Sam Young scored a team-high 15 points as No. 3 seed Pitt dropped VCU in overtime.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As the crowd filed out, a saxophonist in the VCU pep band hunched over and blew a few sedated, bluesy notes for no one in particular. The horns of the Pittsburgh ensemble at the other end of the floor drowned him out, blasting Celebration while victorious coach Jamie Dixon and guard Mike Cook were being interviewed by CBS, and we were left to dwell on what might have been here at HSBC Arena.
An amazing, 19-point comeback by VCU in the final 12 minutes of regulation -- much of it ignited by intense full-court pressure -- sent the game into overtime, but alas had no Shining Moment or Eric Maynor Miracle for an ending. What the Rams could do against Duke could not be replicated against the Panthers, who went on a 7-2 run to open the extra period and hung on to win 84-79.
While Pitt's role here in Buffalo will most likely be remembered as that of a mid-major villain -- it blew out Wright State before sinking VCU -- it leaves the first two rounds having proven an important point: That it is deep and experienced enough to win on a big stage even when Aaron Gray is ailing, and therefore should not be written off as mere Sweet Sixteen fodder for UCLA, the team led by Dixon's coaching mentor, Ben Howland.
Whereas last year's Panthers, who lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Bradley, might have bowed out in the face of adversity, this veteran team rallied around it. The first situation arose for Pitt late Thursday night, when the 7-foot Gray, their primary size advantage over the Rams, came down with an illness and couldn't practice on Friday. "Last night, I felt terrible," Gray said after Saturday's game. "I don't know if it was food poisoning or a stomach virus, but I got maybe an hour and half of sleep."
As Pitt's Big Queasy recounted the more unpleasant details of his symptoms in the locker room, he was so exhausted that the only way he could stand was with his hands on his knees. He had been limited to 26 minutes and looked delirious at times, but still managed to score 14 points (his season average) and dish out a team-high five assists. Gray was less impressed with his perseverance, though, than he was how many of his teammates had stepped up while he was nauseous. Cook had scored seven early points to help build a first-half lead, Sam Young poured in a team-high 15, and seven different Panthers finished with at least eight points.
"We have a lot of weapons, and with all the attention I'm getting, the supporting cast that can come up huge," Gray said. "We have a great playmaker in Levance [Fields], a great shooter in Ronald Ramon, big athletes in Sam Young and Keith Benjamin, and maybe one of the smartest players in college basketball in Levon Kendall. So if you try to take me away, there's definitely more options for this team."
Kendall fouled out with 3:42 left in overtime -- his glue-guy stat line reading eight points, eight boards and three blocks -- but the senior forward's headiness played a role even after he was disqualified. With 2.1 seconds left in regulation and the chance to win the game from the charity stripe, Fields, a sophomore, had missed two free throws, leaving the score tied at 69-69. His Goat Potential was huge heading into the extra period.
Walking toward the pre-OT huddle, Fields was met by Kendall, who grabbed the young point guard and said, "Look, the game is not over. Make sure you get a second chance to win it in overtime. We need you."
At the 3:10 mark in OT, with the score 72-71 in Pitt's favor, Fields shook off VCU's B.A. Walker with a crossover and drilled a cold-blooded 3-pointer. The Rams would claw back to within one in the final 30 seconds, but never fully recovered from Fields' redeeming long-range bomb. The sad-sax notes faded along with the potential darlings of the dance, and another big, bad veteran power was headed into the second weekend.
Player Who Impressed Me:Jesse Pellot-Rosa, VCU. JP-R got overlooked amid the Duke upset's Maynor Mania, but the Rams' leading scorer from the regular season was brilliant during their second-half comeback. The following stats are just jaw-dropping: Up until the point where VCU trailed Pitt by 19 -- the 12:11 mark of the second half -- Pellot-Rosa had put up two points, one assist, zero steals and zero offensive rebounds. In the final 8:49 of regulation and the five minutes of OT, he racked up 18 points, three assists, three offensive rebounds and one steal. Bravo, Jesse: You were a hyphenated hero in defeat. Courtside Confidential: Maynor wore a pair of customized black-and-yellow NikeID shoes, which he ordered online, that said "Macmain 3" on the tongue. His teammates borrowed the Macmain nickname from a member of rapper Lil' Wayne's group. ... Maynor's father, George, who was in the stands, was a fourth-round draftee of the Chicago Bulls in 1979. Also a point guard, he stayed for his senior year at East Carolina and entered the Bulls' training camp in 1980, where he was let go in the final round of cuts. Eric's clutch genes were passed down from George: Pops said he hit a game-winner to beat a Jim Valvano-coached Iona team in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1979. ... Despite Pittsburgh's proximity to Buffalo -- just 216 miles, according to Google Maps -- the Panthers had a surprisingly small contingent of fans at HSBC Arena. A larger showing might have helped them when the other 90 percent of the crowd turned in VCU's favor during the comeback.
The Big Picture: The Panthers' Sweet Sixteen matchup with UCLA will be billed as the Dixon-Howland duel, as they'll be facing their former head coach for the first time since he bolted for Westwood. It's an intriguing storyline, but I'm more interested in two less feature-worthy developments: 1) the Bruins looked mighty vulnerable against Indiana on Saturday and 2) this Pitt team is playing with far more confidence than the one that bowed out early in the 2006 tournament. When he looked around the huddle before overtime, Dixon said, "I don't think there was any doubt in my mind we'd win the game. The guys all believed."
The odds will be against Dixon & Co., who must fly cross-country and take on Howland's boys in their home state. Pitt looked shaky at times in the second half, but its players truly believe that the West Region isn't just a toss-up between UCLA and Kansas. After watching the Panthers weather VCU's storm, it's tough to disagree.
Pete Campbell (34), Julian Betko and the Bulldogs are in the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Win the pace war against Maryland, Butler figured, and it would win the game. All season long, the Bulldogs have witnessed the implosions of impatient opponents; the Horizon League's powerhouse takes the air out of the ball, waits for a defensive lapse, and then shoots daggers with the shot clock running down. It's a formula that always works: Heading into Saturday, when fifth-seeded Butler had monopolized time of possession and held its foes to under 60 points, it was 20-0.
