back from the dead in the 93rd, heading a corner off England winger Kieran Trippier’s head at the post and bulging the back of the ole onion bag [© Tommy Smyth]. Riding momentum, Colombia created more opportunities in extra time, but that was mere prelude to the suddenly inevitable penalty shootout. First five kicks were striking perfection, the tension mounting so thick a chainsaw couldn’t cut it, until Colombia’s David Ospina saved Jordan Henderson’s low back-corner-bound bullet, and an all-too familiar feeling crept in … Looking a gift horse in the mouth, Colombia’s Mateus Uribe went off the crossbar to give England a reprieve, then Trippier put the shootout back on schedule with a sure strike. Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Man, and up stepped Jordan Pickford, making an off-handed save on Carlos Bacca’s tepid volley, leaving The DierWolf to exorcise the Ghosts of England’s Shootout Past – his strike barely beating an outstretched Ospina – and Colombia to wonder what might have been #ChokingOnFishAndChips. Not since 1966 has England had as gilded a path to the World Cup Final; A resolute Sweden awaits in Samara.

P.S. – Raheem Sterling is garbage, he hasn’t scored in almost three years for The Three Lions despite never seeing a shot he didn’t like. Start Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Trent Alexander-Arnold, or any hyphenated player Gareth Southgate can call upon next game. Even the Jamie Vardy-Party with a groin strain was an upgrade those last 35 minutes, and he looks doubtful for Saturday.

As Lil’ Wayne once said, “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” You know who has been relatively silent? Sweden. They just keep moving along, and no one suspects them, much like Iceland in the 2016 Euros, and as much as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. As for England, will this unexpected success go to their head? Can Manager Gareth Southgate keep that keel even? Or will the Real “G” be Sweden’s gold shirts moving to the Semis? I can’t wait.

 

Keeping a World Cup Diary …

I’ll admit it: It took me a long time to get excited for the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup. I did not do my normal routine of studying all the rosters as they were released, watching every pre-cup prep friendly I could, and scouring the internet for preview material. Even when it started on June 14, with the hosts beating Saudi Arabia 5-0, I only caught that game on a late night replay.

My heart still wasn’t in it as I watched parts of the first two games the next day, Uruguay beating Egypt 1-0, and Iran beating Morocco 1-0 on an own-goal in the 95th minute, both dreary affairs. It wasn’t I finally hunkered down, grabbed some nachos and settled in to watch a recording of Portugal-Spain, that I rediscovered my usual jubilance in being able to watch 3-4 games a day of international soccer for two weeks. The World Cup was back, and I was happy, even if my Red White & Blue were MIA.

Now, the group stage is over, and the knockout round bracket is set. Before we look ahead, I often think it is important to look back at what has occurred, and gain some perspective towards the next phase of this tournament.  As it happens, I kept a daily diary of the Group Stage games, posting much of this on a private Facebook group, as the thoughts started to flow and my excitement built.  Most of the games I watched on DVR, as the broadcast schedule did not neatly fit with my daily work schedule, but in large part I was able to preserve the plausibly live feel by avoiding spoilers on social and mass media.

Below are excerpts from my diary, with some redress and forward-looking analysis. As always, some of my projections are spot on, while others turned out to be half-baked.

6/15

 Portugal 3:3 Spain – Might end up being the game of the tournament, especially after three opening contests that were rather boring. Everyone makes a big deal of CR7’s hat trick, and rightly so, but everyone also seems to forget that these are the reigning European Champions.

It certainly is up there for game of the Cup so far, among the top 3-4 I saw, which includes all but four games in group stage play. Both teams to me showed how vulnerable they are on defense, as both back lines had trouble clearing balls, a trend we would see in later games against lesser opponents.  Spain in particular, their best defense is possession of the ball by their midfield, as well as their ability to win the ball back in midfield with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and David Silva.  That engine faltered more than usual.

6/16

France 2:1 Australia – I picked France to win the whole thing, and I immediately regret that decision. They really miss Dimitri Payet as a playmaker, Les Bleus don’t have anyone who can consistently set the table. Paul Pogba needs to be the guy every seems to think he is, because since the 2016 Euros, I haven’t seen it. And for crying out loud Samuel Umtiti, put your hands down in your own box! Australia was as expected, physical, compact, bunkered, waiting on the counter, and the definite minnows of this group. 

Argentina 1:1 Iceland – Honestly, I’m not too surprised. Kun Aguero took his chance well, but otherwise the Albiceleste is still 10 dudes standing around waiting for Messi to do something. Messi’s penalty attempt, no other way to say it, was lame. Iceland is the very definition of a tough out.

Peru 0:1 Denmark – Peru’s players, to a man, will lament this game for the rest of their lives. The Blanqiroja should have won this game 6-1, they were clearly the better team. Fox broadcaster Jorge Perez-Navarro’s “Boom Goes The Dynamite!” call on Denmark’s goal was a nice touch. As an aside, whenever I see a player pause in their run-up to a penalty kick – to do whatever, some fancy footwork, a jig, dance, a feint or fake – I’m pretty sure that player is going to miss that penalty kick.

Croatia 2:0 Nigeria – I expect Croatia to improve as the tournament progresses. I hope the Super Eagles, meanwhile, enjoy their short stay in Russia. If anything, this game proves the old adage: You can’t hug a man in the penalty box.

I’ll remember that day as the first with four games to watch (only one of which I watched live), and as the day that cemented my interest in this edition of the World Cup, as it had a little bit of everything. Croatia actually was better than I initially thought after this game, as Nigeria was problematic for all three of their opponents, and this 2-0 win was more impressive than at first blush.

