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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/22/2008 11:08:00 PM

Wisconsin's School Of D

Bill Walker
Wisconsin held Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats to 39.6 percent shooting Saturday.
Bill Frakes/SI
OMAHA, Neb. -- A Bo Ryan practice is a rare place where the lexicon of basketball statheads -- who consider points per possession to be the ultimate measure of a team's potency -- is regarded as old-school coachspeak rather than a foreign language. Wisconsin's defense, the foundation for its run to the Midwest Regional's Sweet 16, is typically evaluated, in 4-5 minute scrimmage segments that simulate gaps between TV timeouts, by whether it can keep the Badgers' scout team under one point per possession. "And if they're over one," says junior forward Marcus Landry, "that's not good in Bo's eyes. It'll be time to start running."

A Wisconsin game, consequently, is a place where this defensive meticulousness -- a philosophy that assistant Greg Gard says Ryan has held since his days at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville, because it "provides accountability on every possession" -- is put into practice. The Badgers used the nation's most efficient defense (0.814 adjusted PPP) to win a Big Ten title, and then used it in the second round of the NCAA tournament to turn Kansas State's offense into a discombobulated mess. Against third-seeded UW, the 11th-seeded 'Cats scored just 22 second-half points in a 72-55 loss.

The unraveling of Team Potential, with its NBA Lottery duo of Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, could be explained by the fact that Wisconsin does not (in Walker's words) "give anything to you easy." K-State shot challenged jumper after challenged jumper, missing all 13 of its three-point attempts, and failed to feed Beasley (who scored 23 points, but just six in the second half) frequently enough in the post. But the story of the game could also be told through the lens of a few key series of defensive possessions.

The Badgers began the second half with a 39-33 lead, and defended the four-minute, 59-second stretch until the first media timeout so well that they yielded only two points in six possessions. They went into that break with a 46-35 advantage. Later, in the four-minute, 34-second gap between the final two media timeouts, when the Wildcats desperately needed to stage a comeback, UW gave up just four points on five possessions. The score at the beginning of that span was 61-49 in the Badgers' favor; at the end it was 72-53. After giving up 33 points on 32 possessions in the first half, UW yielded just 22 on 30 possessions in the second. Keeping K-State under one point per possession kept the Badgers from being bounced in the second round for the second straight season.

The beauty of Wisconsin's stinginess on Saturday was that it was "junk-free." Not a single second was spent playing a trick defense. All 40 minutes featured Ryan's trademark man-to-man, fronting-the-post, weakside-help defense that got the Badgers to the dance. Junior forward Joe Krabbenhoft, a gritty South Dakotan who bears the facial scars of a fearless defender -- he's had stitches on 36 occasions in his lifetime, including four under his right eye this season -- teamed up with Landry and Greg Stiemsma to keep Beasley from having a transcendent tournament performance. The Badgers also held Beasley and Walker's supporting cast to just 14 points combined, making K-State's offense tragically two-dimensional.

"We stuck with our rules, our system, coach Ryan's defense," said Krabbenhoft. "We didn't try to be any other team. ... We did what Wisconsin does, and we didn't change from being tough-nosed, up in your face, and [gave away] nothing easy."

Krabbenhoft insists there is no actual Wisconsin Defensive Rule Book that's distributed amongst the team -- just a set of simple principles that are drilled into their heads. "It's funny, you'd think as good as we are defensively, there would be all these crazy rules," he said, "but they're very basic." Those include: protecting the rim in transition (K-State had zero fastbreak points), weakside help in the post (Beasley said "I couldn't get the shots I wanted" because of the double-teams), contesting every jumper (the 'Cats shot 39.6 percent on the game), and staying in front of guards on penetration (K-State's backcourt created little on drive-and-kicks, combining for just three assists).

The rules alone, though, would have little impact if there weren't a high degree of synchrony among the Badgers' defenders. "The satellites aren't going to make the universe work," Ryan said. "And our guys rotate sink, pinch, all our rules that we talk about, the different things that we do; they have to be done in unison."

It is a truly surprising thing, much in the same way that Texas jumped from a No. 5 to a No. 2 seed in the year after Kevin Durant's departure, that Wisconsin is going deeper in this NCAA tournament than it managed to do with All-America candidate Alando Tucker last season. It required, according to Gard, a mutual understanding of the Badgers' new identity, one with no player averaging more than 12.4 points, and the defense becoming even more efficient than the one UW had when it rose to a national No. 1 ranking in February of 2007.

"They know that our margin for error is very slim, and in order for us to be successful, we have to be a very good defensive team and unselfish offensively," said Gard. "They understood that we didn't have a 30-point-per-game scorer anymore, and that it had to be a group effort this time."

The Badgers do not have any players with guaranteed NBA futures, and to reach the Final Four they'll likely have to go through two more teams -- Georgetown and Kansas -- that are stocked with pros-in-waiting. An advantage in draft picks, however, does not guarantee a favorable outcome. The first item in UW's personnel report on Beasley, according to Krabbenhoft, read that K-State's super-frosh was "the best player on Earth, and it was going to very hard to stop him." Yet Beasley and the Wildcats are now out of the NCAA tournament, their talent having been slowly neutralized by the Badgers, on possession after agonizing possession.

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3/22/2008 12:41:00 PM

Day 11: Airbrushing Your Way To The Sweet 16

Marcus Landry
Luke Winn/SI

OMAHA, Neb. -- The shoe pictured above belongs to Wisconsin forward Marcus Landry, who added the three sets of initials for his wife, Efueko Osagie-Landry, and two children, Marcus Jr. and Moriah. Whereas most shoe-customization in the college ranks is of the NikeID variety, Landry rocks the original Adidas airbrush.

Today, Landry, who's the most athletic member of the Badgers' frontcourt, will be charged with helping defend a pair of athletes -- Kansas State's Michael Beasley and Bill Walker -- whose repertoires go beyond anything UW had to face in the Big Ten this season. The Badgers are seeded third and the Wildcats are 11th, but the game feels almost like an even match given the way K-State knocked off USC on Thursday. The difference for UW might be that it has enough frontcourt depth to absorb the inevitably high number of fouls Beasley will draw on the blocks. I'm predicting a two-point Badger win, setting up a showdown with Georgetown in Detroit.

In Tourney Blog pool business ... Joe Ursino of Philadelphia had 29 of 32 picks correct after the first two days and is alone in first place, which is rather impressive considering there were 5,490 completed brackets in our pool. I'm currently tied for a respectable (well, at least somewhat respectable) 302nd.

• The Tourney Playlist (curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear) rolls on, one free mp3 at a time: Day 11's track is Iron and Wine's Innocent Bones. A nice, quiet tune for shaking off the cobwebs of a Friday night out in Omaha.

Qwest Center
Luke Winn/SI
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3/21/2008 03:01:00 PM

Breakfast With Ms. Smith

The B-EZ Family
Luke Winn/SI

OMAHA, Neb. -- It was your run-of-the mill breakfast, with french toast and hash browns, omelettes and home fries spread across a table at an Interstate-side Perkins on Friday. Except the three other people in the booth on this, the morning after 11th-seeded Kansas State upset sixth-seeded USC in a first-round NCAA tournament game at the Qwest Center, were not fellow sportswriters. Across the table was Fatima Smith, the mother of Wildcats star freshman Michael Beasley, and her 4-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who drew me a fine picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. On my side was her 10-year-old son, Malik, who schooled me in a best-of-three series of tic-tac-toe -- played in crayon -- on the Perkins kids' menu.

Ms. Smith -- don't call her Ms. Beasley, as she says O.J. Mayo still insists on doing -- has become a mini-celebrity in her own right this season, authoring regular posts under the heading "Mama Sayz" in the blog of Wichita State's K-State beat writer Jeffrey Martin. She also gave SI's Grant Wahl one of his better mailbag nuggets of the season -- a story about Mayo trying to recruit her son to USC at the 11th hour before Signing Day in 2006. All of this made her a natural interview candidate for for the Tourney Blog, so we set up this meeting on the off-day before the Wildcats were to meet third-seeded Wisconsin with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

Rather than following the standard Blog Q&A format, we'll offer up five things we learned from Ms. Smith, who, as Grant has already stated, is not only the mother of college hoops' most talented player, but also one of the best "mom interviews" in college hoops:

1. She has turned into an NCAA junkie, to the point that she was listening to a tourney segment on Colin Cowherd's XM Radio show when she picked me up at my hotel. She didn't understand the RPI or even brackets before friend-of-Mike Kevin Durant started playing for Texas, but now, she says, "I'm glued. I record the shows that I normally watch -- like American Idol -- just so I can watch games live." And not just K-State games, either. "You have to watch everything, to see what's going on as far as rankings. Sometimes I think, 'Why do they have the AP and the Coaches' rankings? Why don't they just have a mom's ranking?'"