The fourth-seeded Terrapins only managed 59, as the Bulldogs' sub-60 resume hit 21-0 and they sealed their second trip to the Sweet 16 of this decade. If one were to dwell only on athletic aesthetics -- comparing the Average Joe frontline of Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon against the highlight-reel duo of James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe; or the spindly, Chitwood-esque A.J. Graves against the prep phenom Mike Jones -- Butler's victory might seem like a fluke. But the truth is, it has this methodical style down to a science; early-season victims Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue can provide references for its effectiveness. In kenpom.com's pace rankings, the Terps were the 10th fastest team and the Bulldogs were the 330th, and on Saturday the Turtle was ground to a halt by the NCAA tournament's most dangerous tortoise.
"We work on being patient and keeping our poise -- especially against teams like Maryland that like to get up and down," said forward Julian Betko. "Our plan was not to get in their tempo, and play our tempo instead. I'm not saying they can't guard, but they don't want to guard. They just want to steal it, or get a rebound and go. So what we did was work the shot clock and get the best looks we could possibly get."
Butler's veteran lineup of three seniors (Betko, Crone and Ligon) and two juniors (Graves and Mike Green) had the poise to make big plays down the stretch. Graves' three with 2:11 left was clutch, and Green's offensive rebound with seven seconds to go and the Bulldogs up 61-59 clinched the game. The moments that truly displayed the power of coach Todd Lickliter's system, however, were stashed earlier in the second half.
With 12:55 left, and the Bulldogs up one, 42-41, Ligon rebounded a missed Graves jumper. Programmed not to force a quick shot, they instead went through a 25-second sequence that ended with two quintessential "Butler Passes:" Betko turned down a semi-open 3 from the top of key to hit Ligon on the left block; then Ligon passed up a contested layup but drew the attention of defender Gist, and wrapped the ball around to Drew Streicher for what was indeed the best possible look -- a one-foot bank shot.
The second masterpiece possession came at the 6:53 mark, when Butler, which plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the state tournament site in Hoosiers, went into full Norman Dale Mode. The ball touched no fewer than six sets of hands -- from Green, to Crone, to Betko, to Graves, back to Crone, and finally, back to Betko -- before he drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to put the Bulldogs up 51-46. Crone, the assist man there, would later knock down two jumpers in the final five seconds of the shot clock that demoralized the comeback-minded Terps. "It's a tough task to guard 30 seconds side to side," said Green. "We drill that in practice ... and we're pretty good with the shot clock under 10."
Despite its crunch-time savvy, Butler is the rare mid-major who entered the dance feeling slightly unloved. The NIT Season Tip-Off champs sat in the AP poll's Top 10 in February, but were banished from the rankings altogether after three late conference losses. "It's a small league, so [the nation] did kind of forget about us," said Crone. "But we don't care, to be honest."
The Bulldogs just keep on rolling in the dance, and keep on being called "smart" and "quaint" and "old-school" as they pick apart more modern opponents. Even Philly product Green, the player on Butler's roster who looks the most like he belongs in the ACC, is comfortable with the fact that any conversation about his team tends to gravitate toward words like "Basketball IQ" rather than, say, "high-wire act." "We're challenged a little bit physically, but as far as thinking," he said, "we might be one of the best teams in America."
Smart enough -- and patient enough -- to win a potential matchup with Florida next week? For an underdog that rose from being picked sixth in the Horizon League preseason poll, to finishing the regular season as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, that will be the ultimate battle of wits.
Believe it: Sixth-seeded Notre Dame came up short against No. 11 Winthrop.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This was the best first-round site in the bracket, despite the fact that there are blizzard conditions outside and the main entertainment option last night was watching drunks ride a mechanical buffalo. I consider the trip successful because in this, The Year of Chalk, I witnessed one of the two double-digit upsets in the entire NCAA tournament field. Since 1985, when the dance was expanded to 64 teams, 2000 and 2007 are the only years that so few major upsets have occurred. If I hadn't been sitting courtside for VCU's magic, I'd probably consider this the worst first round ever.
While grumbling about my standing in the Tourney Blog Pool -- my Marathon Oil squad is tied for 353rd out of 639 brackets -- I got to wondering about the etymology of the phrase "chalk," which in bracket-language means the higher seeds are advancing en masse. My girlfriend, Emily, who joined the pool, sent me this definition (found on doubletongued.org):
Years ago—before computers, if you can imagine—bets were recorded on a large chalkboard. The favorites would get the most checks and thus the most chalk, making picking the chalk the term for picking the favorite. This, however, is nothing to be proud of. No one brags about picking the winner when the chalk comes home—which happens about a third of the time.
Even the definition makes it clear: Chalk is nothing to be proud of. That said, we still most honor the Blog Pool's first-round leaders, one of whom happens to be from my original hometown (Fort Atkinson, Wis.) and also the younger brother of one of my younger brother's best friends, if that makes sense. University of Wisconsin student Joe Madden got 29 of 32 picks correct in his "Blackhawks > Illiniwek" bracket. (Chief Blackhawk was our mascot at old Fort High.) The least I can repay Joe for the three years he logged -- from ages 16-18 -- as our late-night bar taxi during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks is by mentioning his name here. The other bracket tied for first is David Wunderlich's "Lee For Three." I can only assume David is a Florida fan, but since I don't know him and he's never provided me with free transportation, he gets second billing.
A complete first-and-second-round Blog Pool review -- with my favorite team names -- will come either late Sunday or early Monday. Check the standings here in the meantime. I'm proud of you, folks, for joining up in such large numbers (639 entries, the more I think about it, is crazy) and taking the time to name your squads. With so much chalk on our hands, the tourney can only get better from here.
Chris "Big Greasy" Daniels (right) nearly stuffed Michael Flowers out of the dance.
Jonathan Daniels/Getty Images
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It's snowing like mad here in Western New York, where I'm cooped up in a hotel room, listening to the Metro Rail trains ring their bells on the street below and wondering if there's any chance I'll actually be able to fly to Chicago on Sunday.