6/17

 Serbia 1:0 Costa Rica – Mostly boring game, that only Los Ticos’ netminder Keylor Navas kept close. … Costa Rica’s bench was a joke at the end. No one on the sideline should interfere with the game like that; That assistant coach certainly isn’t living the Pura Vida. I think Costa Rica will have a tough time winning a game in Russia.

 Germany 0:1 Mexico – Both teams were flying that first half. Mexico converted their best chance, Germany did not … Mexico is clearly afraid of no one, and the way they pressed Die Mannschaft is a blueprint for the few teams willing and able to stay with Ze Germans for 90 minutes. Germany will be fine, despite a frustrating day finishing, neither South Korea nor Sweden should trouble them.

Little did I know about Germany, even as Mexico did put down a mighty fine blueprint …

Brazil 1:1 Switzerland – Brazil definitely relaxed after their first goal. The Swiss looked overmatched in the first 20 minutes, then methodically grew into the game and challenged a suspect Brazilian back line, culminating in Steven “Super” Zuber’s header goal in the 50th minute. … I would expect better from the Selecao, and better will be needed against Serbia and Costa Rica. Nobody should underestimate the Swiss going forward either.

This would not be the first time I described the Swiss as “methodical”. Or used the word “methodical” …

6/18

Took forever to slog through today’s games …

Sweden 1:0 South Korea – Way too many fouls (43 total). Korea’s keeper Jo Hyeon-Woo deserves hazard pay for preventing a blowout… Korea was as industrious as always but more wasteful than usual. Sweden is just boring in their methodical play, like a slower Iceland, but without creativity.

Belgium 3:0 Panama – I thought Belgium was on cruise control … Then Dries Mertens shook the Red Devils out of their doldrums with a thunderous volley 2 minutes into the 2nd, and Panama was inevitably toast. Good sign for Belgium that Romelu Lukaku got the feel for the wheel and kept the moving parts clean with his brace. Meanwhile, I still can’t believe Panama qualified ahead of the USA.

Tunisia 1:2 England – What would England do without “Hurricane” Harry Kane? (The answer: Lose). The rest of the Three Lions should be renamed “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight”; They should’ve had like 9-10 goals against a hot mess of a Tunisian defense. Between that, the periodic wrestling matches that broke out in the box (I saw Kane get tackled twice on corner kicks, no call, which is ironic considering how open he was on the gamewinner), and Kyle Walker dropping “The People’s Elbow” on Tunisia’s Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and gifting a penalty kick, those are the only reasons the game was left ’til late. …The plague of mosquitoes was a nice touch, as was helicopters dropping insecticide on the stadium before the game. Well done Stalingrad.

In retrospect, Tunisia was one of the more entertaining teams not to advance out of the group. Constantly straddling that fine line between brave and stupid, impressive at times in attack, a mess on defense, good cohesion and fraternitè overall. The soccer equivalent of a “fixie” bike, only one gear.

6/19

Crazy day of futbol …

Colombia 1:2 Japan – Not even 3 minutes in and, as Jorge Perez-Navarro said on the Fox broadcast, the game was “On Fire!!!!”. Or “Bonzai!!!”, you choose. Ridiculous decision by Carlos Sanchez to pull an “Umtiti” and gift Japan the lead. As teams often do playing with 10, Colombia became more urgent and organized, culminating in Juan Quintero’s free kick goal in the 39th, but Japan slowly wrested back control of the match as the 2nd half progressed, increasing the pressure on Colombia’s midfield until Japan scored the winner in the 73rd, and Colombia was feckless in response. I have sooo many questions for Colombian jefe Jose Pékerman. For instance, why was Juan Cuadrado, constantly running free down the right side, pulled in the 31st, even if his decisions in the final 3rd were lacking? That was eventually going to come correct over the course of 90 minutes, wasn’t it? And why didn’t James (pronounced “Ha-Mess”) Rodriguez start for Colombia, only coming in at the 59th minute? To be fair, he didn’t look that great, but he’s one of the 10 best players in the world. Colombia might be in trouble.

Poland 1:2 Senegal – All of Group H is “Bonzai!!!” Weird game. Senegal’s first goal, the autogol, was just bad luck. Their second goal was also a complete fluke, more the result of poor officiating and Woj Szceszny going all “Woj Szceszny.” What should be of concern to Poland is not that they got beat, but that they took too long to muster the necessary urgency and get into the game. Their goal was well taken; Maybe another 10 minutes and it ends tied at 2. I will also say Senegal didn’t look like an underdog, organized and enterprising, so I hesitate to use the word “upset” here.

Russia 3:1 Egypt – Despite the fact that he played today – and looked plenty spry, if a bit rusty, with an emphatic penalty kick goal – I can’t help but feel that Mo Salah’s injury derailed Egypt’s chances of advancement before the World Cup even started … I’m sure fans of The Pharaohs will continue to direct their ire at Sergio Ramos #GoneFishing. Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell how much of Russia’s impressive performances stem from the homefield advantage, the level of opponent (less than challenging, the easiest group by far), or how much can you contribute to actual quality of play. We’ll definitely know more after they play Uruguay … P.S. – Zhirkov really does sound like “Jerk Off”, it’s the new “Yanni/Laurel”.

I still have a lot of questions for Jose Pékerman.  Like, who’s your tailor? But I have to give him credit, not only for his impeccable suits, but for figuring a way forward without James Rodriguez.  Los Cafeteros (Translation: The Coffee Growers) are on another level with a healthy James; Without, they’re still a tricky proposition, as Senegal would find out.

