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The French Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Masters Lesson Nos. 12 and 89 in Never Assuming …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Golden Anniversary Celebrated With A Potentially Golden Championship Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rematches To Advance to the Title Match

Quick hits on tonight’s NCAA Final Four games (Oklahoma vs. Villanova, 6:09 EST; North Carolina vs. Syracuse, 8:49 EST, NRG Stadium, Houston, TX, TBS). Both are rematches of regular-season tilts, with Oklahoma having lapped Villanova 78-55 in the Pearl Harbor Invitational, and North Carolina having beaten Syracuse twice this season, at Syracuse’s similarly cavernous Carrier Dome as well as in Chapel Hill on Senior Night. Both games present wildly contrasting styles and tempos; According the, speedy Oklahoma and North Carolina have AdjT north of 70.0 posspg, while deliberate Villanova and Syracuse have AdjTs south of 67.0 posspg.  Then there is the “dome factor” to figure in, specifically games at tonight’s venue NRG Stadium in Houston, where altered depth perceptions due to the vastness of the space inside appear to have affected shooting percentages in prior games played there creating what Ken Pomoroy labeled the “NRG Effect”. At first blush it would appear to favor the teams who rely less on the three pointer (teams collectively have shot only 32.2 percent of their 3-point attempts in 15 games), and the teams who rebound better.

Applying that to these games, Oklahoma as a team shoots .428 from three, good for #2 in the country, although Villanova actually has shot more threes this season than Oklahoma (#7 in the country in 3PA, compared to the #19 Sooners), and since both teams are roughly equivalent in rebounding (Oklahoma grabs 51.5% of their total rebounds, Villanova’s TRB% is 51.4), I’ll go with the team that makes more of the threes they take, Oklahoma in a tightly contested game. Plus, Oklahoma has Buddy Hield, and you don’t. Villanova’s best chance is to go against the NRG Effect and get hot from three, belying their season-long 3FG% of .354, and their center Daniel Ochefu could be also be an X-factor for the Wildcats, but he’ll have to play more than 21 minutes and be more productive than his 8 point/10 rebound game in Hawaii.

As for the nightcap, I’m not a believer in the theory that it’s any more difficult to beat a team three times in one season, as the two prior victories usually show inherent superiority, or a higher ability to adapt to changing circumstances and find different ways to beat the same opponent. Syracuse is much more reliant on the three-pointer than North Carolina, as 42.4 percent of their field goal attempts come from three (whereby North Carolina only attempts 26.8% of their field goals from three); Although the temptation for North Carolina to shoot an elevated number of threes is ever-present against Syracuse’s 2-3 matchup zone defense, the Tar Heels are #1 in the country in two-point attempts and total two-point attempts made, as well as #1 in total rebounding and #3 in total offensive rebounding. Combined with the historical weakness of zone defenses in rebounding on the defensive end, and I think Carolina wins this game going away. Unless Syracuse and Malachi Richardson do to North Carolina what they did to Virginia and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon – then all bets are off.

Parity Schmarity

All I’ve heard since November is how much parity there is at the top echelon of college basketball this year, that any of 15 (or more) teams could win the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and that many more could reach the Final Four. That we are due for the craziest, the Maddest March of recent memory.

Not. Completely. Buying it.

First, there are the wiseguys, the various oddsmakers who only have 3 teams at shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all: Kansas (9:2), Michigan State (5:1) and North Carolina (11:2) according to Then there are the smart guys, like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew that crunched the data for their March Madness predictions and determined that four (4) teams – the aforementioned Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina, plus Virginia – have a combined probability just over 52.5% of winning the NCAA Title. Four teams, better than the Field. And, like ESPN Insider John Gasaway, who 10 days ago postulated there are only “… eight teams that may win the national championship.” You’ll have to click the links to find out who he thinks those teams are, or just read further as my list of Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap.

Finally, there’s the often mocked, misunderstood, and subjective yet completely entitled “eye test”. Kansas and North Carolina won both their regular season and conference tourney titles, riding 14 and 5-game win streaks respectively. Michigan State recovered from a 3-game losing streak in January to take 13 of their last 14, avenging their only loss in that period (by 1 at Purdue) in the Big Ten Tournament Title game. Virginia is the only other team than Kansas to be Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. To these steely blues, few other teams look the part of a National Champion as we find ourselves, again, at the precipice of the Madness.