2. She's an active enough fan on the Internet that she used to post on K-State message boards, sometimes to comment on the team, and other times just to dispel rumors about her employment status. (Smith and three of her other four children moved to Manhattan along with Mike, and she now manages receptionists at a medical practice.) "People might post on there that, 'Oh, she doesn't work,' or 'she quit her job,' or 'she's leaving town,' so I have to go in and make my presence known. To that stuff, I just said, 'Somebody needs to tell my employer that, because good grief, they still require me to come in."

Roy Hibbert
Malik shows off his tic-tac-toe triumph.
Fatima Smith

3. I asked her what the flipside of that O.J. Mayo story would have been like -- if O.J. had come to Manhattan this season to play with Mike and fellow freshman Bill Walker. "Can you imagine O.J. in Manhattan?" she said. "A lot of people couldn't imagine Michael in Manhattan either, though. Coaches were recruiting Michael and telling him he shouldn't go [to K-State] because it's so secluded, or it's in the middle of nowhere. ... But Michael needed to be in a small environment so he could stay focused on that tasks at hand. It worked out for the best." She said she thought Mike might be able to put up numbers similar to Durant's, since they had followed similar paths as MVPs of the McDonald's All-America Game, but was worried about the pressure the media would put on her son. "If he didn't perform up to their standards, the media would have beat him down so bad," she said. "But boy, he just came out and ripped it apart. And I couldn't have been happier."

4. Mike has quite the reputation as a prankster (see the SI article on him), but teammates Walker and Ron Anderson were actually behind one of the season's best pranks. Ms. Smith had let her Chrysler Pacifica get dirty enough around the time of Mike's birthday -- Jan. 9 -- that it was possible to write on the back window, and Walker and Anderson smeared out a message that requested, essentially, that motorists honk if they were interested in relations (the PG word for it) with Mike. For good measure, they included Mike's actual cell-phone number. Ms. Smith unwittingly drove around Manhattan for part of a day before discovering it, but when she did, "I called [Mike] immediately, found out who did it, and asked him, 'Why would you let them do that to your own mother's car?' He just laughed. I said, 'Your own mother had to ride around with something like that on her car,' and he laughed again.' I didn't think it was funny. He thought it was funny."

5. Apparently there is one athletic activity at which Mike is not superhuman: bowling. Malik recently had his 10th birthday party at a bowling alley in Manhattan, and Mike was, to put it gently, no Pete Weber. "He has a god-given gift for sports," Ms. Smith said of Mike. "If you give him a baseball bat, he'll hit the ball. If you give him a golf club, he'll hit the ball. If you give him a bowling ball, he's gonna make sure the ball gets in the gutter. He can't do it. He ends up cheating." (Malik chimed in at this point to explain Mike's process of cheating at bowling: "He just walked all the way up to the pins, threw the ball at them ... and he still didn't get them all down.")

Frustrated by his lack of success on the lanes -- "our form was like him on the basketball floor, and he was like a guy who doesn't get off the bench," Ms. Smith said -- Mike took to harassing the other bowlers. "He was pulling people's arms, bumping into people, throwing balls down your lane at the same time you threw one, all because he didn't want to lose," she said. Even in a sport at which he was hopeless, Mike had found a way to change the game.

"It was sad," Ms. Smith said. "I couldn't even get my form down, because I had to look over my shoulder for him sneaking up on me. So the next time we have a bowling party, Mike isn't going to be invited."
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3/21/2008 02:05:00 PM

Xs and Os: Wazzu's Pack-Line Defense

(Ed.'s note: There are things that this blog is good at (or at least I'd like to think so): chasing around 16 seeds, posting amateurish photos from my Canon Elph, and promoting our pool on Facebook. I am not, however, entirely qualified to provide you with a thorough breakdown of a team's defensive scheme. That's why the blog has enlisted an expert -- coach Bruno Chu of the blog The X's and O's of Basketball -- to give us a few guest posts during the dance. The third: a look at how Washington State managed to suffocate its first-round foe in Denver. Bruno takes it over from here.)

In Washington State's first-round win over Winthrop on Thursday, the Cougars put together one of the best defensive halves I've ever seen. They managed to turn a game that was 29-29 at half into a 71-40 rout, mostly by making adjustments such as switching point guard Derrick Low onto the Eagles' top scorer, Chris Gaynor.

What makes Wazzu so great on defense, though, is its system. Dick Bennett, the father of current Cougs coach Tony, created the pack-line D and installed it when he arrived in Pullman. Tony stuck with it, and in the two years that he has been head coach, WSU has ranked in the top 20 in the nation in defensive efficiency (finishing 12th in 2007-08).

The Pack-line: It's not significantly different than your traditional man-to-man defense; all the fundamentals are there. But what the Cougs do is put pressure on whichever player has the ball, and then all of their other defenders play help-side, or in coach-speak, "up the line" D.

The reason it's called a pack-line is because all of WSU's defenders -- except the one on the ball -- must stay inside an imaginary line. When a pass is made, the defender is taught to close out toward the ball with proper footwork and high hands, in order to prevent the shot. The other Cougars rotate to provide help-side D.

The real advantage in running the pack-line D is that it prevents dribble penetration and forces teams to shoot from the outside. It also makes it easy to double-down on the post, because it shortens the distances in between defenders.

When Wazzu faces Notre Dame in the second round on Saturday, the key will be whether or not the Irish are able to shoot well from the perimeter. If they hit threes to force the Cougs to stretch the pack-line to beyond the arc, that will open up ample opportunities for Luke Harangody in the post.

(Read more from Bruno Chu, a high-school coach in Vancouver, B.C., on his excellent blog: The X's and O's of Basketball.)

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3/21/2008 01:25:00 PM

Day 10: Grandmama & Mangino Thank You For Playing

Larry Johnson and Mark Mangino
Luke Winn/SI

OMAHA, Neb. -- Former UNLV star Larry Johnson and KU football coach Mark Mangino don't actually endorse this blog, but I did track them down, paparazzo-style, inside the Qwest Center on Thursday. (By first-round NCAA site standards, they are both considered big celebrities.) Our third annual readers' pool had 8,152 entrants as of Friday morning -- almost enough to fill up half of the Qwest Center. Fifty-six of the poolsters had perfect brackets on Day 1 of the dance. The SI Bracket Challenge Application lists Jason Koropatkin of Hartford, Conn., as the top dog of that group, even though, to the best of my knowledge, his perfect bracket was no more perfect than the other 55. (I did not fare as well, going only 13-of-16 and ranking 1,685th. "Expert," indeed.)

If you're near the top and think you have a chance of winning this thing, be sure to friend the blog on Facebook so we can track you down.

• For those of you who have been following the Tourney Playlist (curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear): Day 10's track is Destroyer's Foam Hands, which is not about fan gear, but nonetheless is a quality tune.


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3/21/2008 12:55:00 AM

Walker Breaks Out Of The Shadows

Bill Walker
Bill Walker scored 22 points in beating high school teammate O.J. Mayo.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
OMAHA, Neb. -- Kansas State forward Bill Walker admitted that he took note of the socks his old running mate from Huntington, W.V., USC's O.J. Mayo, had been wearing in what will likely be the Trojan guard's final game as a collegian. They had NBA logos on them, which made for some rather overt visual foreshadowing. "They were nice socks," Walker said, but he had a reason for not commenting on them to Mayo while they were on the court. "I was too scared I might have made him mad, and he might have run off some buckets."

Instead, Walker was content to watch Mayo score his average (20 points), but not contribute any clutch late buckets to rescue the sixth-seeded USC from a first-round demise at the hands of the 11th-seeded Wildcats, 80-67. In a game that Walker said everyone in hardscrabble Huntington had been watching, "if they had a TV set," they saw an unexpected storyline develop: While Mayo and K-State's Michael Beasley, who will both be top-10 picks in April's NBA draft, combined for just 12 points at halftime, Walker had exploded for 17.

The stocky forward who had played his prep career in the shadow of Mayo at Cincinnati's North College Hill, and had been playing his redshirt freshman year in the shadow of Beasley's All-America show, had simultaneously stepped out of both on Thursday night. And by doing so, Walker engineered the day's lone victory by a double-digit seed -- a result that could have easily gone the other way had the 'Cats not weathered a few early whistles.