6/20

Portugal 1:0 Morocco – The mark of a good team is their ability to win a match when at less than their best. Aside from goalkeeper Rui Patricio, and CR7’s goal in the 4th minute – a textbook set piece finish – Portugal was less than stellar, downright dumb at times … Morocco’s manager Renard looks like Boris Becker’s younger, more glamorous brother. His team looks like the unluckiest squad in Russia. Have looked good building the attack in midfield, with more possession and shots than their opponents in each game, and were quite organized, but lacking quality and fortune in the final third  #GoneFishing. Their parting gift is a game with tourney favorite Spain. There’s a reference to the Moors in here somewhere …

Uruguay 1:0 Saudi Arabia – Proof that #WinningUgly is still winning. One gets the sense that Uruguay as a whole plays to the level of their competition, and it must drive their longtime manager, Oscar Washington Tabáres, nuts. A pair of world-class strikers in Cavani and Suarez, one of the best defensive units in the World Cup, but oooohhh that midfield. So passive. So deliberate. So mediocre. Still, as long as Mr. Bitey Suarez keeps his chompers in check, La Celeste has every opportunity to go deep in this tournament. But the warm-up games are over. Saudi Arabia, we hardly knew ye. #GoneFishing

Iran 0:1 Spain – Apparently both Portugal and Spain suffered a hangover from their epic 3-3 match five days ago, as La Furia Roja wasn’t so “Furia” #WinningUgly. I’m not sure whether Iran’s aim was to beat Spain or just frustrate Spain. The time wasting went beyond the comical to the cynical, and the “bunker and no-counter” worked, for about 53 minutes until Diego Costa was in the right place at the right time. Ironically (or predictably), Iran was much more dangerous down a goal. I will say that Carlos Queiroz has done an admirable job with Iran, unbeaten in their last 19 FIFA sanctioned games entering this match. Portugal can’t afford to take Iran for granted in 5 days.

It struck me that in many ways, Portugal and Uruguay are mirror images of each other, with world-class striking, solid goalkeeping and a questionable midfield. That’s fascinating tangle between them tomorrow.

6/21

Denmark 1:1 Australia – Denmark’s bright start off of Christian Eriksen’s wonder strike 7 minutes in was negated 30 minutes later when Yussuf Poulsen pulled an “Umtiti” (or is it a “Sanchez”?) and gifted Australia a spot kick that Bearded Maniac Mile Jedinak converted. From there the tension never lifted, both teams seemingly on the verge of tilting the match in their favor, only to squander time and again. The tie was a fitting end.

France 1:0 Peru – Les Bleus aren’t yet the sum of their parts. Peru is South American Morocco, enjoyable to watch, but ultimately unsuccessful #GoneFishing …

Argentina 0:3 Croatia – What? Was? That? Both teams spent the first 50 minutes missing point blank chances … until Argentina’s keeper, the Clown Prince of Chelsea Willy Caballero, took over the game (not in a good way)… Modric is a bad little man, and Croatia now deserves the mantle of true dark horse Cup contender. Every World Cup, a pre-tournament favorite (often the Defending Champion) can’t get past the group stage. Spain in Brazil 2014, for instance. Or 2006 Finalists Italy & France finishing last in their respective groups in South Africa 2010. The Fighting Messis might that team in Russia. They need an already-qualified Croatia – likely to start a number of bench players and rest key vets – to get a result against Iceland, then beat Nigeria, otherwise it’s Dasvidaniya Evita.

Croatia’s victory over Argentina is among the five most impressive wins in the group stage, along with Sweden over Mexico, Colombia over Poland, South Korea over Germany, and the mosquitoes over insecticide in Stalingr errr..,Volgograd.

6/22

Brazil 2:0 Costa Rica – I just don’t understand why Real Madrid is trying to move on from Keylor Navas. Dude is nails, keeping Los Ticos in the match until extra time when Coutinho megged Navas on Brazil’s 16th shot, while Neymar’s finish in the 97th ended the dream of the Pura Vida #GoneFishing. Meanwhile, is it too much to ask of Brazil to stop whining after every whistle and act like you’ve been there before?

Nigeria 2:0 Iceland – To be honest, I nodded off and on watching the 1st half, but then again so did both sides. Iceland got thunderclapped in the 2nd half … Ahmed Musa was a one-man wrecking crew, countering swiftly on both goals as The Super Eagles pressed the space between Iceland’s lines and were rewarded for their efforts.

Serbia 1:2 SwitzerlandGreat game. Serbia started like a house afire, Alexander Mitrovic converting to grab an early 1-0 lead. Yet like clockwork, the Swiss grew into the match, gaining more possession and probing the flanks of the Serbian defense to create several chances off crosses and rebounds. The payoff came in the 2nd as Granit Xhaka (rhymes with “Frere Jacques”) scored a thunderous volley in the 52nd, and The “Alpine Messi”, Xhedran Shaqiri (not to be confused with Shakira, who is Spain defender Gerard Piqué’s baby mama, but I digress) capped the comeback in the 90th with a lightning counter strike … Serbia has the daunting task of having to beat Brazil to advance, and could become one of the better squads not to escape their group …

More on Keylor Navas, I think he’s the best goalkeeper in CONCACAF history.  That may rankle keepers (no pun intended) of the flame for the American Goalkeeper tradition (Tony Meola, Brad Freidel, Kasey Keller, and the Secretary of Defense Tim Howard), as well as devoteés of Panama’s Jaime Penedo and Mexico’s Memo Ochoa and Jorge Campos, but there you have it.

6/23

Belgium 5:2 Tunisia – There was a period after Tunisia’s first goal where you could almost convince yourself they were still in the game. That ended with Romelu “The Beast” Lukaku’s second goal right before the half; The second half was just window dressing #GoneFishing. Oh … and Belgium is good. Eden Hazard & Dries Mertens are the best set of wingers at the World Cup. If England beats Panama tomorrow, both Belgium & England advance, and Tunisia & Panama have a plane to catch.