Without further ado, I present my “TL:DR”, macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My chalky bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which will surely be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Sunday afternoon.

Championship Contenders – Formerly of the now defunct website, a true gent by the name of Peter Tiernan had developed three Championship Tests based on the common characteristics of every National Champion since at least 2003 (for a detailed breakdown of each Championship test, one can refer to last year’s NCAA Tournament Preview, under the same “Championship Contenders” heading). In the last couple of years, these tests have taken on a bit of water, Connecticut having blowing out half the criteria in 2014, and Duke having to work their way into meeting the defensive efficiency thresholds on their way to the 2015 Title; Entering the NCAAs, Duke had passed all criteria except for defensive efficiency (AdjD) by less than 1.0 point per possession (96.1, ranked 57th), but ended the tournament ranked 12th overall with an AdjD of 92.3, meaning they REALLY played great defense during the NCAAs to lower their season-long AdjD by almost 4 points per possession, both of which demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can play their way into matching their criteria and becoming an NCAA Champion.

I’ll save a more thorough analysis of these tests for later – Now is where I point out that we still don’t have a full appreciation for what the 30-second shot clock and emphasis on “freedom of movement” have done to collective efficiencies, pace and overall scoring this season, how that plays out in this and future NCAA Tournaments, and how that might inform attempts at forecasting legitimate title contenders – but I still find them to be a useful filter for separating Championship-level contenders from the vast multitude of pretenders, as well as identifying those teams who are thiiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from putting it all together and making the final step(s) into title contention.

Testing this year’s field, only nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Raw Data test. Nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Rankings Test; only five (5) of which also meet the original Raw test, with six (6) others conforming to what I shall refer to as the “Connecticut Standard” (Offensive Efficiency Ranking equal or better than #39, as opposed to #18 in the original Raw test), for 15 total passing in some form or fashion. Six (6) met Tiernan’s Eight Criteria: Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and Villanova pass all three tests, while West Virginia and Oklahoma satisfy the Connecticut Standard in addition to the other two tests. Virginia makes it a Magnificent Seven gunning for the NCAA Title, even as their coach Tony Bennett hasn’t taken a team to an Elite Eight (yet), and despite a healthy scoring margin (+10.7 points per game over their opponents) the Cavaliers don’t score as much as past Champions – only 70.4 ppg, lower than the 73 point threshold, but then again Connecticut (71.8 ppg) never met that threshold in 2014 either. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be the Top 7 overall teams in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings this season. From more to less likely, one of these teams will have that One Shining Moment:

  • North Carolina
  • Kansas
  • Michigan State
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • West Virginia
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That slim margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself in one aspect of each team’s season-long performance, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense, or as Nylon Calculus suggests, how tested a team was by their non-conference schedule as a potential indication of their ability to close out close games under the pressure of tournament play. By the same token, each of these teams have proven they can perform at an elite level in the other aspects, well enough to compete with any team. These 10 Darkhorses are highly efficient offensively or defensively (if not both), but consistently fall short in one key area such as rebounding, turnovers, rim protection, shooting or defending the 3-pointer, or making free throws, or they may simply lack the depth to have a productive bench. All but two teams listed below meet one or both Pomeroy tests, with four of them (Oregon, Miami, Xavier, Arizona) one criterion short of passing Tiernan’s Eight, and the other four (Purdue, Texas A&M, Maryland, Iowa) as relatively efficient as 2014 Connecticut was, while the other two (Utah, Indiana) could play themselves into Championship levels like Duke last year. Although it might seem silly to call a #1 seed like Oregon a “Darkhorse”, they are much less tested out of conference than every Contender except Michigan State as well as lacking the defensive efficiency of their other fellow #1 seeds, so they’re here almost by default. Fortunately for the Ducks of Eugene, Oregon is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, so they are at the top of the list. At the other end of this spectrum, Arizona might have the toughest road to the Final Four, in that barring upsets, every team they could face will have a higher Pomeroy Rating, and they had the 3rd weakest non-conference schedule in the entire tournament field (behind only Hawaii and Pittsburgh). Yet Sean Miller’s squad hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, their eight (8) losses by an average of 4.1 ppg. By Sunday, the true Darkhorses among this group will have revealed themselves:

  • Oregon
  • Miami
  • Purdue
  • Texas A&M
  • Xavier
  • Iowa
  • Maryland
  • Utah
  • Indiana
  • Arizona