Only four minutes and 15 seconds had elapsed in the game when Beasley was whistled for his second foul, jockeying for position on an offensive rebound. The 26.5-points, 12.4-rebounds-per-game horse that K-State had ridden to the NCAAs was headed to the pine, but, as he said, "Bill stepped up. We needed it. He was our spark tonight."

Walker scored 12 of his 17 first-half points from that moment on, ensuring that the 'Cats did not crumble as they had done so many times earlier this season while Beasley rested. There was a reason, after all, that a team with the likely No. 1 pick in next year's draft -- as well as another first-rounder in Walker -- had finished just 20-11. As talented as K-State is, said Walker, "we haven't produced when Mike goes down." In the biggest stage of their freshman years, Walker, as well as point guard Jacob Pullen (11 points, five assists) and Ron Anderson (10 points, eight boards) produced on Thursday. And first-year coach Frank Martin, who was once viewed as a questionable successor to the one-and-done Bob Huggins, masterfully managed substitutions to keep Beasley on the floor for so many possessions that he still finished with his 27th double-double of the season (23 points, 11 rebounds).

USC, meanwhile, saw its season end with none of Mayo's supporting cast stepping up to save an NCAA tournament game that spiraled out of control late in the first half. Forwards Taj Gibson (10 points, nine rebounds) and Davon Jefferson (15 points, six boards) both fouled out while failing to contain Beasley on the blocks. Point guard Daniel Hackett, who had been the Trojans' guiding force since returning from a back injury in late February, had only two assists against three turnovers. After Mayo scored five early points in the second half, including a steal for a layup -- plus a free-throw -- at the 13:07 mark that gave USC its first advantage since the early minutes, K-State erased that lead for good within 27 seconds.

Now K-State moves on to face a Wisconsin team that boasts the nation's most efficient defense, but does not have a direct answer, athletically, to either Beasley or Walker. Might the 'Cats be the only No. 11 to pull off a first-day upset, and the only double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16? And will Walker, whom Mayo graciously called "a great player," become one of the breakout stars of this NCAA tournament? All of that is well within the realm of possibility.

As for Mayo, he declined to address inquiries about him turning pro, saying, "I don't think that's necessary right now. I'm really accepting questions only on tonight's game." To find an answer, it was only necessary to look the logos above the tops of his shoes. In the midst of a melancholy USC locker room scene, when asked if the NBA socks were a regular fashion statement, or merely something unveiled for this game, Mayo's serious gaze turned into a sly smile. It was as if he knew exactly what his questioner was getting at.

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3/20/2008 05:05:00 PM

Life As A 16-Seed: How Portland State Prepared For The Dance

Portland State
Luke Winn/SI

OMAHA, Neb. -- This is how a team simulates the impossible. They were scattered about a carpeted conference room, some wearing sneakers, some in sandals, all walking through a task that even at 9 a.m., in the quiet confines of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, seemed daunting: defending No. 1-seeded Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The players for No. 16-seeded Portland State, the Big Sky champions, were using a small, red rubber ball as a substitute sphere while the scout team acted out KU's offensive sets against the starters. The noise in the room was limited, mostly, to the commands of coach Ken Bone and assistant Tyler Geving, who had done the scouting report on the Jayhawks; calls of "Red! Red!" (their word for doubling-down on the posts); and the light thwacks of that rubber ball as it landed in the hands of each new player.

Four-and-a-half-hours later, the Vikings would be walking off the Qwest Center floor, 85-61 losers to a 32-3 KU team with the best offense in the nation. But on Thursday morning there was still a sliver of hope that Portland State, a 26,000-student commuter school making its first trip to the NCAA tournament, could become the first 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 -- and therefore, the greatest Cinderella in the history of the dance.

"It's not a very complicated offense," Geving said as he directed players around the conference room, "but they're very good at it. And when their guards catch it out here [on the perimeter], they explode to the hole." Bone -- a former Washington assistant under Lorenzo Romar who had piloted the Vikings here in just his third season -- had additional warnings: "We've got to play physical. I don't mean pushing and shoving with your hands, but with your body. Otherwise their bigs will have their way with you."

Portland State
Luke Winn/SI

The Vikings, whose roster is a mosaic of 11 transfers, including a 5-foot-6 star at point guard (Jeremiah Dominguez), retreated to a film room down the hall for further preparations. A full personnel breakdown, led by Geving, featured highlights from Kansas' Big 12 tourney win over Texas; a win at Texas A&M earlier in the year, and a home rout of Texas Tech. Image after image of Jayhawks players lighting up the scoreboard flashed across the room's TV screen. There was Darrell Arthur in the post ("he likes that left shoulder," Geving said); Brandon Rush hitting mid-range jumpers ("he's aggressive, but he looks to pull up on drives; he won't try to throw one down on you"); Sherron Collins penetrating ("you need to give him a step on the perimeter, because he's extra-quick.")

Once the video was complete, the players rose, grabbed their backpacks and shoeboxes, and headed straight for the bus. Outside the lobby, the Crowne Plaza had manufactured a scene for the Vikings: a group of Portland State fans and hotel employees were flanking a red carpet that had been rolled out to the team motorcade. A police escort was waiting to take them to the Qwest Center, roughly 20 minutes to the east in downtown Omaha. (Life as a 16 seed means not only that you'll be overmatched in talent, but that you'll also be stuck in the farthest-away hotel.)

Portland State
Luke Winn/SI

Portland State's on-campus arena, the Stott Center, seats only 1,500 fans, and it only sold out once this season. There was a reported attendance of 17,162 in the Qwest Center, the majority of them decked out in KU blue, ready to watch their Jayhawks rout a team that came in as a 22-point underdog. In the minutes leading up to game time, the Vikings huddled twice inside a tiny locker room, accessorized with nothing much more than a whiteboard, a TV and a table in the center. Geving ran through the personnel matchups one last time, with the scouting report pasted up on the corner of the whiteboard. Their defensive goals, written out in marker, were to jam the outlet on fast breaks, go under ball screens, double both posts and be physical on the boards. On offense, the three-pronged goal read "spacing, ball movement and attack" -- all of which sounded easier in theory than they would be in practice against the Jayhawks.

It must be a defining moment in a head coach's career to give his first pregame speech at an NCAA tournament. But the way the tourney's pregame is set up, with multiple entries and exits, a coach must essentially make two rousing speeches -- one before the final shootaround and one before the national anthem. Bone stepped in front of the room and delivered his opener:

Portland State
Luke Winn/SI

Hopefully this is what you envisioned when you went to college, or where ever you went first. We've got a lot of guys that have been to college a few different places. But when you were a kid, or at junior college, or whatever, I would think that you're not different than 99 percent of the people out there, [thinking], 'Man, I want to get to the NCAA tournament.

Well you know what, we're here. We're here. Embrace it. Enjoy it, maximize every moment on the court. The worst thing that can happen is, if you sit here after the game, and think -- even though you personally might not admit it -- that, 'Man I wish I would have just sprinted one more time in transition.' Or, 'I wish I would have got back, wish I would have taken that charge.' That's on you. You've gotta do the best you can. And if we do, and we can turn it into a 30-minute game, the pressure is on them, big time. Because they have failed recently. Now let's go!

Bone's second message echoed his first -- although he chose to lighten the mood at the conclusion, referencing a player, freshman Justynn Hammond, who began the season in the Vikings' rotation but was no longer with the team. The room broke into laughter, cutting the tension for a few brief moments.

Seniors, lead us any way you can. On the bench, off the bench, in team huddles. Whatever you can do, lead us. Other than that: Like we talked about earlier: Leave it on the court. We are going to play as hard as we can. Because our aspirations are to do what no one else has done: Knock off a No. 1, and turn around and stay here a few more days and play on Saturday. That's what we want to do. It can't be done unless we totally bring it. Which I'm confident we will. And all 12 of you -- we have not heard from J-Ham; though he might show, he hasn't showed up yet -- so it's up to us. [Laughter]. So let's go.

Portland State
Luke Winn/SI

The Vikings soon made their way onto the court, with their band blaring the school's fight song and the Qwest Center P.A. announcer booming, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Vikings of Portland State." Their dream, unfortunately, deflated quickly after that: KU jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first six minutes, a 49-26 lead at halftime, and hug on for a 24-point victory. Just four minutes into the game, at the 16:09 mark, a sequence illustrated how little hope PSU had of hanging with the Jayhawks. Mario Chalmers flew from behind forward Kyle Coston and blocked his three-point attempt, then saved the ball from going out of bounds by throwing it to Russell Robinson. He, in turn, heaved it up to Arthur, who had already raced up floor past the Vikings' frontcourt, and Arthur threw down a ferocious dunk. "We don't play teams like Kansas every day," Dominguez said. "We don't see those kind of athletes in our league."