South Korea 1:2 Mexico – The “Umtiti” Affliction has spread to the Korean squad, gifting Mexico the lead, which Chicharito extended to 2-0 in the 66th with a clinical counterattack goal. Korea made things interesting late with Tottenham Hotspur Son Heung-Min’s exquisite strike in the 92nd, and actually played well, generating more shots despite a 40-60 possessions disadvantage. Alas …#GoneFishing

Germany 2:1 Sweden – Frenetic is the word I would use to describe this affair on a hot night in Sochi … On Sweden’s first counterattack, German defender Jerome Boateng got away with an obvious forearm shiver in the box on Ola Toivonen ~10 minutes in (say that five times fast)… Toivonen got his revenge 22 minutes later, beating the entire German back line and chipping a dangerous throughball over a stranded Manuel Neuer for a 1-0 lead in the 32nd. Facing elimination at halftime, Die Mannschaft responded as one expects of the defending World Champions, scoring less than three minutes into the 2nd, Marco Reus putting a knee onto Timo Werner’s cross and redirecting it into the back of the ole onion bag! [/Tommy Smyth]. Their blitzkrieg continued, scrambling the Swedish defense and forcing their young keeper Robin Olsen to stand on his head time and again. As if they needed a higher degree of difficulty, Boateng got himself red carded in the 82nd, and Germany had to go the last 8 minutes + stoppage down a man. To the rescue came Toni Kroos, scoring a wundergoal in the dying moments that brought Ze Germans all the way back from ze brink, and put their destiny back in their own hands. 

For my money, that was the best game of the tournament so far, and it’s still going to take a whopper of a match to best that one.  I mean, I really thought Germany would be fine after this great escape …

6/24

England 6:1 Panama – The Three Lions were hot shoe, burning down the avenue, John Stones scoring a header in the 8th minute and England never looked back. Harry Kane’s hat trick was the strangest one I’ve seen, 2 PKs and a goal he knew nothing about. Meanwhile Panama was far from model citizens, with zero discipline, earning their first yellow card in the 10th minute, giving England spot kicks in the 22nd and 45th, and never stopped their petulance … At least their goal was nice #GoneFishing.

Part of me would like to think that the USA Men’s National Team would have shown that typical American resolve, risen to the occasion and done better at this World Cup than both Costa Rica and Panama. Part of me suspects they would have sucked just as bad or worse, as they were what they were, a team that couldn’t tie Trinidad & Tobago to qualify for Russia. Panama was the worst team I saw here by far, and officially finished 32nd at this World Cup, the first CONCACAF team to do so since the USA in France 1998.

Japan 2:2 Senegal – Fox Sports Analyst Warren Barton best described this game writ large when, in reviewing Senegal’s second goal on replay, exclaimed  “There was confusion, there was movement, there was bodies!” … Another evenly matched duel where a tie was a fitting result … Good to see old warhorse Keisuke Honda coolly finish that 2nd tying goal, having scored in 3 consecutive World Cups…

Poland 0:3 Colombia – Only saw about 20 minutes of the match before life got in the way, which apparently was how long it took for Colombia to get their engines revving. I’m guessing most Polish fans wish they had that excuse #GoneFishing. Watching extended highlights online, Colombia danced their way around and through the Polish defense for 3 barnstorming goals, and it was great to see James and Juan Cuadrado find their form again.

With six teams already qualified after two games in group play, and eight teams already eliminated, that meant there were 18 teams fighting for 10 spots in the knockout round. And, four games a day, which combined with my refusal to watch both at the same time on two different screens, well … Watching four games in one day is hard work, don’t let anyone tell you differently …

6/25

First day of the 3rd round of group stage games comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion …

Uruguay 3:0 Russia – Entertaining for a game that didn’t matter much, as one of them was going to play Spain, the other Portugal; Six in one, half dozen in the other. Uruguay’s first goal was clever, a wormburning free kick in the 10th from Mr. Bitey … Russia regularly challenged Uruguay’s goal thereafter, only to go down another 13 minutes later on a deflected own-goal. Stake Uruguay’s defense an early 2-goal lead – and give them a man advantage in the 36th – and usually that’s all she wrote.  … La Celeste have finally arrived to the party.

Egypt 1:2 Saudi Arabia – Didn’t watch it at all because it 100% didn’t matter, both teams already eliminated. Saw highlights. Salah had a cheeky goal. Egypt couldn’t stop fouling the Saudis in their box, then conceding the loser in the 95th minute. Thanks for playing.

Spain 2:2 Morocco – Fighting and taking turns invading opposing territory as their countries had for centuries, Spain and Morocco went toe to toe for 90+ minutes and had me yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!” throughout. Morocco struck first off a terrible giveaway by the Spanish midfield (surprisingly including Andres Iniesta) … Morocco’s lead lasted all of 5 minutes as Isco equalized off a typo La Roja build up, Andres Iniesta doing Andres Iniesta things. Second half, both sides traded salvos … Spain was wasteful with many opportunities,while Morocco converted their best one 81 minutes in, Youssef En-Nesyri heading in off a corner to retake the lead. VAR pulls Spain’s jamón out of the fire, correctly ruling that Iago Aspas was onside when he back heeled in the equalizing goal in the 91st, and in the ultimate twist, Spain ends up winning Group B because …

Portugal 1:1 Iran – … At the same time the late madness was occurring in Kaliningrad, Iran tied up their match with Portugal on a penalty kick in the 93rd in Saransk. Portugal’s goal came off a nice give & go for Old Man Ricardo Quaresma at the end of the 1st half. Cristiano Ronaldo, showing he is mortal, missed from the penalty spot in the 53rd after VAR correctly reversed the non-penalty call. From there, you could just feel Iran’s goal coming, in between all the officiating controversies that amounted to very little other than time I won’t get back. … Iran almost sent Portugal home in the 94th, hitting the side netting, but Portugal survived and will face Uruguay, while Spain gets the hosts in Moscow.