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four Cinderellas – While the idea of a mid-major/low-major team that sneaks up on the rest of the field and surprises the even the casual fan has lost the element of true surprise, in a television landscape that turns former novelties like Gonzaga and Wichita State into household names, College Basketball still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. So the following teams are only relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, identifiable names despite their mid-major status with players you may not (or actually may) be familiar with (such as Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, Butler’s Roosevelt Jones, Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun, or St. Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry), but will be before this weekend ends (everyone by now already knows my main man Scoochie from Dayton). Something else to note is that everyone listed below except Butler either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final (three of whom, Gonzaga, St. Joseph’s, and Northern Iowa, won). I don’t think any of them will replicate “2006 George Mason” or “2010 Butler”, but the beauty is, you just never know:

  • Gonzaga
  • St. Joseph’s
  • Dayton
  • Wichita State
  • Northern Iowa
  • Butler
  • VCU

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#11) and 1987 (#10) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all seven (7) teams a.) come from a high-major conference (like Cinderella’s Stepsisters), b.) Are seeded No. 8 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. Most of these teams will shortly become “Also-Rans”, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can correctly call it, your bracket would likely have a big edge on others as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 2 seed in the Second Round. I like Providence to have the best opportunity to pester and persevere, led by two future NBA players in forward Ben Bentil, and for my money the best point guard in college basketball, June NBA Lottery Pick Kris Dunn. Followed closely by (dare I say it?) Connecticut:

  • Providence
  • Connecticut
  • Syracuse
  • USC
  • Colorado
  • Temple
  • Pittsburgh

Feast or Famine – This category will also serve as the answer to last year’s archetypal question, “Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field?” The Quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams, matriculating in the Nos.3-8 seed range because they are either “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Baylor) or are acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing defense over offense (California, Seton Hall) or vice-versa (Kentucky, Duke, Iowa State, Notre Dame). Several factors explain that stasis, such as an overreliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, and/or uncertain quantities in their coaching, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or Stepsisters. In many ways, the next level down from Darkhorse status, where two wins in the first weekend automatically elevates them. Every #4 seed made this group, teams full of NBA talent and the opportunity to seize their promising future now. Three (3) teams also played in their respective conference tournament finals, with Kentucky (Big 12) and Seton Hall (Big East) winning, and three more (Cal, Baylor, Notre Dame) got to their conference tourney semis, so momentum could play a factor for these squads:

  • Kentucky
  • Duke
  • Seton Hall
  • California
  • Iowa State
  • Notre Dame
  • Baylor

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – A true “Grabbag” category. Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t “get”, despite multiple attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with a sense of basketball ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to put my thumb on what exactly that “more” would be. Only Oregon State has what I would consider as recognizable, surefire NBA-level talent in Gary Payton II (does that make him “The Mitten”? Not if he has anything to say about it), so it could be the lack of an obvious Alpha with all of these other teams that confounds:

  • Texas
  • Oregon State
  • Wisconsin
  • Texas Tech
  • Cincinnati
  • Michigan

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – What is an “upset” anymore? Not a #10 beating a #7 seed to be sure, and when you consider in the last six (6) NCAA Tournaments #11 seeds are 12-12 vs. their #6 seed counterparts, it’s hard to consider that scenario an upset either. Surprisingly, none of the #12 seeds beat #5 seeds last year, so maybe that pendulum is swinging back into “Upset” territory (Yale fits that bill nicely). So is #13 over #4 the new threshold (Iona, please)? Two of the #14 seeds last year also won their First Round games, so maybe that’s the new sweet spot (I’d be more bullish on Pomeroy Rated #34 Stephen F. Austin here if they weren’t playing Championship Contender West Virginia)? Seed upsets tend to occur when high roster turnover and inconsistent results among high-major conference schools lower their seed to the point where they face mid-majors who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters – where competitive “parity” actually occurs in the early rounds. In this field, most of the spry low-to-mid-majors are in the #12-14 range. It’s the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket, assessing the deeper seeds for opening game upset potential; However, it’s no coincidence however that many of the teams here are the opponents of the “Feast or Famine” teams listed above:

  • Yale
  • Iona
  • Arkansas Little-Rock
  • Hawai’i
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Fresno State
  • Stephen F. Austin

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – Remember: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, despite coming close a couple of times, so I’m only including the No. 16 seeds here only by reference. These double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). In particular, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, and according to Pomeroy, Chattanooga is the 2nd-luckiest team in the field (a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), so I figure that “luck” runs out.