Texas A&M Corpus-Christi, regrettably, won't be around if I do get to the United Center. The Islanders just let a Santa Clara-level upset slip through their hands -- as bad as Wisconsin looked today, it was once the nation's No. 1 team -- and I can't help but wonder what might have been. The nation would have fallen in love with the awkward acronym (TAMU-CC). How could it not embrace a squad that, among other things:
• Wears durasheen jerseys that look like cheap knockoffs of the original Minnesota Timberwolves duds. • Didn't have a logo or athletic program as of 1998. • Has a tiny pep band wearing hilarious Hawaiian shirts. • Calls an ex-Naval radar station in the Gulf of Mexico home. • Has a starter named Scooby. • Has a star center whose nickname is Big Greasy, and enjoys Whataburgers.
Instead, the team still standing is Wisconsin, which may seem less intriguing on the surface but does have a number of redeeming qualities. I spent 12 hours behind the scenes with the Badgers in February and learned, among other things, that Kammron Taylor is a solid amateur magician, Alando Tucker raps Lil' Wayne on the otherwise-silent bus to games, and they are very fond of barking.
Wisconsin has also inspired more hilarious musical tributes than any other team in the country. The Alando Tucker song -- a knockoff of ABBA's Fernando -- originated from WOLX in Madison and gained some Internet fame after we linked it up and customized an ABBA greatest hits cover in the SI.com Power Rankings. That image popped up everywhere, and no one ever asked me for the rights.
The popularity of the Tucker song, I think, led Badger State singer-songwriter Peter Leidy to send the blog an exclusive mp3 of his new track Mr. Bo Ryan. It's an ode to the UW coach set to the tune of Jerry Jeff Walker's Mr. Bojangles that Leidy originally performed on Wisconsin Public Television.
I believe you will find this verse particularly amazing (it's best listened to while simultaneously reading Rick Reilly's column on the Badgers' skipper):
You work hard, you play to win but you keep it fair in every game You're not the kind of guy who'd commit perjury or expose Valerie Plame The players keep us excited and they've never been indicted We respect you for that, yeah yeah
That's Bo Ryan, folks. His team may be prone to 19-point first halves, but he'd never rat out a CIA agent.
VCU's Matt Coward holds the team's symbol of unity -- a gold chain -- after its upset of Duke.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was a small gesture, easy to miss in the last-minute melee of an NCAA tournament thriller, but if you saw the wave, you knew how the ending would unfold. The ball had barely emerged from the net after Duke's DeMarcus Nelson laid it in to tie the game at 77-77 with 10.3 seconds left, when VCU guard Eric Maynor turned toward his coach, Anthony Grant, and with two motions of his hand, conveyed a message:
No need for a timeout. I'm taking over.
Few seniors would have the cojones -- or the confidence -- to make such a move, with their 11th-seeded team's Cinderella life on the line against one of college basketball's most venerable programs. Maynor happens to be a 6-foot-2, 165-pound wisp of a sophomore, but no ordinary underclassman. In the Colonial Athletic Association finals, he scored nine straight points in the final two minutes to knock off 2006 Final Four darling George Mason, and on Thursday, hit two consecutive Rams field goals leading up to the last sequence. So when Grant spied Maynor motioning from the other end of the court, he was not worried, but rather, "excited -- because I wasn't calling a timeout."
"There were 10 seconds to go in the game, and I was going to put the ball in his hands, and let him give us an opportunity to win in regulation."
Maynor raced upcourt, a cold-blooded ballhandler surveying the chaotic scene in front of him. "I felt like they were going to be in a scramble situation," he said of Duke's defenders, "and they weren't going to be able to match up." While the Blue Devils -- freshman Jon Scheyer in particular -- seemed unable to anticipate Maynor's final move, some of his VCU teammates were well aware of what was about to occur. They affectionately call Maynor "Bobblehead," because his head appears disproportionately large, and as senior guard Jesse Pellot-Rosa said, "When he crosses over, his head bobbles -- all 'wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-like,' -- but if he doesn't bobble, we know he's pulling up."
Bobblehead didn't wobble, and Maynor drained a free-throw-lane length jumper with 1.8 seconds left, putting the Rams up 79-77 and sending the crowd at HSBC Arena into a state of frenzy. Maynor -- who would finish with 22 points, eight assists and three steals -- jumped into the arms of teammate Jamal Shuler as Duke called a timeout, and reserve Matt Coward sprinted off the bench holding up the gold chain that has served as the symbol of VCU's unity since late February. Blue Devils point guard Greg Paulus, whose pas de deux with Maynor had been the game's biggest storyline, missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. The big dance had its first and only big upset of opening day, and Duke's run of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances was halted.
Maynor's mom, Barbara Johnson, ran down to the front row of the VCU section in the aftermath, in hopes of getting a word in with her son, a Fayetteville, N.C., product who had grown up as a Tar Heels fan and thus had an extensive history of despising Duke. Thursday, he got to take matters into his own hands. "That was the best shot in the world!" Henderson screamed as Maynor was being interviewed live on CBS. "Look at him down there! He's still got energy!"
Indeed, looking at interviewees Maynor and Grant, the two men of the hour, one got the feeling that VCU's run in this tournament is far from finished. There are NCAA tournament upsets that come off as flukes, but this was not one of them; the Rams clawed back from a 13-point deficit early in the first half to trail by only two at halftime, and never lost their composure in a tense last 20 minutes. In Maynor, who plays like a senior, and fellow guards Pellot-Rosa and B.A. Walker, who actually are seniors, VCU has a battle-tested, hot-shooting backcourt that stacks up against any team -- mid-major or major -- in the country. And in Grant, the first-year head coach who was an assistant on Florida's national championship team last season, they have a motivator who is one of the rising stars of the profession.
In the last week of the Rams' regular season, coming off a BracketBusters loss to Bradley, Grant received an idea from mentor Billy Donovan -- to come up with a symbol that represented the team's desire for greatness. VCU was on its way to a stellar regular-season finish at 24-6 and 16-2 in the CAA, but Grant needed a way to make sure his players didn't get complacent. Out of his chat with Donovan, the chain -- a simple string of gold-painted carabiner clips, one for each player, with his initials written on athletic tape -- was born.