Both Iran and Morocco won a lot of respect this World Cup with their valiant play, if not advancement out of the group stage. Russia did play a bit better in the 2nd half against Uruguay down a guy, but that game went a long way towards settling the idea that their hot start was more the home field against poor opposition than actual quality.

6/26:

Australia 0:2 Peru – Playing for pride only, the eliminated Blanqiroja scored a fantastic volley in the 18th minute, and the game felt decided already. …The Socceroos never looked like they were going to score. Even moreso when Paolo “Coca Tea” Guerrero scored a neat side volley to make it 2-0 in the 50th. Betcha The Bearded Maniac Mile Jedinak was sorry he signed a petition (along with French Captain Hugo Lloris & Denmark Captain Simon Kjaer) to allow Guerrero to play in this World Cup and stay his suspension until afterwards, which was granted. At least Jedinak is a good sport, and he has that going for him, which is nice. But Advance, Australia Fair, they did not #GoneFishing.

France 0:0 Denmark – I always forget how catchy “La Marseillaise” is, which sadly was the best thing about this match. Both teams only needed a tie to achieve their objectives. So it went in the most boring game of the tournament. For their reward in winning the group, France gets 2014 Finalist …

Nigeria 1:2 Argentina – … Argentina, who got through in second place in Group D … Grabbing an early lead through a bit of magic from the footballing Houdini himself, Argentina got the start they needed and lacked the prior two matches … Bold move – whoever made that decision, the coach or the players – to start a goalkeeper getting his 1st cap, but aside from the penalty kick goal by Nigeria’s Victor Moses in the 51st, Franco Armani’s debut was quite dapper. From there, the tension in St. Petersburg ratcheted up minute by minute, Argentina desperation growing as they missed several chances, until the pressure found its release as Rojo, having escaped the guillotine 10 minutes earlier with a handball correctly called inadvertent, coolly slotted home a low volley, giving Messi and their entire country a piggyback ride into the knockouts. … I get the feeling we’ll be hearing more from Nigeria, who won the U-20 World Cup last year #GoneFishing.

Croatia 2:1 Iceland – Making nine lineup changes, the Mad Phat Croats showed off their depth against a resolute Icelandic side unable to recreate their wonder from the 2016 Euros #GoneFishing. Ivan Perisic gets the winner in the 90th, overcoming teammate Dejan Lovren’s Umtiti in the box …The Croatian Sensations get Denmark on Sunday, in a battle featuring Tottenham Hotspur’s past (Luka Modric) and present (Christian Eriksen) midfield engines.

France-Argentina is  World Cup Final-quality match.  No result would surprise me there, although I tend to think Argentina has already hit their ceiling, and France is far from it; Plus, I can;’t go against my pre-tournament pick. Meanwhile, I’m still in a bit of disbelief …

6/27

South Korea 2:0 Germany – Funny how what goes around, comes around, and the time that can take to happen. Germany knocked Korea out of their own World Cup in the 2002 Semis, and 16 years later, Korea sends the Defending World Champions tumbling out of Russia … Korea just sat back and absorbed Germany like a sponge, stifling their final move towards goal time after time, and were then rewarded for their obstinance in stoppage, scoring two of what can only be called silly goals, VAR only extending the German agony (As an aside, the linesman who called that 1st goal offsides, and then nodded as if it was an obvious call, shouldn’t see the field again this tournament). Hard to pin the German collapse – and that’s what this is, a complete, and unprecedented collapse – on any one thing, although their midfield to a man was just plain awful at both ends, constantly stranding their backline during Korean sorties and squandering scoring opportunities. Inserting Thomas Mueller and Mario Gomez didn’t improve that status quo either, their improvidence (26 shots but only 6 on goal) enduring as they were stuck several gears below top. Were they just arrogant?Slow? Did they really miss the suspended Jerome Boateng in central defense? Did they age in dog years since their triumph in Brazil? Was it a general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament? I’m babbling. Die Mannschaft has had several identity crises in the 20 years since their loss in the 1998 France Quarterfinals, but they hadn’t been out of the World Cup Top 3 since, finishing 2nd, 3rd, 3rd and 1st in successive tournaments. Continuing the “Curse of the Cup Winners”, becoming the 4th defending champion in the last five World Cups to go out in the group stage, Ze Germans finished last in Group F. Worldwide schadenfreude is off the charts, in any event. #GoneFishing

Mexico 0:3 Sweden – The fastest yellow card in World Cup history – 13 seconds into the game – was likely a harbinger of Mexico’s doom. If not, then it was the terrible call 5 minutes later by the Argentinean ref on Mexico’s goalie Memo Ochoa, on what clearly never was a hand ball outside the box. Or was it when Fox’s Jorge Perez-Navarro called their opponents “Swehhdish”? But I digress … Clockwork Yellow took control early in the 2nd, Mexico allowing a sloppy goal, then a sloppy penalty inside the box to go down 2-0 in the 62nd, and the sloppy autogol in the 74th was a microcosm of it all, as Sweden’s methodical play unwound a more talented side. Mexico clearly didn’t have it today, ultimately needing that German collapse to advance after dominating Group F heretofore. Probably a necessary wake-up call, as Brazil – their vanquished opponent in the 2012 Olympic Gold Medal match, with several of the players from those Olympic squads (Brazil with 4, Mexico 7) on these World Cup rosters – awaits on Monday.