  • Chattanooga
  • South Dakota State
  • Stony Brook
  • Buffalo
  • Green Bay
  • Middle Tennessee
  • UNC Asheville
  • Weber State
  • Cal State Bakersfield

And Now … Four Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … Wichita State. They are the #9 rated team in the country according to Pomeroy. How they are a #11 seed is beyond me. They virtually traded the graduated Tekele Cotton for Kansas transfer Connor Frankamp, added under-recruited super-Frosh Markis McDuffie, and return their senior, war-tested backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to a tenacious 9-man rotation, filling the rest with athletic frontcourt depth. Currently the Shockers sit as the No. 1 defense in the country, whether you measure it by scoring allowed (59.0 ppg) or Defensive Efficiency (88.6 AdjD). Plus they just don’t turn the ball over (less than 10/game), while they will turn you over (opponents average over 15/game), both in Top 20 in the country. In their First Four game on Tuesday, they closed out Vanderbilt on a 20-2 run, and held all five of Vandy’s starters to single digit point production, making them look not so Dandy. Finally, since VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games every tournament. In sum, Arizona has their work cut out for them, as does any future potential opponent all the way to potential Elite Eight, in-state foe Kansas.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Iowa. As recently as four weeks ago, they were ranked #4 in the AP Poll. Since then, Tom Petty called, and said the Hawkeyes are Free Falling into the NCAAs, losing 5 of their last 6 games, including their only game in the Big Ten Tournament to a 15-18 Illinois squad that lost their subsequent and final game of the season by 31 points, and likely dropping 4-5 seedlines in the process. All of which is eerily reminiscent of their 2014 season in which they lost 6 of their last 7 games prior to the NCAAs and ended their season in the First Four with a loss to Tennessee. Five of their seven rotation players average more the 30 mpg, and while Jarred Uthoff has garnered some All-American consideration, he and his teammates, and his coach Fran McCaffery, just look worn down. Yet, they beat Michigan State twice this season by a combined 30 points, beat Purdue twice this season by a combined 19 points, became a tempting pick to upset Villanova in the Second Round (more on that in a sec), and one of my Darkhorse teams for a Final Four berth due to meeting the “Connecticut Standard” Pomeroy Rankings Test. Go figure.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Villanova. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jay Wright (once again) has (possibly) his best team since his 2009 Final Four squad, balanced (might be more guard dependent actually, but go with it), versatile, and eager to atone for last year’s (once more) premature exit to North Carolina State in the Round of 32. By seed, they are scheduled to face an Iowa squad (should they stop moonwalking and beat Temple) that a month ago was vying for a #1 seed alongside Villanova. Or in the alternative, a less than desirable matchup with “Big 5” rival Temple. Even though they are one of my seven (7) Contenders for the NCAA Title, much will rest on the healing right ankle of big man Daniel Ochefu. Despite their gaudy analytics and win totals, I’ll believe Villanova gets to the Final Four this year when I actually see it happen, and not a second before.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 1 for 4, as my Champion pick Kentucky lost in the Final Four, so I’m starting to get a complex about it, but we forge ahead. Hollywood wouldn’t buy this script, but Cryin’ Roy Williams will surpass his mentor Dean Smith and win his 3rd National Title at North Carolina, at the expense of his former betrothed Kansas Jayhawks. Joining them in Houston will be the Oklahoma Sooners (AKA “The Fighting Buddy Hields”), losing for the 3rd time this season to the Jayhawks in what would  become a classic trilogy of games between the Big 12 rivals, and the Michigan State Spartans, getting “Izzo, Tom Izzo” to his 8th Final Four before losing a rematch of the 2009 Final. While it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if one of these other three teams took home the NCAA Title, my final calculus is simple: All the top teams at their best, the Tar Heels just have too much talent and experience for anyone else, and they are the best team I’ve watched all season. In my mind, it’s gone to Carolina. Can’t you just see the sunshine?

Putting Out Cookies & Milk for The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee

One of the greatest days of the year is once again before us. Selection Sunday, a prelude to the 12 Days of Basketball Christmas that is March and early April) Madness, where at 5:30pm EST, we’ll finally get to peak under the tree as 68 invitees for the field of the NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship and their destinations and matchups will be announced.