"We had a lot more that we wanted to accomplish, and what it was going to take was a tremendous commitment on their part," Grant said. "It was as simple as a decision. If they decided they would stay together ... we could accomplish these special things. They made that decision, and the chain is just a symbol of that commitment."
The Rams linked up for the CAA tournament, pulling off a stunning comeback over last year's historic NCAA giant-killers, the Patriots, in the title game. Afterwards, Maynor said George Mason guard Gabe Norwood wished him good luck -- and told him to go and win some games in the NCAAs. In the locker room on Thursday, VCU's players ceremoniously reconstructed the chain, one player at a time, before taking the floor against Duke.
The CAA's latest David has traded in its stones for golden carabiners. Every player has a link, and every link represents a different role. Grant, laughing, said that Maynor's responsibilities are simple: "To make shots at the end of the game."
Grant was then asked what he considered was his link's assignment. "I don't know," he said. "I guess, to tell [the players] what theirs are."
One he is adamant about not telling his Rams -- despite what so many pundits are saying -- is that they are this year's George Mason, even if their route to NCAA tournament glory went through the Patriots. "I don’t see it that way," he said. "We're just trying to be VCU."
The thing is, coach, that in the course of being VCU, you're starting evoke memories of George Mason. And that, in Cinderella parlance, is hardly a negative development.
A.J. Graves certainly earned a drink of water after his game against Old Dominion.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In case you were under the impression that the players in the NCAA's multi-billion-dollar tournament have an overly cushy experience, I bring you this story from the Butler locker room.
About a half hour after the fifth-seeded Bulldogs' 57-46 win over 12th-seeded Old Dominion, I spotted star guard A.J. Graves standing near the door still in full uniform, not looking as jubilant as you'd expect someone to appear after winning a first-round game. Initially I thought he might be disappointed with the postgame spread -- he was glancing over at the bland, boxed sub sandwiches and bottles of Powerade -- but would the third son of a rural Indiana plumber really be that picky?
It turned out that Graves, wasn't critiquing the food; he was just dying of thirst. The NCAA had selected Graves and teammate Brandon Crone for random postgame drug tests, which meant no food and no liquids until after they filled the testers' cups. "How can you tell a guy who just sweated through a whole game he can't have anything to drink?" Graves said.
Graves, an innocent-looking, Jimmy Chitwood-type character, hadn't pulled a Scot Pollard or been caught holding a Josh Heytveltgym bag -- he was just randomly selected as part of the NCAA's standard tournament screening process for all teams. It was an annoying coincidence, though, that he had already been forced to take a drug test last week. "I'm an actuarial science major," said Graves, a junior. "I needed to take it for a summer job at an insurance company in Indianapolis -- and I already passed that one."
Minutes later, Graves was herded down a tunnel at HSBC Arena to take care of business. I felt bad for him; he looked parched. I examined the box score I was holding, and it said he had played 39 minutes and scored 18 points. More interesting was that, after entering the game as the nation's second-leading free-throw shooter at 95.6 percent, he missed one of his six free throws. Perhaps that raised a red flag.
Stephen Curry scored 30 points to help Davidson give Maryland a scare on Thursday.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The nightmare scenario was playing out for Maryland. The nation's hottest team from two weeks ago, winners of seven straight to close the ACC regular season, had tanked in the first round in its conference tournament against last-place Miami, and on Thursday at HSBC Arena was flirting with the dubious honor of First Upset Victim in the NCAA tournament.
The fourth-seeded Terps, a team of chiseled, mature-looking ACC athletes, were letting a Davidson freshman with the body of a 13-year-old light them up from every conceivable angle. Stephen Curry, the Doogie Howser of the NCAA tournament, actually turned 19 on Wednesday, and as Wofford coach Mike Young said earlier this week, "scores like he's 28." Curry's pedigree -- he's the son of former NBA gunner Dell Curry -- counteracts his slenderness, as he averaged 21.2 points per game this season and had poured in 23 by the 18:56 mark on the second half on Thursday. He had come out of the break on fire, hitting a 3-pointer in D.J. Strawberry's face, blowing by Strawberry for a layup, and then assisting on a Max Paulhus Gosselin bucket to put the 13th-seeded Wildcats up 52-44 with 17:32 to go. Davidson was knocking on the door of the second round. But would it only be a tease?
For Maryland coach Gary Williams, that stretch -- as well as the backdoor lay-in Curry had scored on late in the first half -- was a continuation of an actual nightmare. The previous evening, Williams had tormented himself by watching an ESPN Classic marathon of first-round upsets that included the UCLA-Princeton game [from 1996]. "I didn't want to sleep last night, so I watched that," Williams said. "I probably should have stopped watching it and watched more Davidson tape."
Most Davidson tape includes prolific scoring performances from Curry, the Charlotte, N.C.-born recruit who didn't get a scholarship offer from his father's alma mater, Virginia Tech -- or any other ACC teams -- and became a mid-major sensation instead. Strawberry, the long-armed lockdown specialist who was assigned to defend him, had said the day before that Curry was "not overly quick." That was obviously not the case early on, and Wildcats fans were yelling, "Hey, Strawberry, do you think he's slow now?"
Complications began to arise in Curry's upset quest, though, just as Davidson had the Terps on the ropes. Maryland pulled off its full-court pressure, which had broken down and given Curry open looks in transition, and went into a traditional halfcourt man-to-man. Strawberry, a senior with the end of his college career looming, rediscovered his defensive mojo at the right time. "I knew that they were going to continue to go to [Curry], and I either had to step it up or he was going to beat us by himself," he said.
As Strawberry -- himself the son of a pro athlete, the ex-Mets slugger Darryl -- picked up the pressure, Curry began to wilt, going 12 minutes and 24 seconds without a basket in the second half. "It was a little frustrating," Curry said of Strawberry's ball-denial D, "because not many people have done that to me all year." The Wildcats fell behind midway through Curry's drought; a layup by Bambale Osby put Maryland up for good at the 9:53 mark, 60-59, and the Terps went on to win 82-70.