Bone was asked, afterward, what it might take for a 16 seed to eventually beat a No. 1. He hypothesized the 16 would probably need one of those rare, game-changing NBA sleeper prospects, or have to be running an abnormal system like the Princeton offense. "Unfortunately," Bone said, "we don't have either."

His mood changed two questions later, though, when asked about what he said in the game's final TV timeout, with 2:09 left and his Vikings trailing 82-58. Bone's eyes welled up as he retold a speech about the season being a long five months, and him telling the players "how proud I was of what they've accomplished."

As he made a somber walk back toward Portland State's locker room, having to avoid a pack of TV cameras surrounding Kansas coach Bill Self, Bone reflected that whatever he had done to prepare his team for battle against a No. 1 seed, "I didn't do it well enough." He will surely dwell on that in the offseason, but should not let it become an extended source of agony. As much as the Vikings tried, there is no real way to game-plan for the impossible.
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3/20/2008 11:35:00 AM

Thursday Morning in Omaha

The calm before the dance begins:

Qwest Center
Luke Winn/SI

Qwest Center
Luke Winn/SI

Kansas fans were streaming in in droves ...

Qwest Center
Luke Winn/SI

... and Portland State's band was in awe of the NCAA's video montage.

Tip-off in 22 minutes. Can a 16 seed finally stun a No. 1 here? Can Portland State even stay within 20? Kill time in the comments, and I'll be back later in the afternoon.
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3/20/2008 12:45:00 AM

Day 9: Chasing Cinderella

Eric Maynor
Eric Maynor and VCU celebrate their 2007 NCAA tournament upset of Duke.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

OMAHA, Neb. -- It was 2:15 a.m. when I finally found VCU's hotel, which technically made it the morning after the first day of the 2007 NCAA tournament. As a No. 11 seed with an equally low ranking on the NCAA's lodging-placement chain, the Rams had been stashed out near the Buffalo airport, at the Millennium in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Outside it was a bitterly cold March night; inside, some energized debauchery was just starting to wind down. Ravaged pizza boxes were scattered about a ledge in the lobby, and a pack of VCU fans were in the process of loudly closing down the hotel bar. As I eyed this scene, then VCU director of basketball operations (and former Florida star) Brett Nelson emerged from a separate hallway to greet me. He had not come from the bar, but rather the coaches' suite upstairs, where serious preparations were underway.

Earlier that night, the Rams had pulled off one of those first-round upsets that often define an NCAA tournament as much as the title team. As a writer, I tend to treat my mere attendance at such events like badges of honor. Seeing Wisconsin-Green Bay stun Cal (in 1994), Vermont shock Syracuse (in 2005) and VCU upset Duke (in '07) created more lasting images for me than being at the past three Final Fours. And for a player such as the Rams' Eric Maynor -- who, with a simple wave of his hand, convinced his coach, Anthony Grant, that there was no need for a timeout to set up the final play; and then raced up the floor to drill a jumper in the face of Blue Devils sophomore Jon Scheyer -- that performance may define his career. With that shot, Maynor went from an unknown to a household name. He was the point man for the tournament's biggest upset.

I was pulling double-duty in Buffalo, writing for SI.com but also reporting for a possible magazine story on VCU, in the event it also upset Pitt to reach the Sweet 16. That's why Grant was willing to let me in on the Rams' first scouting session on the Panthers, which was being held in room 250 of the Millennium, a large, open space with one bed, a couch, a pair of TVs and a laptop video-editing operation. The main table, away from the TVs, contained the aftermath of a fast-food feast: empty Big Mac boxes and half-eaten pizzas. On the floor nearby were cases of soda and Red Bull.

Grant and his staff -- Nelson, and assistants John Brannen, Tony Pujol and Allen Edwards -- were running on the adrenaline of the win as well as mega-doses of caffeine. Video coordinator James Kane, the man who was busily chopping up edits of Pitt tape, drank more Red Bulls than I believed to be humanly possible (or advisable by the FDA). It was the equivalent of a late-night cram session for an exam, only the stakes here were infinitely higher.

Grant and Pujol, who had done the lead scout on the Panthers, were on the couch, intently watching tape of Pitt's game against Louisville from the '07 Big East tournament, occasionally offering commentary. "Does Pitt even have a small lineup?" Grant asked at one point. "I mean, Sam Young [who's 6-foot-6] would be our center."

Yet they wondered if the Panthers, in order to counteract VCU's perimeter weapons, might stray away from using their giant front line of Aaron Gray, Levon Kendall and Young. "Every team, across the board, has gone small against us," Brannen said, bolstering his point by referencing Duke's decision to keep 7-footer Brian Zoubek on the pine all night. The silver lining for them, if Pitt did stay "big," was that Gray appeared to struggle to recover after hedging on picks. "See that? On the pick and roll, he doesn't get back. Our guys will be wide open," Pujol said.

The Rams' coaches, forced to make to do with a front line of no one over 6-foot-7, discussed how they'd stop Gray on defense. The personnel report's slide on Pitt's giant read, "NO DEEP TOUCHES." Pujol said they didn't "have any choice but to collapse" on him, but had to do it in different ways so the Panthers wouldn't exploit the double-teams.

Gray's size, in the end, was only part of what beat VCU in the second around. They took third-seeded Pitt to overtime before losing 84-79, with Young and clutch point guard Levance Fields making key shots in the extra period. It didn't discount the fact that VCU had, for a couple of days, captured the nation's hearts. The little team from Richmond had an overlooked star in Maynor, who had been raised as a Duke-hater in North Carolina but not recruited by the ACC. They had a physical symbol for their team commitment to winning in the NCAAs: an actual chain of golden carabiners, with each player's initials written on one link. They had a coach on the rise in Grant, who had been an assistant on Florida's championship team the previous year. For that moment, at least, they were the darlings of the dance.

I left that hotel room at 5 a.m. on Friday; the coaches said they stayed up for another half hour, and then rose again at 8 a.m. In a closed practice later that day, Grant didn't show the slightest sign of fatigue. I, on the other hand, looked completely exhausted, but in a good way. The best day of my sporting year -- opening day of the NCAA tournament -- had turned into the longest day of my working year. All in the name of chasing Cinderella.

As we begin this, the first day of this year's tourney, we can only hope to find at least one more VCU. Will it be Winthrop or George Mason? Cal State-Fullerton or Oral Roberts? If Thursday passes without yielding a new America's team, we will inevitably be left feeling as if something were missing from March Madness. In the first-round upset lies the true spirit of the dance.


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3/19/2008 06:52:00 PM

Bring On The Kids

Madison Square Garden
Luke Winn/SI

"That's not why we've had the success that we've had in college, by marketing individuals. The NBA has done that, and I think they've been successful. But they're two totally different marketing schemes, and if we fall into the one the NBA uses, we fall a distance second in our product, a distant second. Because if you're marketing someone for one year and then they go, it's just the next new person." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in December 2007

OMAHA, Neb. -- USC-Kansas State. Coach K would not approve of this game, or at least not approve of how it's being presented to the college basketball public. Any time this 6-versus-11 showdown is mentioned as the best first-round pairing in the 2008 NCAA tournament bracket, it's not because the Trojans and Wildcats happen to be top-20 teams in adjusted defensive efficiency. That matters, but it's not what drives CBS' TV ratings.

USC-Kansas State is important because of the two kids who warmly embraced on Wednesday afternoon outside the Wildcats' locker room in the Qwest Center. O.J. Mayo stood at the end of a hallway and bellowed, "Mike!" --interrupting an impromptu Michael Beasley news conference that had developed against one wall. Beasley, in turn, yelled, "Juice!" and then broke away from a phalanx of TV cameras to exchange hugs with his fellow freshman phenom. They spoke briefly, but it was about a trivial subject -- their various hotel assignments -- and then parted ways. Thursday they will face off for the right to advance to the second round of their first NCAA tournament. By next week Mayo and Beasley -- as well as possibly K-State's Bill Walker and USC's Davon Jefferson -- could both officially be gone from college basketball, out of school and beginning preparation for the NBA draft. As expected, one-and-done.