I won’t pretend to be a “bracketologist”, as there are plenty of other professionals and amateurs out there who put vastly more labor into their prognostications, placing all 68 teams in seeds, matchups and tournament sites. I will however call my shot at the 68 teams in the field. Last year I called 67/68 correctly, missing on Colorado State instead of Ole Miss.

Here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, and my educated guesses at who will perchance to dream during this most wonderful time of the year (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives the NIT consolation prize (never mind all the other also-ran, alphabet postseason tournaments, held for reasons I am still unclear about).

We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments (except for the Ivy League); only 5 of which repeated from last season (marked below with a *) while only 10 of the 31 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader, only the Ivy League doesn’t hold a conference tournament, which changes next year) went on to win their conference tournament – both of which have to be some sort of record.

American Athletic – Connecticut

America East – Stony Brook

ACC – North Carolina

Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast

Atlantic-10 – St. Joseph’s

Big 12 – Kansas

Big East – Seton Hall

Big Sky – Weber State

Big South – UNC Asheville

Big Ten – Michigan State

Big West – Hawaii

Colonial – UNC Wilmington

Conference USA – Middle Tennessee

Horizon – Wisconsin-Green Bay

Ivy – Yale

Metro Atlantic – Iona

Mid-American – Buffalo*

Mid-Eastern – Hampton*

Missouri Valley – Northern Iowa*

Mountain West – Fresno State

Northeast – Farleigh Dickinson

Ohio Valley – Austin Peay

Pac-12 – Oregon

Patriot – Holy Cross

SEC – Kentucky

Southern – Chattanooga

Southland – Stephen F. Austin*

Southwestern Athletic – Southern

Summit League – South Dakota State

Sun Belt – Arkansas Little-Rock

West Coast – Gonzaga*

WAC – Cal-State Bakersfield

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

American Athletic (2): Cincinnati, Temple

ACC (4) – Virginia, Duke, Miami, Notre Dame

Atlantic-10 (2) – Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth

Big 12 (5) – Baylor, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, Iowa State

Big East (4) – Villanova, Providence, Butler, Xavier

Big Ten (5) – Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa

Pac-12 (5) – Arizona, Utah, Cal, USC, Colorado

SEC (2) – Texas A&M, South Carolina

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

American Athletic (1) – Tulsa

ACC (2) – Syracuse, Pittsburgh

Atlantic-10 (1) – St. Bonaventure

Big 12 (1) – Texas Tech

Big Ten (1) – Michigan

Horizon (1) – Valparaiso

Metro Atlantic (1) – Monmouth

Missouri Valley (1) – Wichita State

Mountain West (1) – San Diego State

Pac-12 (1) – Oregon State

SEC (2) – Georgia, Vanderbilt

West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

With these 14 teams competing for the last seven (7) spots, despite all the parity this season it is a relatively small bubble. Drawing straws, here’s my best guess as to those Quasi-Magnificent Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

Wichita State

Oregon State

Texas Tech


St. Mary’s


San Diego State

Michigan, Monmouth, Valparaiso and Pittsburgh would be what bracketologists would refer to as my “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, in what would mostly be a victory for the power conferences. The NCAA Selection Show is already underway, with its usual bag of surprises and head-scratchers, so we’ll know shortly who got lumps of coal in their stocking.

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

EDIT 6:58 PST: I had counted Oregon State twice, in both the “Locks” and “Bubble Teams”, so I left them as a “Bubble Team”, which reduced the “Locks” by one (1) to 29, and raised the “Bubble Teams” by one (1) to 7. As such, I put San Diego State in as my least safe team on the right side of the bubble, and added Pittsburgh to my “Last Four Out.” As the field has now been announced (and apparently leaked online before CBS’ NCAA Selection Show had announced the entire field), I had 65/68 teams correct above, with one of my 29 “Locks”, South Carolina, not selected (First time that’s happened to me) as well as the bubble bursting for St. Mary’s and San Diego State (What’s a mid-major to do?), and Michigan, Pittsburgh and Tulsa (?!?) selected in their place. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also got 65/68 teams right, missing Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Tulsa (Me too Joe, me too) while he had placed St. Bonaventure in the field, as well as St. Mary’s and San Diego State like I had. Finally, Andy Katz interviewed NCAA Selection Committee Chair Joe Castiglione on ESPN’s “Bracketology” show and Castiglione said the last team in was Tulsa, while the first four out were St. Bonaventure, Valparaiso, South Carolina and Monmouth. So there’s that.

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