Curry fouled out with 21 seconds left, and walked to the Davidson bench, clutching the loose edges of his baggy red jersey, as he so often does during breaks on the floor. He seemed oblivious to the standing ovation he was receiving from the Wildcats crowd, among them his father and mother. The kid, who wears his dad's old number 30, had proven he could play in the ACC; Williams would tell him exactly that in the handshake line. The 30 points Curry scored were little consolation, though, after his Cinderella bid had sputtered out. Player Who Impressed: Bambale Osby, reserve forward, Maryland. The afroed Osby looks like he was cross-pollinated with the DNA of Ben Wallace and Lou Ferrigno, but he's neither as defensively talented as Big Ben or as scary as the Hulk. Enough criticism, though: On Thursday Osby was the unsung hero of the Terps' first-round escape. With starting forward Ekene Ibekwe in foul trouble, Osby came off the bench to score 11 points and grab six rebounds -- 5.2 points and 2.2 rebounds above his average. His back-to-back buckets in the ninth minute of the second half helped alter the momentum of the game. "Bambale has been big in a lot of big games for us," Williams said. "He seems to play the best when we really need him."
Courtside Confidential: With 2:18 left in the first half, the Maryland band broke into a rendition of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy. As ubiquitous as that song is right now -- I heard it in on the PA in a grocery store and a CVS earlier this week -- it was a nice break from the standard fight-song fare. ... Davidson fans borrowed from Duke's Terp-taunting playbook, breaking out the Cameron Crazies' "Sweat Gary Sweat" chant on multiple occasions early in the game. Williams appeared to be sweating profusely. ... The last-minute exchange between the Davidson rooting section and Maryland freshman Greivis Vasquez was my personal highlight. The notoriously brash Vasquez, wearing an evil grin, made a gesture toward the fans with his hands that basically said, "bring it on." With the game out of hand, this riled the Wildcat faithful, who shouted such insults as, "No class, Vasquez!," "Did you shave your legs today, 21?" and, in what I think was a reference to Horatio Sanz' idiotic Saturday Night Live character, "Vasquez Vasquez!" Greivis kept on staring at them, showed his palms again, and then fixed his gaze to the scoreboard. Classic.
Big Picture: The Terps looked far from invincible. They may have pulled out a 12-point win, but this still isn't the same team that tore through the ACC -- racking up two wins over Duke and one over North Carolina -- to close the regular season. Thursday's victory was only a moderate step up from the debacle against the Hurricanes in the ACC tournament. While Davidson put up a good fight, the bottom line is that the Terps let a highly inexperienced, one-dimensional mid-major hang around for nearly 35 minutes. A more disciplined and balanced Butler team could give them trouble on Saturday, and unless Williams' boys bring back their February magic, there's little chance of them striking fear into top-seeded Florida in the Sweet 16.
Levon Kendall (left) and the third-seeded Panthers face 14th-seeded Wright State on Thursday.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- We're all just killing time now until the games begin at 12:20 p.m. Thursday. Filling out our last pool sheets (the Blog Pool is up to 521 teams, and there's still time to get in on the action). That, or trying to find good restaurants in this Buffalo fog (any suggestions, commenters?). My last act at the arena on Wednesday was to interview Pitt's Levon Kendall, a player who appeared in the Style Archive, but whom I never had a chance to chat up during the regular season.
Kendall's Panthers are playing Wright State in the first-round nightcap at HSBC Arena -- an upset special in plenty of brackets other than mine -- but I wanted to ask him about a non-basketball-related topic. Last year's Tourney Blog featured a few musical interludes, and Kendall has All-American (or rather, All-Canadian) level connections to the music world.
His dad, Simon Kendall, was the keyboardist in Doug and the Slugs, who were a Canadian alt-pop powerhouse in the 1980s -- giving Levon the distinction of being the only college hoopster to have spent considerable time in the touring family of a north-of-the-border band. "It was pretty catchy, feel-good '80s Canadian rock," Levon told me of the Slugs' product. "I have a lot of good memories from when I was younger, running around backstage and through the crowds at concerts, with my sisters and other kids of the band members."
Levon said the Slugs were not rowdy -- "They were all family guys by the time I came around" -- but they did have a couple of gold records, and he still puts on their albums occasionally. "There's one song called Tropical Rainstorm that's sort of slower, and I don't think it was one of their hits, but that caught my attention recently," he said.
In the interest of educating my readers on the Slugs, I've teamed up with the mp3 blog Art Decade, which is run by a few friends in New York and specializes in often-rare tracks from the "Long Seventies" (1966-84). They didn't have Tropical Rainstorm, but are hosting the Slugs' greatest hit Too Bad, which appeared on the wonderfully named album Cognac and Bologna and was also the theme song from Norm MacDonald's The Norm Show. Go check out Art Decade, grab the song and play it while you're reading the rest of the Blog. Consider it an unofficial soundtrack.
Kendall's other musical connection is that he was named for the drummer in The Band, Levon Helm -- and Kendall, an amateur pianist, loves playing The Weight. "My parents bought me one of The Band's greatest hits CDs when I was in high school, and I got turned on to them then," Kendall said. "I figured I might as well know some of my namesake's songs."
Kendall said his some of his parents' resourceful friends came to New York to see Pitt in the Big East tournament last week, and then caught one of Helm's Midnight Ramble shows up in Woodstock on the same trip. "They were calling it 'The Levon Weekend,'" he said, laughing.
Such a double-dip won't be possible between Buffalo and the Upper West Side. At the same time his namesake will be raging at the Beacon on Saturday night, Kendall could be helping lead the Panthers into the Sweet 16.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Better get here fast, fans. Coach K's signing autographs. Sure to fetch at least $9.99 on eBay.
The real news here in the Big B on NCAA tournament practice day -- generally a dull procession of workouts and questions from reporters writing game previews -- was that Duke freshman Gerald Henderson was available to speak to the media for the first time since his one-game suspension for injuring North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. Henderson is at least temporarily the most polarizing player in college hoops, because, as he said, "everyone knows me as the guy that hit Hansbrough now" -- and fans on either side of the Tobacco Road rivalry have essentially engaged in a blood-feud over the bloody incident.