Madison Square Garden
Luke Winn/SI

Their coaches take the anti-Krzyzewski stance on the issue. Wouldn't you, if Beasley had just averaged 26.5 points and 12.4 rebounds -- and put up 26 double-doubles -- for your team? Or if Mayo had averaged 20.8 points and 4.6 boards for your team -- and increased your home attendance by more than 4,000 per game? K-State's Frank Martin is certainly willing to accept the tradeoff. "Look at what they've both done for their respective schools. Look at the attention that Michael Beasley and Bill Walker and the rest of our freshmen have brought to our program over the past year. We've set school records for being on national television this year. We're sitting here in the NCAA tournament. I mean, there's a reason why that's all taking place: it's because of the level of players that we have."

USC's Tim Floyd is similarly fine with the situation: "I think that has been the excitement about this year. If we're going to look back on this year, we're going to say it was the year of the freshmen. And understand that we're seeing guys that up until a year ago, with Oden and Durant, that we would not have seen from 1995 on, that would have been in the league without a doubt." (He did, however, offer one caveat: "It will be a detriment if and when O.J. leaves if he's not academically eligible and cost us a scholarship. That would be something that would make me review whether or not to give another guy like this an opportunity.")

You get the feeling that Floyd wouldn't turn down the second coming of Mayo, though, considering he already has another probable one-and-done blue-chipper -- L.A. guard Demar Derozan -- signed for next year's recruiting class. Coaches will beg for the commitment of the next Beasley, and the media will once again be whipped into a frenzy when he meets the next Mayo in an NCAA tournament game. Surely these players would benefit from another season in college, and so would the college game if it were able to market them -- rather than its coaches -- over the long-term. But even in their state as one-year rentals, it cannot be denied that Beasley and Mayo are highly intriguing characters. Each is the rare player who can step on the court as a true freshman and already be more talented than 99 percent of his peers, and with whom comes a rare kind of urgency: they will get one -- and only one -- shot to play in the NCAA tournament before they jump to the NBA Draft lottery.

Thursday, of course, is neither the first nor the last time Beasley and Mayo will meet on a basketball floor, or outside a locker room. They've known each other, Beasley said, since the age of 14, and he calls Mayo a "close friend." They played twice on the AAU circuit, once in high school, and once in the McDonald's All-America game, with Beasley winning all four times. This summer, when he traveled to Los Angeles to visit family, Beasley played pickup ball with Mayo and some of the Trojans, and said, "They took me in like I was family." And when the brackets were announced on Sunday, Beasley immediately sent a text message to Mayo. "I asked him if he was ready," Beasley said. "And he asked me the same thing."

"I said, 'Definitely.' Why wouldn't I be? This could be our last game. I'm going to fight as much as I can to keep him off."

Next year around this time, they could be having that conversation from different, distant locales, perhaps Miami and New York, in the lead-up to a meaningless NBA contest. And while that sad reality, from one standpoint, could be fodder for the argument against hyping them, it also reminds us of something: This is also our only chance to see Beasley and Mayo on college basketball's biggest stage. Try as we might to be purists, and resist giving it our full attention, it will be impossible not to watch.

Madison Square Garden
Luke Winn/SI

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3/19/2008 03:14:00 PM

Kansas' Qwest Begins ...

OMAHA, Neb. -- I finally landed at the Qwest Center around 1 p.m. Wednesday, and while this may not be the most glamorous NCAA tournament destination, you can buy a frozen Omaha Steak before you hit baggage claim, reach the arena within five minutes from the airport, and find your hotel right across the street. Amazingly convenient. Also, this may be the only place I've ever seen that serves Mr. Pibb in the press room.

If you don't think the NCAA is paranoid about "live blogging" of its events ... get this: After being handed your media credential, the first question you're asked this year is, "Now, will you be blogging?" "Not any play-by-play," I promised, and then was allowed to enter the building. Just in time to catch the major attraction, too. Kansas was in its locker room, where junior swingman Brandon Rush chose to conduct interviews in a beanie.

Brandon Rush
Luke Winn/SI

• The buzzword around Rush was "aggressiveness" -- mainly, reporters wondering whether his 28-point outburst against Texas A&M in the Big 12 semifinals was something that would be repeated in the NCAAs. By the Big 12 final, he was back to playing a complementary role to Mario Chalmers' 30-point, eight-three barrage. In that win over Texas, Rush had 19 points, six rebounds and six assists -- not a bad afternoon by any means. But even today he admitted that unless his scoring gets going early, he's not likely to try to take over a game. "If things aren't working out too good for me, I back off a little bit, and look for somebody else to make the shots," Rush said. "Mario got the hot hand against Texas, so I backed off my shots."

• Sophomore forward Darrell Arthur, who was sitting in the next chair over, said that Rush "either wears that beanie or his Yankees hat everywhere." He pointed out the strange phenomenon on this team: five different Jayhawks are known wearers of Yanks caps -- Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson, Sherron Collins, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers -- while only Robinson is from New York. Perhaps Kansas considers itself the Yankees of college basketball?

I asked Robinson about this, and he took the credit: "When I first came to Kansas [in 2004], nobody had a Yankees hat on. Nobody. I think I started the trend. And now I don't even wear my Yankees hat anymore because they all do it." (Apparently both Robinson and Collins have switched to wearing classic Cincinnati Reds hats to go with their blue KU warmups.)

• Robinson does not however, claim to be the team's only trendsetter. He did add that he's responsible for the "New York swagger" in the locker room, but gave credit to these players for the following:

Arthur: The infusion of "Texas music" -- mostly Chopped & Screwed rap -- into the Jayhawks' pregame playlists. Robinson has adopted these tunes as his own, listening to Arthur's Houston tunes as much as he does New York stuff. "I can probably sit here and sing a couple of songs for you right now," said Robinson. "But they might not be appropriate language-wise."

Rush: The Macbook invasion. "He's the original Macbook guy," said Robinson. "He got one, and then everybody on the team went and bought Macs."

Collins: The iPhone invasion. "He got it, and then everybody else got it," said Robinson. "We all take after each other."

• When KU played its first- and second-round games at Chicago's United Center last year, the talk of the locker room had been Michael Jordan's car, which they were in awe of upon walking by it in the parking lot. "That was sweet," Arthur said Wednesday, breaking into a smile at the thought of his Airness' wheels. "He had a light-blue Range Rover on some light-blue 23s."

Arthur said the team had yet to see anything similarly amazing during their short time in Omaha. "I asked people what there is to do out here," he said, "and they told me, 'You can go to the zoo.' But I don't like animals like that."

Kansas will stick to entertaining itself, most likely, by beating Portland State and UNLV to book a trip to Detroit, where Arthur can opt not to visit another zoological attraction.

Kansas Fans
Luke Winn/SI

Brandon Rush
Luke Winn/SI
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3/19/2008 05:41:00 AM

Day 8: En Route To Omaha; The SI Library

Psycho T Checklist
Psycho T and other stars start working on that last checklist box on Thursday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- This is the day it really begins. A 6 a.m. flight to Omaha (via Detroit) awaits, so this is the final hometown dispatch before I officially hit the road for the NCAA tournament. Mount St. Mary's emerged from the play-in game more than eight hours ago, and open practices will be held today for the Thursday-Saturday sites. Mostly these are just shoot-arounds and dunk-fests, since coaches aren't going to give their game plans away in public -- but I'm a little jaded at this point. The first time I went to the NCAAs, as a fan in 1994, I forced my dad to spend six hours in the stands at Weber State watching those things.

• If you do one thing today, join the Tourney Blog pool. We were up to 5,030 members as of last night -- a number that's completely stunning to me, since we had only 644 last year. Converting it to Facebook has really paid off ... even if there has been some grumbling amongst the old folks. (Once you're signed up for the SI Bracket Challenge application on Facebook, there should be an invitation to join the Blog Pool on the home page.)

• To leave you with some decent reading in the meantime, I compiled "The 2007-08 SI Library": a compilation of links to all the college hoops feature stories that have appeared in the magazine this season. Below, sandwiched between images of the regional covers for our tourney issue and the regional covers for our preview issue, is some excellent work. Study up until I check back in later on Wednesday.