Sweden is enigmatic to me, I’m still trying to figure out how they actually won Group F, other than the “slow and steady wins the race” trope I keep coming back to; Hard to deny the quality of their product though, having dominated Korea and Mexico, and extending Germany to the last kick of their game. I like them against Switzerland (who have two of their starting defenders suspended for yellow card accumulation) in the Battle of the Methodical, and they could become the 2016 Euros Iceland of this tournament.

Serbia 0:2 Brazil – This won’t surprise Liverpool fans much, but Phillipe Coutinho is the straw that stirs The Selecao’s drink, not Neymar. His vision to see Paulinho on a run from deep midfield and loft the perfect pass to him was sublime …The Serbs were formidable throughout the group stage, albeit missing that little something something which the teams playing this coming weekend have #GoneFishing. Brazil played their best game so far, but will have to be better against a dangerous and unafraid El Tri.

Switzerland 2:2 Costa Rica – An open, freewheeling affair …  Both teams continued riding the see-saw in the 2nd, Costa Rica leveling in the 56th, then the Swiss regaining the lead late in the 88th, before Pura Vida earned a consolation result on a bizarre Yann Sommer own-goal off a penalty kick in stoppage time. If only Los Ticos played with such abandon against Serbia and Brazil, maybe “CONCACAF Thunder” would have been a thing in Russia too. Switzerland meanwhile was a late Shaqiri goal against Serbia from having 3 ties in group play, which would befit a country known for its neutrality. As it is, a cagey matchup with “Swehhden” looms.

That left side of the knockout bracket is monstrous, Uruguay-Portugal, France-Argentina, Brazil-Mexico, and Belgium/Japan are all Semifinal quality games. The right side of the bracket might as well be called the “European Regional”, with 7 of the eight teams from UEFA.

6/28

Senegal 0:1 Colombia – Stylistically this appeared to be one of the more intriguing matches of the group stage’s last round, especially since it was likely only one of the two would advance. Wasn’t quite the barnburner I hoped for, James going out 30 minutes in seemed to tilt the match against The Cafeteros, who posed little threat thereafter, save for the one chance that ultimately mattered the most. … When Poland scored their goal against Japan, there was a 15 minute period where both Senegal & Colombia were in at Japan’s expense, but that ended with Jerry Mina’s header in the 74th off a Colombian corner. Senegal seemed to be playing for the tie throughout, going down a goal only increasing that urgency but not their efficacy, and as it went they bounce out on Fair Play points (basically, 2 more yellow cards than Japan), killing the last chance for an African team to advance #GoneFishing. Hopefully for Colombia’s sake, James can play 5 days from now, otherwise their days are numbered. Literally.

Japan 0:1 Poland – Only skimmed through it to see if Poland would finally show up, which they sort of did, I guess. The last 10 minutes were weird as both teams took turns salting the game away to preserve the 1-0 score … Jan Bednarek’s goal in the 59th provided a nice parting gift for Poland, while Japan is the only AFC team to get out of their group.

Panama 1:2 Tunisia – Didn’t watch. Don’t care. Of course there was an own-goal. Of course Panama lost their lead. Tunisia was full blast and top down, got an on-ramp comin’ through Panama’s box with two solid goals off nice crosses, from the highlights I saw.

My apologies to David Lee Roth and the rest of Van Halen

England 0:1 Belgium – I’d been excited for this game since this World Cup began, but this one was just for funsies, despite some potential for perverse incentives to finish second in the group, as both teams had already advanced to the knockouts. Both Belgium and England emptied their bench, making 17 lineup changes between them, and eventually played everyone who hadn’t yet except for the backup goalies. As a result, the game lacked flow, and had a preseason exhibition feel to it. … The lone goal coming from Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj with a crossover Allen Iverson would be proud of, sending a laser beam into the opposite corner of the net in the 51st … Belgium wins the group, gets the easier Round of 16 opponent in Japan, but the tougher half of the bracket. England sees a tricky match with Colombia, but a kinder draw to the semis.

I’ll miss four games of World Cup soccer a day, but my work productivity will not. Advancing to the knockout phase are 10 European teams, 4 from South America, and 1 each from Asia and North America. Weezer blessed the rains down in Africa, and it did not matter.

Not for nothing, but I did participate in a FIFA Bracket Prediction game in a private group, and got 12 of the 16 knockout phase teams right, only missing out on Egypt, Serbia, Poland and of course, Germany. I’m supposedly #146,491 out of 543,369 players! Here is my revised bracket predictions for the knockouts, with the benefit of added information from two weeks’ worth of games. Croatia, Belgium and Brazil were the best three teams I saw in the group stage, but I do think some switches are about to be flipped, and I see no reason to jump ship from France, who won their group, are still as talented as anyone, and still have the opportunity to become more than the sum of those parts.

2018 NBA Draft: Should Vs. Will

Perusing all the various mock drafts for the 2018 National Basketball Association Draft (Today, 4:00pm PST, ESPN), and regardless of where they agree or disagree, they all start to read the same way.  As with most mock drafts of any type and for any sport I see, they attempt to bridge a gap between “What Should Happen”, a projection of what teams should prioritize largely based on their own assessment of the available draft eligible talent, and “What Will Happen”, a prediction of how teams will respond to prior inputs and actions largely based on history and an estimation of each team’s needs, wants, and scouting.