During sixth-seeded Duke's open locker-room session Wednesday afternoon, Henderson talked about the phone-call apology he made to Hansbrough before the start of the ACC tournament. "It was a couple of minutes, nothing too lengthy," Henderson said. "Tyler, he understood. He said, 'Don't worry about it. It was part of the game, and unfortunately it happened.'"
Henderson, who got Hansbrough's number from former high school teammate -- and current Tar Heels freshman -- Wayne Ellington, said he watched some of UNC's games in the ACC tournament after Duke lost its first-round matchup with N.C. State. "It's unfortunate that [Hansbrough] has to wear the mask," Henderson said. "It looked like it was bothering him a little bit. I don't wish a mask on anyone."
A reporter asked Henderson whether he worried about being tentative in Thursday's game against 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth; in other words, would he be concerned about breaking someone's nose every time he crashed the boards? "I'll still have the same aggressive mindset," Henderson said. "Nothing is going to change that. ... If I'm aggressive, the team's aggressive -- that's the only way we can really be."
He was, understandably, far more interested in talking about a different phone call: the one he received from his father, ex-NBA player Gerald Henderson, after the brackets were announced Sunday night. He told young Gerald to beware, "Because they're known to have good guards at VCU." He wasn't necessarily referring to Eric Maynor, the hero of the Colonial Athletic Association title game. On a banner in the of rafters of VCU's Siegel Center in Richmond, Va., the number 22 is retired. The guard who wore it just happens to be Henderson's dad.
Sam Harris and 12th-seeded Old Dominion face fifth-seeded Butler on Thursday.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The guy dunking in the photo above is Old Dominion's Sam Harris, who's easily my favorite 7-foot-3 Tasmanian basketball player. You probably won't see much of him tomorrow against Butler, though: Sam only averages 7.3 minutes and 1.7 points per game and is buried deep on the 12th-seeded Monarchs' bench.
Harris did, however, start two games in 2006-07, and one of them was at Georgetown on Nov. 19. It was the only time I covered an Old Dominion game this season, and it was easily the most memorable game I covered all season. The contest was held at the Hoyas' tiny McDonough Gym on campus -- one of two games all year there, along with Winston-Salem State -- and the Monarchs were slightly ticked they weren't given the privilege of playing in the Verizon Center downtown.
Georgetown was ranked No. 8 in the AP poll at time, but wasn't clicking yet on offense, and ODU delivered an inspired performance, holding Jeff Green to two points and winning 75-62. Hardly any TV footage existed of the game, and only a handful of reporters were there. A few of us were lucky enough to walk in on the Monarchs' post-game water fight in the locker room. I blogged about it, in a post called The Hidden Upset, and I get the feeling we're about to see another ODU stunner Thursday against fifth-seeded Butler. Good stories seem to materialize when I'm around this team.
Vegas considers Jessie Sapp (left), Pat Ewing Jr. and the Hoyas to be the top No. 2 seed.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
In the Blog's ongoing efforts to attack this Bracket Math business from as many angles as possible -- efficiency profiles, as well as hotness "trendlines" have already been covered -- we're turning to the gamblers for Wednesday's post. Friend of the blog Jacob N. Wheatley-Schaller, a student at Emory University, used futures odds from four online sportsbooks to compute the percentage chances oddmakers are giving teams to win their regions. The chart appears below:
Las Vegas Percentages for Each Team to Win its Region
(Futures odds taken from bodog.com, betus.com, sportsbetting.com, and vip.com)
Jacob N. Wheatley-Schaller
If Vegas really is smarter than the rest of us at assessing teams, then here's what you should take away from Wheatley-Schaller's data:
• I consider Kansas-UCLA (in the West) to be the biggest 1-vs.-2 toss-up situation, and while the Jayhawks are the No. 1 with the lowest Vegas percentage, the smallest gap between a 1 and a 2 seed in the chart is in the East Region. There's only a 6.1-percent difference between UNC and Georgetown, and then a huge 20.5-percent drop between the Hoyas and Texas. There's a significant amount of bettor confidence in Georgetown.
• The oddsmakers really like Texas A&M's Final Four chances. The Aggies are by far the highest No. 3 seed -- 17.1 percent above Washington State, 11.7 percent above Pitt, and 10.3 percent above Oregon -- and also come in well ahead of South Region two-seed Memphis.
• Vegas' two biggest gaps in 8-9 games are Arizona (a No. 8 seed) over Purdue by 1.0 percent and Michigan State (a No. 9 seed) over Marquette by 0.9 percent. The other two 8-9s (BYU-Xavier and Kentucky-Villanova) are toss-ups.
Aaron Brooks and the third-seeded Ducks could be peaking at the right time.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
In the NCAA selection committee's bunker, the "hotness" of tourney squads is usually measured by the results of their last 10 games. There's a entire, pull-out section for "Last 10" on the committee's team sheets -- you can view it on the UCLA example Seth Davisposted last week -- that appears below the breakdown of a team's wins and losses against different tiers of the RPI. Regular fans, I think, use more arbitrary methods to take a team's temperature, such as gauging conference tournament performance -- or even more unscientifically, how good the team looked the last time you caught them on TV.
The Blog, in its ongoing obsession with efficiency-based analysis, is here to provide you with a new -- and improved -- way to identify the hottest teams heading into the NCAA tournament. I've enlisted the services of esteemed amateur stat-head David Hess, whose full previews can be found this week on HackTheBracket.com. Hess has been graphing Ken Pomeroy's game-by-game efficiency numbers for NCAA tourney teams, adjusting the data for home/road/neutral location and level of competition, and then applying what he calls "trendlines" -- curves that allow us to see whether a team is becoming more or less efficient leading into the dance.
Now for the juicy information: I asked Hess to pinpoint the hottest team in each region, based on the trendlines, and he delivered exclusive graphs to the Blog that appear below along with my commentary. (Note that an optimal team graph would have the top curve going UP, representing increased offensive improvement, and the lower curve going DOWN, representing increased defensive stinginess.)