Click for larger coverClick for larger coverClick for larger cover
Click for larger coverClick for larger coverClick for larger cover

March 18: Cut From The Same Cloth: John Thompson III (by Alex Wolff)

March 18: Does Size Matter in the NCAA Tournament? (by Grant Wahl)

March 12: Going Gaga for Gody: Notre Dame's Luke Harangody (by Luke Winn)

March 4: March Madman: North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough (by Grant Wahl)

Feb. 26: Fan Abuse in College Hoops: How much is too much? (by Grant Wahl)

Feb. 20: Twins Peaking: Stanford's 7-foot Lopez brothers (by Kelli Anderson)

Feb. 12: Fast and Furious: Memphis' Dribble-Drive Motion (by Grant Wahl)

Feb. 5: A Time To Heal: Kansas' Darnell Jackson (by Luke Winn)

Jan. 29: Good News Bears: Scott Drew & Baylor's Revival (by Kelli Anderson)

Jan. 22: Down Underdogs: St. Mary's Patty Mills and Vandy's A.J. Ogilvy (by Kelli Anderson)

Jan. 17: The Life And Times Of Rick Majerus (by S.L. Price)

Jan. 9: B-Easy Does It: K-State's Michael Beasley (by Grant Wahl)

Dec. 24: Escape From Jonestown: San Diego's Rob Jones (by Gary Smith)

Nov. 13: A Fight Between Friends: Kevin Love & O.J. Mayo (by Grant Wahl)

Oct. 9: Bruce Pearl Makes Tennessee Relevant Again (by Grant Wahl)

Our preview-issue covers, from October:

• Finally, for for your music fix ... The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at the peerless music blog Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:

Day 8's track is Grizzly Bear's On a Neck, On a Spit. One more pick from a Brooklyn band before we skip town.

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3/18/2008 04:08:00 PM

Bracket Math, Part Two

Kevin Love
UCLA fans are praying that Kevin Love's back pain isn't an issue during the dance.

NEW YORK -- Having picked UCLA to win the national title, I'll admit I'm just as concerned about Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's ankle and Kevin Love's back this week as I am about statistics. But it's become an annual tradition around these parts to do an efficiency breakdown of the bracket, attempting to ID the real Final Four contenders and the potentially vulnerable high seeds, so that's what the blog is serving up in today's Bracket Math lesson.

Efficiency is measured by how many points a team scores and yields per 100 possessions rather than per game, as compiled and adjusted for competition by kenpom.com. The reason these numbers matter so much is because they allow us to remove tempo from the equation, and evaluate all 341 Division I teams -- regardless of their game pace -- on the same level. The table below presents strong evidence (despite the small sample) of how much efficiency matters in the NCAA tournament. From 2004-07, only two teams outside the top 49 in defensive efficiency made the Elite Eight, and zero teams outside the top 25 made the Final Four.

Efficiency Profile of Elite Eight Teams, 2004-07

Off. Eff.
(Nat'l Rk.)
Def. Eff.
(Nat'l Rk.)
FloridaNC125.4 (1)87.4 (12)
Ohio StateRU123.7 (4)87.9 (15)
GeorgetownFF124.8 (2)89.3 (20)
UCLAFF116.8 (23)84.0 (2)
OregonEE120.3 (8)93.4 (51)
UNCEE123.9 (3)85.6 (4)
MemphisEE116.6 (25)86.9 (11)
KansasEE117.8 (17)82.2 (1)
FloridaNC119.4 (2)87.2 (5)
UCLARU113.0 (28)85.1 (3)
LSUFF109.9 (50)85.7 (4)
George MasonFF110.0 (49)90.0 (18)
MemphisEE112.9 (29)87.4 (6)
TexasEE118.8 (4)88.7 (10)
UConnEE119.2 (3)89.9 (16)
VillanovaEE117.0 (11)89.9 (17)
North CarolinaNC122.1 (1)85.1 (7)
IllinoisRU120.0 (3)85.5 (11)
LouisvilleFF118.0 (6)87.8 (16)
Michigan St.FF118.0 (7)89.3 (25)
KentuckyEE111.4 (25)85.0 (6)
WisconsinEE110.6 (28)86.2 (12)
ArizonaEE116.3 (9)90.3 (34)
West VirginiaEE113.6 (12)94.6 (83)
ConnecticutNC115.7 (8)83.0 (3)
Georgia TechRU111.1 (27)83.7 (5)
DukeFF118.7 (2)83.5 (4)
Oklahoma St.FF116.3 (5)85.8 (9)
St. Joseph'sEE115.1 (9)85.8 (10)
KansasEE111.2 (23)86.5 (14)
XavierEE112.3 (17)87.9 (19)
AlabamaEE112.0 (18)92.2 (49)
NCAA round key: NC = national champ, RU = runner-up, FF = Final Four, EE = Elite Eight.

The point here is not that we can guarantee 2008's Final Four teams in advance, but rather that it's a good idea to pick clubs with good offenses and defenses around the Top 25. Of my Final Four, UCLA ranks fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency (ADE), while Kansas is third, Texas is 32nd and Tennessee is 34th.

The larger point of the chart above is that it's not at all smart to put defensively challenged teams in your Elite Eight. Examine the 1-8 seeds from 2005-07 who ranked below 75th in defensive efficiency, you'll see that only West Virginia, which bombed threes at an insane rate in the '05 tourney, cracked the Sweet-16 ceiling:

2005's defensively challenged 1-6 seeds:
Team            Off. Eff       Def. Eff.
(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
W. Virginia (7) 116.1 (15) 96.8 (86) EE
2006's defensively challenged 1-6 seeds:
Team               Off. Eff.     Def. Eff.
(Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) Rd. Out

Gonzaga (3) 117.6 (8) 100.7 (162) S16
Boston Coll. (4) 118.0 (6) 96.8 (100) S16
Mich. St. (6) 115.6 (14) 95.0 (85) 1
Tennessee (2) 116.6 (11) 94.8 (82) 2
Oklahoma (6) 113.8 (20) 94.8 (81) 1
West Va. (6) 116.3 (13) 94.6 (75) S16
2007's defensively challenged 1-8 seeds:
Team               Off. Eff.     Def. Eff.
(Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.) Rd. Out

Nevada (7) 116.8 (21) 99.7 (124) 2
BYU (8) 116.4 (23) 97.4 (101) 1
Boston Coll. (7) 118.9 (11) 96.7 (92) 2
Vanderbilt (6) 116.4 (22) 96.2 (81) S16
Arizona (8) 120.4 (7) 95.4 (76) 1
Vandy's main deficiency on D in last year's tournament was not being able to stop Jeff Green from traveling on Georgetown's final shot ... but still, the 'Dores did not become the next version of '05 West Virginia.

The interesting thing about the '08 bracket is that there's only one 1-8 seed with a sub-75 defensive efficiency ranking ... and once again, it's Vandy. So we'll cast the net a little wider, to 1-8 seeds with sub-60 ADE, to provide you with a few more teams that aren't great sleeper Elite Eight picks:

2008's defensively challenged 1-8 seeds:
Team               Off. Eff.     Def. Eff.
(Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.)

Notre Dame (5) 118.9 (11) 93.9 (61)
Drake (5) 120.4 (6) 94.5 (67)
Miami Fla. (7) 113.5 (39) 95.0 (72)
Vanderbilt (4) 114.3 (33) 95.8 (77)
While this quartet has some real offensive firepower, I didn't pick any of them to go past the second round. It's also worth noting that Oregon, which was handed a No. 9 seed, is the worst major-conference defensive team in the entire NCAA tournament. The Ducks rank 125th in ADE. I don't recommend picking them against Mississippi State.

With that out of the way, we can turn to the reasonable pool of Final Four squads, whom I've broken down into three flights:
Team               Off. Eff.     Def. Eff.
(Seed) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.)

Flight A: Top-10 in AOE and ADE
Kansas (1) 126.6 (1) 83.6 (3)
UCLA (1) 120.7 (5) 84.5 (4)
Duke (2) 119.7 (7) 87.4 (10)

Flight B: Top-10 in AOE or ADE, Top-35 in the other:
Memphis (1) 117.2 (19) 82.4 (2)
Georgetown (2) 117.2 (16) 86.5 (8)
Stanford (3) 115.5 (25) 87.0 (9)
Wisconsin (3) 115.9 (23) 81.7 (1)
UNC (1) 122.9 (3) 89.7 (20)
Texas (2) 123.4 (2) 90.9 (32)
Tennessee (2) 119.6 (8) 91.3 (34)

Flight C: Others worth considering:
Louisville (3) 113.4 (41) 84.8 (5)
Marquette (6) 113.8 (38) 86.1 (6)
Clemson (5) 115.9 (24) 88.1 (14)
Wash. St. (4) 117.2 (18) 88.6 (17)
Xavier (3) 116.7 (20) 90.3 (27)
Kansas St. (11) 116.4 (22) 89.0 (19)
The numbers make a Kansas-UCLA title game appear to be a likely scenario (although I took Tennessee-UCLA). But the chart above also shows that Clemson -- a team I like to reach the Sweet 16, at least -- might be the most dangerous squad outside the 1-4 lines. Could the Tigers spoil Kansas' run to the Final Four? Or will the Jayhawks make their statistical prowess matter in the dance? And the biggest question of all: Will you guys use any of this stuff to beat me in the Tourney Blog Pool?