Many of these mocks live in a netherworld that tries to have it both ways, and most of them do not tell you, the reader, the difference, i.e., what assessments are more objective and which analyses are of a more subjective nature.  ESPN is one of the few I’ve seen that produced a “What Should Happen” mock and told you upfront (click on “see how everything works here”).

I will do no such thing. I will go through the Lottery slots (picks originally belonging to teams that did not make the playoffs, Nos. 1-14) in order and spell out both for you – what I think teams should do (more subjective), and what I think teams are most likely to do (more objective), with clear delineation between the two. For ease and convenience, I will assume that each team will stay at their slot and pick a player in the “Will Happen”, but we all know trades are bound to occur, and I will reflect or suggest that in the “Should Happen” as warranted.  If anything, it gives me the chance to be wrong twice on each team.

In the interest of full disclosure, here is my personal Top 14 NBA Draft prospect list, regardless of team selection order.  How I rate the available talent pool, which will factor in more to the “Should” than the “Will”:

1.) DeAndre Ayton, C (7’0½”, 261), Arizona

2.) Marvin Bagley III, F/C (6’10½”, 234), Duke

3.) Luka Doncic, G (6’8”, 228), Real Madrid

4.) Jaren Jackson, F/C (6’11”, 240), Michigan State

5.) Mo Bamba, C (7’0”, 225), Texas

6.) Michael Porter, Jr., F (6’10”, 212), Missouri

7.) Wendell Carter, C (6’10”, 257), Duke

8.) Mikal Bridges, F (6’7” 204), Villanova

9.) Kevin Knox, F (6’9” 213), Kentucky

10.) Trae Young, PG (6’2”, 176), Oklahoma

11.) Collin Sexton, PG (6’1½”, 185), Alabama

12.) Miles Bridges, F (6’6”, 226), Michigan State

13.) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G (6’6”, 182), Kentucky

14.) Zhaire Smith, G/F (6’4”, 199), Texas Tech

The Phoenix Suns are on the clock …

1.) Phoenix Suns

What Should Happen: Take DeAndre Ayton in their first 30 seconds on the clock.
What Will Happen: Use most of the allotted five (5) minutes for their pick, then select DeAndre Ayton.

Analysis: He is the consensus No. 1 pick in all the mass media mock drafts. I had suspected that with the new Head Coach Igor Kokoškov, that he would want to take Luka Doncic No. 1 (who he had coached on the Slovenian National Team to the European Title last summer), but Suns Owner Robert Sarver is a University of Arizona alumnus who went to Tucson several times to see Ayton play at Arizona. He may not have won all the awards, but I think Ayton was the best player in college basketball last season. So, yeah, the Suns take Ayton, and the drama starts at …

2.) Sacramento Kings

What Should Happen: Select Marvin Bagley III.
What Will Happen: Take Luka Doncic instead.

Analysis: I think Bagley is the No. 2 prospect in this draft, but I’ve long suspected that Sacramento was going to be happy taking take whomever Phoenix did not take between Ayton and Doncic. The Kings might be torn on who among the two to take, and recent reports and most mocks suggest they might actually take Bagley, but social media sleuths seem to think Doncic knows he’s going to Sac-town.

3.) Atlanta Hawks

What Should Happen: Taking whomever is left between Doncic and Bagley.
What Will Happen: Taking whomever is left between Doncic and Bagley.

Analysis: It’s more rare than you think when there’s a convergence between the “Should” and the “Will”, but if Doncic is still on the board, Atlanta likely jumps on him, and any team that passes on him from #3 on out will regret it. Some “mockers” (Is that a word in this context?  I’m using it!). I could see Atlanta opting for Jackson too, I just think that’s somewhat redundant with John Collins on the roster.

4.) Memphis Grizzlies

What Should Happen: Trade down to a team like the Knicks, 76ers, Celtics or Suns for more picks and/or a proven veteran player.
What Will Happen: Hold their nose and take Jaren Jackson, Jr.

Analysis: The Grizzlies were beset by injuries and a coaching change that involuntarily tanked their season, but I sense that they think they can bounce back with a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and get back to the playoffs, so they don’t look to me to be a team in for the long haul rebuild “process” (© Sam Hinkie). That’s why I think they should trade down to a team that wants Jackson or Bamba (or Doncic if he’s there) for picks and a player that can help them immediately.  Jackson is not that guy to help immediately, but he has as much upside as anyone in the draft as a modern rim-protecting, 3-point shooting big.  I think he was underutilized at Michigan State due to some roster construction issues and Tom Izzo having to play Nick Ward, but he’ll be a better NBA player than college player. I could also see Memphis holding their nose and taking Doncic if he falls to them.

5.) Dallas Mavericks

What Should Happen: Hope and Pray Mo Bamba falls to them.
What Will Happen: Try not to dance wildly when Mo Bamba falls to them

Analysis: Bamba has Rudy Gobert-plus upside as a rim protector, and in workouts he has a feathery touch from 3, but his offensive skill set otherwise is miles away, and his body also has a long journey to support his potential. Biggest Boom or Bust prospect in the draft in my opinion.

6.) Orlando Magic

What Should Happen: Take Michael Porter, Jr. and be happy.
What Will Happen: Take Michael Porter, Jr. and be unhappy.

Analysis: If we’re talking about talent alone, Porter would be right up there with Ayton as the No 1/1A prospect overall. He was actually #1 in most recruiting rankings lists until Bagley reclassified to the 2017 class last August, and I had him #1 entering their junior year of high school. However, that back injury is the red flag that won’t go away. I could see this as a spot for savvy teams to trade up with Orlando to snag what might be the best pure talent in the draft. I could also see the Magic taking Carter here, which, let’s be honest, either selection would add to their frontcourt logjam. Maybe they imprudently reach for a point guard here.