The Midwest Region's hottest team:
The Ducks are even hotter than Florida, according to Hess' figures. Their offense has steadily improved over the course of the season -- a very promising sign -- and is at its peak level following a run through the Pac-10 tourney. Defense is not Oregon's strong point, but it has dipped down to a sub-90.0 rating (meaning it's giving up fewer than 0.9 points per possession) for the first time in months.
The West's hottest team:
This one should come as no surprise. The Jayhawks were consistently one of the nation's best defensive teams for the entire season, but have blossomed on offense over the past month. The only worry -- even though the figures are adjusted for competition -- is whether or not the Jayhawks' offense peaked against the weakest part of the Big 12 schedule, and is in for a reality check in the NCAA tournament.
The East's hottest team:
North Carolina and Georgetown, watch out. I put Mr. Durant and the 'Horns in the Final Four of my SI.com Writer Bracket for a reason. The most important thing in this graph is not the quality of Texas' offense, but the fact that its defense -- which has always been its weakness -- is finally hitting a respectable, sub-90.0 level. Finally, the South's hottest team:
Ohio State has been a high-quality team for months, but the school whose efficiency margin is peaking here is Louisville. The Cards' offense, even though it bottomed out in its Big East tournament loss to Pitt, has been hitting incredible levels down the stretch. I put Texas A&M in my title game, but this information, needless to say, has me worried about the Aggies' probable second-round matchup with the 'Ville in Lexington.
Dwyane Wade suggests you sign up for our pool. Just look how much fun he's having! With less than 48 hours left until the deadline, the number of entrants in the second annual SI.com Tourney Blog Pool has already exceeded the total of teams in Division I. Sign up today, join the group "Luke Winn's Tourney Blog," and take your best shot at making me look foolish.
The original invitation, with a cameo from Wladimir Klitschko, can be found here. The most important thing, folks, is to come up with a good name for your team. The default "Team [Last Name]" format that our bracket manager assigns is just so ... bland. I'd estimate that 80 percent of the 350-or-so entries have gone the creative route. The leader in the clubhouse for coolest name is Tim Louman-Gardiner, whose picks have been titled "Durant Durant." Simple and clever. Well done, Tim.
Acie Law, Joseph Jones and the Ags are better than your average No. 3 seed.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
As you pore over your bracket picks this week, can you distinguish between the important factors and the irrelevant ones? You'll undoubtedly agonize over things such as, whether Texas A&M's home-court advantage in San Antonio will help the Aggies knock off Ohio State (yes); if UCLA's season-ending choke job should be considered a distress signal (not really); and how much you're interested in seeing an encore performance of the Jo Noah Boogie (as long as Lundquist joins in).
As much as all of that stuff -- location, momentum, dance moves, etc. -- matters, my most basic tenets of bracket-picking involve the laws of efficiency. I did a post at the outset of last year's Tourney Blog titled "Defending Your Bracket," which was reasonably successful in pinpointing the attractive offensive teams that were flawed on D -- and therefore risky bets in the dance. As the chart below shows, in the Modern Era of kenpom.com stats (2004-07), only one team outside the top 75 in adjusted defensive efficiency (sweet-shooting West Virginia, in '05) has reached the Elite Eight, and zero teams outside the top 25 in ADE have reached the Final Four.
Profile Of The Elite Eights
Adjusted Off. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
Adjusted Def. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
Based on the data above, it behooves you to limit the number of defensively challenged teams you put in your Elite Eight and Final Four. When my SI.com Writer Bracket comes out on Tuesday, it'll only have one school outside the top 50 in defensive efficiency winning more than two games: Texas. And the 'Horns, at No. 59, are barely outside of that range.
It's easy to become infatuated with entertaining offensive teams that don't play D -- Gonzaga's Adam Morrison squads were the best example -- but recent history shows that poor defensive efficiency numbers are a red flag, no matter how well a school scores. Below is a list of the teams (from '05 and '06) that ranked in the top 25 in offensive efficiency but outside the top 75 in D. You'll notice that most of them didn't last too long in the dance:
2005's defensively challenged 1-6 seeds:
Team Off. Eff Def. Eff. Out (Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) Rd. Out LSU (6) 112.1 (22) 94.7 (84) 1 Gonzaga (3) 115.5 (10) 97.0 (119) 2 W. Forest (2) 120.8 (2) 94.0 (76) 2
The main attractions here were Brandon Bass, Morrison and Chris Paul -- all of whom could light up a scoreboard. None of them made it past the first weekend.
This club included Morrison (again), Jared Dudley and Craig Smith, Shannon Brown, Chris Lofton and Kevin Pittsnogle. Two suffered first-round exits. Only West Virginia outperformed its seed expectation, reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 6. None of them won more than twice.
The intriguing thing about the 2007 bracket -- and perhaps this is a result of smarter seeding by the selection committee -- is that only one school seeded 1-6, Vanderbilt, falls into the top-25 offense, below-75 defense category. There isn't a statistically fraudulent No. 1, 2 or 3 seed in the field. There are, however, four teams seeded either No. 7 or 8 that fit our profile, and each one has a talented scoring star:
If you were thinking about going out on a limb and forecasting a Nick Fazekas-led sleeper run into the Elite Eight, I strongly urge you to reconsider. Nevada does seem like an attractive option at first glance; the Wolf Pack dominated the WAC for much of the year, and have three potential NBA players (Fazekas and guards Marcellus Kemp and Ramon Sessions), but they've been keeping a little secret in Reno: their D is suspect. While the teams in this group aren't guaranteed to be doomed -- I think Arizona and Vandy have one win in them apiece -- their potential as giant-killers is limited.
Since we're dealing with such a small sample size (just three seasons) of efficiency data, the conclusions we're making are admittedly unscientific. I wouldn't be surprised if Texas, a young team that got exponentially better in the backstretch of the Big 12, crashes the party in Atlanta with a defense that doesn't exactly fit the Final Four mold. But when it comes to picking a national champion, it's impossible to ignore that the profile of the past three winners includes a top-10 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
In the grid below, I've broken down the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds from the 2007 bracket into four flights: "A" teams currently have national-champ efficiency resumes; "B" teams are great in one category, and right on the fringe in the other; "C" teams are another step down, and the "D" teams are unlikely to win the title. It's not surprising that three 1-seeds are in Flight A, take a look at Texas A&M: the third-seeded Aggies appear better-suited to cut down the nets in Indy than any of the No. 2s.