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3/18/2008 03:04:00 AM

Day 7: Playing Your Way In ... To The Style Archive

Mount St. Mary's

The college basketball world turns its eyes to Dayton tonight, mostly to find out which of the teams on the pool sheet's horribly abbreviated 16 line -- you know, the one that reads "Mt. St. Mary/Cop. St." -- gets to be slaughtered by North Carolina on Friday.

I'm less interested in who wins than I am in finding out if Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell can compare UD Arena to some type of war zone. After his 16-20 team -- which had lost 17-of-18 at one point -- upset Morgan State in a nailbiter to win the MEAC title Saturday, Mitchell said, "We were life and death. Last night [in the semifinal] we were in Afghanistan, and today we're in Iraq. We were in a battle. That's all we knew. So when we got out of there alive, we were happy."

In a salute to Coppin State's Eagles, we present the 12th update of the blog's Style Archive, a museum of college hoops fashion that featured 44 exhibits in 2006-07 and is up to 58 exhibits for '07-08. (Click here to read the season's full archive, or send a nomination to hoopstylesi@gmail.com.)

The Lanyard Look
Coppin State Eagles
Classification: Jersey decoration
Spotted: March 15 vs. Morgan State
Notes: Julian Conyers and the Eagles are the first 20-loss team to ever make the NCAA tournament -- and they'll likely be the only ones there this year who appear to have CSU lanyards sewn onto their necklines.

Downward-Facing Bulldog
A.J. Graves, 6-1 guard, Sr., Butler
Classification: Celebration cartwheel
Spotted: March 11, after Horizon League title game
Notes: Switz City's finest busted a move in honor of the Bulldogs' automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. We doubt Butler was doing flips over the No. 7 seed it got from the selection committee, though.

Jazz-Hands-In-Your-Face D
D.J. Augustin, 5-11 guard, Soph., Texas
Classification: Creative defensive position
Spotted: March 15 in the Big 12 tourney
Notes: Augustin tried to fluster Oklahoma's Tyler Griffin with this move in the Big 12 semis -- and at the very least, made him close his eyes. The 'Horns won the game, too, but fell to Kansas on Sunday.

Psycho-Spastic Shuffle
Tyler Hansbrough, 6-9 forward, Jr., North Carolina
Classification: Celebration dance
Spotted: March 15 in ACC semifinals
Notes: Hansbrough had good reason to make this flailing display of emotion: He had just hit the game-winning shot, with 0.8 seconds left, to sink Virginia Tech out of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

The Cactus
Matt Bouldin, 6-5 guard, Soph., Gonzaga
Classification: Large 'do
Spotted: All season
Notes: Bouldin, the Zags' leading scorer as they head into the NCAA tournament, is the only college hoopster who bears at least a mild resemblance to a member of Phish (that would be bassist Mike "Cactus" Gordon).

Tourney Blog Pool Update: Can you believe this? We have 3,645 entrants -- almost a 500 percent increase from last year -- and it's only Tuesday morning. Thanks to all who have signed up so far. For those who haven't, click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page. Then go back and friend my SI profile on Facebook so we can contact you once you're in the lead.

The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at the peerless music blog Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:

Day 7's track is the Cave Singers' Seeds of Night. Because we're seeing brackets in our sleep.

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3/17/2008 03:30:00 PM

Bracket Math, Part One


NEW YORK -- We all know the real work in college basketball is done on the road. If that weren't so, the RPI wouldn't assign 2.3 times the weight to road wins as it does to victories at home. So it shouldn't be shocking to learn that teams that only look like contenders within their own arenas tend to under-perform expectations in the dance. According to a study on data from 1999-2006 that the Blog's statistical collaborator, Jacob Wheatley-Schaller, did over at Vegas Watch, 1-6 seeds with the biggest negative gaps between home and road performance won, on average, a half a game less than expected in the tournament. The poster children for this phenomenon were the third-seeded, 2006 Iowa Hawkeyes, who were No. 2 in teamrankings.com's home power index but just No. 53 on the road ... and were upset by Northwestern State in the opening round.

In his post last week, Jacob applied some of the data to projected NCAA tournament teams; here, we'll assess the entire Field of 65's regular-season home-road splits, in hopes of pinpointing a few potential upset victims -- or lower seeds to avoid -- for your pool picks. His analysis only addressed 1-6 seeds, but it's reasonable to suggest that road struggles are a sign of weakness in more than just elite squads.

Here are the teams with more than 40-spot drops in their home-to-road rankings on teamrankings.com:
Team             Seed    HomeRk.   RoadRk.   Diff.
George Mason 12 59 142 83
Arkansas 9 21 103 82
Vanderbilt 4 11 68 57
Michigan State 5 5 61 56
St. Mary's 10 30 83 53
Austin Peay 15 119 167 48
BYU 8 10 55 45
• Mason '08 is not Mason '06, in case you were considering picking the Patriots to upset Notre Dame. I wouldn't expect GMU to fare well all the way out in Denver.

• Once again, statistical analysis doesn't make Vandy look like a particularly great pick to go deep in the dance. The 'Dores and Michigan State -- another questionable Sweet 16 team -- have almost the same profile: killers at home, mediocre on the road.

On the flip side, here are the teams with more than 40-spot jumps in their home-to-road rankings on teamrankings.com:
Team             Seed    HomeRk.   RoadRk.   Diff.
Mt. St. Mary's 16 235 115 -120
Boise State 14 169 63 -106
American 15 183 92 -91
CS-Fullerton 14 144 70 -74
Siena 13 132 65 -67
St. Joseph's 11 98 36 -62
Arizona 10 69 14 -55
Baylor 11 70 15 -55
Ms. Valley St. 16 318 263 -55
Washington St. 4 58 6 -52
USC 6 52 10 -42
• I'm not inclined to reach much into the road prowess of 14-16 seeds -- none of the four squads at the top here have favorable first-round matchups -- but Siena, at No. 13, is looking like a solid Cinderella pick. Especially since their opponent, Vandy, was prominently featured on the first chart.

• This table has the potential to yield some underseeded sleepers, namely Washington State and USC, who both ranked in the top 10 nationally on the road but didn't take care of business at home in the Pac-10. Could both of those squads be making surprise runs to the Elite Eight?


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3/17/2008 11:28:00 AM

Day 6: The Morning After


NEW YORK -- After a long night of bracketing -- and a few hours' sleep -- I woke to find 2,090 entrants in the third annual Tourney Blog pool. Considering we had 644 entrants last year, this is amazing. (If you haven't signed up yet, follow the instructions in the blog's right rail.)

Five more thoughts on the bracket, to accompany last night's post-selection show dispatch:

1. North Carolina got the No. 1 overall seed in the bracket, but the only real advantage it received from the selection committee was geographical. (The Heels play the first weekend in Raleigh, the second weekend in Charlotte.) The East Region was the one we most struggled with picking in the SI bracket last night. Whereas I thought there were really only two reasonable Final Four options in the West (UCLA and Xavier), Midwest (Kansas and Wisconsin) and South (Memphis and Texas), there were three in the East: UNC, Tennessee and Louisville. Plus, the likely Notre Dame-Washington State showdown might be the best 4-5 matchup in the field.

2. We were considering labeling that Irish-Cougs tilt "Blizzard Conditions in Denver." Just look at those rosters.

3. In case you like your Cinderellas to be able to D up ... these are the top six double-digit seeds in adjusted defensive efficiency:
Team           Seed       DEff.          Adj. DEff.   
(Reg.) (Nat'l Rk.) (Nat'l Rk.)
Kansas State 11(M) 94.7 (31) 89.0 (19)
Winthrop 13(E) 92.2 (14) 89.9 (23)
Oral Roberts 13(S) 94.0 (27) 91.4 (36)
Davidson 10(M) 92.3 (15) 91.9 (38)
Kentucky 11(S) 97.7 (75) 91.9 (39)
St. Mary's 10(s) 92.1 (13) 92.1 (42)
Of those teams, it should be noted: K-State, Davidson and St. Mary's have respectable offenses to match; Oral Roberts and Kentucky score enough points to get by; and Winthrop is downright atrocious in offensive efficiency, ranking 229th.