7.) Chicago Bulls

What Should Happen: Take Porter if he falls to him. Otherwise select Wendell Carter and plop him next to Lauri Markkanen.
What Will Happen: Select Wendell Carter.

Analysis: I am not as high on Carter’s upside as others are, thinking he should have even been more productive at Duke with Bagley drawing the defense’s attention away from the block.  But I believe Carter has the highest floor of any Top 14 prospect, as local reports suggest the Bulls would be happy with the safe pick here, and Carter would contribute right away as a natural fit at both ends of the floor in Chicago next to the outside marksman Markkanen. One caveat: If Porter drops to No. 7, Chicago won’t let him drop to No. 8.

8.) Cleveland Cavaliers

What Should Happen:  Draft for their future, and steal Mikal Bridges away from Philadelphia. Or trade for future picks.
What Will Happen: Make the appearance of appeasing LeBron, and select a point guard. If I had to guess, Trae Young.

Analysis: This might be a bit of a cop out in “guessing” which point guard I think “The Land” will take, in that I don’t really know if LeBron has a preference among Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Young, but Jonathan Givony of ESPN/Draft Express tweeted it’s a toss-up between the two. I’m not alone in thinking that’s the wrong move here, and to me their best option is to take the best “3-and-D” wing in the draft, Mikal Bridges, who is ready to contribute as a rookie and is the type of long wing that fits the Cavaliers’ current roster and can matchup with the contenders in the West. If Porter somehow drops to #8, he’s a no-brainer there, and bridges the gap between future and present needs. Otherwise, I don’t think Young or Gilgeous-Alexander present enough immediate help to factor into LeBron’s ultimate decision to stay or go.

9.) New York Knicks

What Should Happen: Take the point guard Cleveland does not take.
What Will Happen: Go for the sizzle and select Collin Sexton.

Analysis: If Cleveland takes Gilgeous-Alexander, then Young would make the most sense here, adding another plus-shooter around Porzingis.  Sexton however has that MSG flashiness in his game, and I can see the Knicks being seduced by his speed and his slashing ability.  Either way, last year’s pick Frank Ntilikina likely isn’t the future at point guard. Knox is someone teams should start considering at this point in the draft as well.

10.) Philadelphia 76ers

What Should Happen: Package 10 & 25 to move up a few spots to take another big talent and complete the Process (© Sam Hinkie).
What Will Happen: Be grateful that Mikal Bridges falls to them.

Analysis: If Doncic is available at No. 4, or Porter available at Nos. 6-8, the teams in those slots currently might be willing trading partners, and the 76ers would do well to add either of those two to their young core, both of whom would be fantastic fits in Philly.  However, with the GM position in interim flux thanks to twitter leaks, I think Philadelphia stands pat and takes the local Bridges, who is also a perfect complement to their core as a shooter and defender.

11.) Charlotte Hornets

What Should Happen: Jump on Kevin Knox with both feet.
What Will Happen: Select Kevin Knox and not let anyone know how ecstatic they are.

Analysis: Gilgeous-Alexander is a popular pick here in the mocks as well, but I don’t see Charlotte being able to pass up Knox, who has as high a ceiling as anyone likely to be taken ahead of him.  Dallas could take him at No. 5 if Bamba isn’t there, and I wouldn’t blink. At No. 11, I think he’s a virtual steal.

12.) Los Angeles Clippers

What Should Happen: Hope Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still there.
What Will Happen: Take Shai Gilgeous-Alexander because he is still there .

Analysis: I think the Clippers go point guard here, and would take Young or Sexton if they are still here and Gilgeous-Alexander is gone.  But can’t you just see Gilgeous-Alexander being a Doc Rivers guy?  I can, and so can many others.

13.) Los Angeles Clippers

What Should Happen: Trade out of this pick.
What Will Happen: Use this pick on Robert Williams.

Analysis: I’m not big on Robert Williams, was never impressed with his motor or offensive skill set besides his obvious athleticism and rim-running ability.  His college teammate Tyler Davis was better in college, and Williams is too raw for me to take him in the lottery.  Late teens maybe is where his value manifests, but too many mocks have the Clippers taking Williams.  Meanwhile, I don’t normally let friends who mock draft do NBADraftdotnet, but their mock actually agrees with my assessment, having Williams taken at No. 21 by Utah. So who knows? Unless they take Zhaire Smith or Miles Bridges – which, if they get Gilgeous-Alexander, I can’t see them taking another similarly-sized guard/wing –  I doubt they get someone who helps them immediately, so this should be a pick that draws some trade action. If they have to package this with No. 12 to either move up several spots, or take back a player in trade (I see you working Kawhi), then so be it.

14.) Denver Nuggets

What Should Happen: Take the best available player on the board, which will likely be Miles Bridges or Zhaire Smith.
What Will Happen: Select Lonnie Walker IV

Analysis: Denver is a mystery here, and the team most likely to be in “Best-player-on-the-board” mode, but they do need more wings, and any of the three names above would check that box. I’m huge on Zhaire Smith’s upside as a “3-and-D” wing, and think the versatile and productive Miles Bridges is a safer pick here, but I tend to agree with the Basketball Outsiders, who all four of their experts have the Nuggets taking the long and versatile Walker.  I wasn’t too impressed with him in college at Miami, considering the reputation he had from his prep career, but his upside is a good gamble, and I would have him in the No. 15-17 range as it is.

Overall, I think the draft is really strong at the top, then a big gap opens up right around where the Clippers pick at 12/13.  This is not the deepest draft in memory, but there should be several all-stars and anywhere from 1-4 franchise players from the lottery. My popcorn is ready

 

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.

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.

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