Team Off. Eff. Def. Eff. (Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.)
Yours Against Mine in Bracketland (With a D-Wash Cameo)
NEW YORK -- Indy's bunker boys have emerged with all of Sunday's major-conference-tournament champs -- Florida, North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State, in that order -- as No. 1 seeds. How much those designations actually mean is up for debate. According to Joakim Noah in his post-dancing diatribe to a flabbergasted Bill Raftery after winning the SEC tournament on Sunday, the seeds don't matter. "Who cares!" Noah yelled. "At the end of the day, it's yours against mine -- we'll see who gets it!"
After watching Florida over the past three days, I'm pretty sure I don't have the guts to pick someone else's over the Gators'. The committee handed Noah & Co. the easiest road to Atlanta, giving them far more room to overcome the consistency issues that were discussed last week.
North Carolina, on the other hand, is the No. 1 in which I have the least confidence. With Marquette, Texas, Vanderbilt and especially Georgetown in the Tar Heels' path, and Tyler Hansbrough's Plexigass masquerade likely to continue, the odds seem heavily stacked against UNC. In the West, Kansas and UCLA are essentially both No. 1s, and I don't see anything getting in the way of them meeting in San Jose, Calif. to decide a berth in the Final Four. Ohio State's Midwest region, meanwhile, is weak overall -- there are zero threats to the Buckeyes in the first three rounds -- but contains the most dangerous No. 3 in the entire bracket, Texas A&M. As much as Ohio State has dominated down the stretch in the Big Ten, am I crazy for feeling more comfortable slotting the Aggies in Atlanta?
Your Blogger is back in New York, where in a few minutes I'll enter the Sports Illustrated NCAA tournament bunker and assist Grant Wahl on the magazine's bracket. Regularly scheduled blogging will resume after that. In the meantime, Blog Pool is open, and Mr. Klitschko would like you to join. Please do.
In the interest of not leaving you content-less for the rest of the evening, the remainder of this post is being turned over to an actual NCAA tournament participant. Players can make good bloggers (check out what The New York Times' Pete Thamel solicited from Penn's Stephen Danley on Saturday), so we turned to former Q&A subject Deron Washington of Virginia Tech for a YouTube guide to his three best dunks of the season.
Washington, if you haven't heard of him yet, is the best human highlight reel not named Kevin Durant in college hoops. While he didn't actually code up the YouTubes, he did provide us with the breakdown late on Friday night:
Deron's No. 3 Dunk:
"No. 3 came against Miami, at home. The YouTube clip of it shows a whole bunch of game dunks and then a few I did in practice. (The actual dunk is the fourth "game" slam on the footage.) Ze [guard Zabian Dowdell] made a nice pass through like three people. I felt like I was just sitting in the air for a minute -- and then I dunked it straight through."
The No. 2 Dunk:
"No. 2 came at home against Boston College, when I came right down the middle of the lane. That was such a fun game; we were running up and down the court like it was streetball. I saw Jamon [Gordon] looking at me and he was like, 'Oh Yeah, we're about to get a top-10 play.' He just passed me the ball, and as soon as I caught it, I just took off. I was expected a little bump from [Tyrelle] Blair, since I had dunked on him at BC, but he didn't jump. I was leading so far forward when I dunked it that I almost feel -- that's why I had to grab the rum with two hands.
"ESPN showed my mom after that dunk, and she was kind of mad, because people called her to ask what she was doing -- she was talking to herself, and it was pretty funny. She gets pretty excited. She's just like me, a real energetic person."
The No. 1 Dunk:
"No. 1 came at BC, the first time I dunked on Blair. That was a great one. Jamon, once again, made the pass. I slipped to the basket and Blair came over to help. I took off and Blair jumped with me, and it seemed like he hit the ground while I was still going up. I dunked it, and he didn't say anything -- he just turned around and went to get the ball."
That's our pal Wladimir Klitschko, the boxer. He's here to strongly encourage you to join the Second Annual Tourney Blog Pool, which is open and accepting entries. Sign up, fill out your bracket, join the group "Luke Winn's Tourney Blog," and then sit back and let the magic happen.
Based on where I finished in last year's standings, there is a 20 percent chance that if you join this thing, you'll be able to come away from it saying something along the lines of, "My bracket was thoroughly superior to Luke Winn's and I don't even get paid to watch college basketball. He should be out of a job or at the very least, relinquish his blogging privileges."
If that's not incentive enough, there's also a prize package for the winner (a bunch of random stuff that has yet to be determined, but will probably include at least one video game, at least one basketball book, and at least one random piece of Sports Illustrated junk -- but not a football phone) and the immense fame associated with your name being mentioned in this space should you, at some point, be among the pool's leaders. The 2006 winner, Bradley White, still gets recognized on the street from his blog-pool-champ photo.
A few pool-related things of importance:
• We had 328 entries last season. If we don't hit at least exceed the number of teams in Division I (336), my self-esteem will take such a damaging hit that it could affect my blogging for the rest of the tournament. So please, ask your friends to join.
• It is IMPERATIVE that give your team a better name than the one the game assigns, which is "Team [Your Last Name]." I probably won't kick you out of the pool if you don't ... but really, you don't want to be the guy with Team Hirschfelder when everyone else has quality stuff like Todd Bozeman's Rejected Ham. I chose to make a reference to a hapless college hoops exhibition team from my childhood, and name my bracket Marathon Oil.
• If anyone out there wants to unofficially sponsor this pool -- let's say, your company makes retro jerseys of the 1933 Indianapolis Kautskys, and you want to give one away to the winner and get some pub here; or you're an upstart Internet university starting a major in bracketology and want to award our champ the first annual Lunardi/Palm Scholarship -- send me an e-mail from the link in the right-hand rail of the blog. All serious offers will be considered.