4. I'm leaving later this week for Omaha. I was worried it was going to be a dud site, with Kansas as a No. 1, Wisconsin as a No. 2, and six uninspiring teams slotted around them. Not so: the committee's shafting of the Badgers produced one of the bracket's best pods, with the O.J. Mayo-Bill Walker reunion game in the 6-11 matchup, and a vets-versus-phenoms duel between UW and either K-State or USC in the second round. Other than the 1 a.m. bar time, Omaha now looks great.

5. There was not a single time I looked at the bracket last night and said, "Man, I really wish Arizona State (or Virginia Tech or Ohio State or Illinois State) was in here." None of the excluded had much of a right to cry foul.

• Thanks to all who have signed up for the Tourney Blog Pool so far. For those who haven't, click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page. Then go back and friend my SI profile on Facebook.

The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:

Day 6's track is Midlake's Roscoe. They hail from the home of the University of North Texas, which went 20-11 this season but failed to make the NCAAs or the NIT. At least they're making music in Denton. Download and enjoy.


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3/16/2008 07:16:00 PM

B-Day Is Here: Five Early Thoughts on the Field of 65

North Carolina

NEW YORK -- In a few minutes here at the Sports Illustrated offices, SI.com's Grant Wahl and I are going to hunker down and begin work on the magazine's official bracket. In a way we're set up like the NCAA tournament selection committee, with laptops, paper and televisions -- but we are not wearing school warmup suits like some of the actual committee members. We compromise on the picks; Grant writes half, I write half, and then it's edited and sent to the printers, for the whole world to see (and most likely ridicule) on Wednesday.

Before that begins, I leave you with five quick thoughts on the bracket:

1. Tennessee got robbed. The selection committee put too much weight on developments from this weekend -- the Vols' loss in the SEC tournament semis and Kansas' Big 12 tourney title -- when it picked No. 1 seeds and put the Jayhawks in the Midwest and UT as a No. 2 in the East. How can a team that beat Memphis (on the road), Xavier, Gonzaga, West Virginia and Western Kentucky in its nonconference slate, and then won the SEC regular-season title, get passed over for a No. 1? Kansas' best out-of-conference wins were over USC (a No. 6 seed) and Arizona (a No. 10 seed).

2. That said, while Kansas may not have deserved a No. 1 seed, there's little doubt that, efficiency-wise, the Jayhawks are the best team in the country. John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus recently published a list of the top eight major-conference efficiency margins this season, and KU was at the top:
Rk.  Team            Pace   PPP    OPPP   EM
1. Kansas 69.2 1.16 0.92 +0.24
2. Wisconsin 60.2 1.09 0.91 +0.18
3. UCLA 64.9 1.13 0.96 +0.17
4. Tennessee 71.5 1.12 0.97 +0.15
5. Louisville 67.0 1.06 0.91 +0.15
5. N. Carolina 74.7 1.13 0.99 +0.14
7. Duke 75.3 1.11 0.99 +0.12
8. Georgetown 62.6 1.04 0.92 +0.12

For some context, 75 percent of last year's Elite Eight teams were in the top eight nationally in major-conference efficiency margin -- and Kansas, which lost to UCLA in the quarterfinals, was ranked No. 1 then as well.

3. Your best first-round game: No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Kansas State in Omaha. The committee says it doesn't pay attention to the matchup storylines, but O.J. Mayo vs. Michael Beasley in the first round won't hurt TV ratings. If you didn't catch it back in January, Grant's Mailbag had a story from Beasley's mother, Fatima Smith, about Mayo trying to recruit her son to USC. Apparently Mayo called her up two days before signing day in 2006 ... and this ensued:

"He says his name is like O'Jambolin or something. [Mayo's real name is Ovington J'Anthony]. He didn't say O.J. Mayo. I say, 'Who?' He says, 'O.J., O.J. Mayo.' I say, 'Hi, how you doin'? Are you goin' to Kansas State?' He says, 'No, Ms. Beasley,' which drives me nuts. My name is Smith!

"He says, 'Ms. Beasley, I'm just calling to see if we can get Michael to come out to USC.' I say, 'Oh, no, sugar, no, sweetie pie, you need to come to Kansas State.' He's like, 'Ms. Beasley, we'll look out for Michael. I'll keep an eye out for him myself.'

"I say, 'O.J., you need someone to look out for you! Why don't you just come to Kansas State? It'll be a great team.' He says, 'We'll have a great team too.' I say, 'O.J., if you were having a great team you wouldn't be calling me at the 11th hour. Call Huggs. I'm sure he'll take you.' So I called Huggs and said, 'Hey, I just offered O.J. a scholarship. You got one? Dalonte [Hill], you got a scholarship?' They said, 'No, you're the one who offered him a scholarship!

4. One of the most important figures in this NCAA tournament might be UCLA's ... trainer. For weeks I'd been leaning toward picking the top-seeded Bruins to win it all, but injuries to glue guy Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (a severe ankle sprain) and super-frosh Kevin Love (mild lower back pain) are giving me some serious second thoughts. A fully healthy UCLA team, with its combination of Final Four experience in the backcourt and Love's low-post presence, would be the most dangerous squad in the bracket. Now we have to wonder, will ailments end up spoiling Ben Howland's first national title run? At least the selection committee did the Bruins a favor by giving them the easiest region of any of the No. 1 seeds.

5. Wisconsin, like Tennessee, should be feeling shafted. The selection committee must've really hated the Big Ten, seeing that the team that won both the conference's regular-season title and its postseason tournament was handed a No. 3 seed. Duke, meanwhile, which won neither the ACC nor the ACC tournament, is nicely set up in the West Region as a No. 2. (The Blue Devils did beat the Badgers head-to-head, but that shouldn't have been the deciding factor here.) I was considering UW as a potential sleeper Final Four pick leading up to the bracket announcement, but can it really get past USC, Georgetown and Kansas to get to San Antonio? That's a tall order.

One parting note: There's still plenty of time for you to join the Third Annual Tourney Blog Pool (now on Facebook!). Click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page. As of the beginning of the selection show, we had 737 members, many of whom who have also been kind enough to friend the poolster on Facebook. Winners are eligible for fortune and fame in future blog posts.


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3/16/2008 03:31:00 PM

Xs and Os: Arkansas' Late-Game Plays

There are things that this blog is good at (or at least I'd like to think so): on-site reporting, posting amateurish photos from my Canon Elph, doing light statistical analysis, begging you to join the Facebook pool. I am not, however, entirely qualified to provide you with a thorough breakdown of a team's offensive sets.

That's why the blog has turned to an expert -- coach Bruno Chu of The X's and O's of Basketball -- to give us a few guest posts during the dance. The latest: A look at the crunch-time prowess of Arkansas' post players. Bruno takes it over from here:

How did Arkansas pull out its nail-biting, 92-91 win over Tennessee in Saturday's SEC tournament semifinal? While the Razorbacks have a game-changing guard in Patrick Beverley, the result was decided by bigger boys down low. Here are three key, late-game plays that sealed the victory for Arkansas and set up Sunday's SEC finale against Georgia:

There's nothing crazy about the plays you saw above, but what they do show is that you don't have to run a 1-4 low or side isolation play for your best guard to win a game. Running an off-ball pick-and-roll or a back-screen to free up a big man can work just as well. Here are the sets that coach John Pelphrey utilized:

The UCLA Screen: It's amazing how, after so many decades of use, this play can still work to perfection. Almost every team in the world has a UCLA backdoor screen somewhere in its playbook. The play the Hogs run here is a give-and-go with a UCLA screen that sets up a nice alley-oop for Sonny Weems.

Off-ball Screen-and-Slip: When you run screens for guards in crunch-time situations, most people assume that the ball is going to the guard. But because most coaches instruct their players to switch off of all picks in these moments, it's easy for the screener to slip the screen and go right to the basket. That's what Charles Thomas does here -- and even though he blows the layup, Darian Townes comes to the rescue with the tip-in.

It's been an up-and-down season for the Razorbacks, but as these plays prove, they'll be a difficult team to defend in the final minutes of NCAA tournament games. Stopping them isn't as simple as shutting down Beverley on the perimeter -- do only that, and you're liable to get burned on the inside.

(Read more from Bruno Chu, a high-school coach in Vancouver, B.C., on his excellent blog: The X's and O's of Basketball.)

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3/16/2008 11:38:00 AM

Day 5: Welcome To Selection Sunday

If they beat Kansas today, A.J. Abrams and Texas have a solid case for a No. 1 seed.
Douglas Jones/Icon SMI
NEW YORK -- When I finally packed up from Madison Square Garden at around 2 a.m., the press room was nearly deserted and the house crew had already dismantled much of the court where Pittsburgh won its Big East tourney title a few hours earlier. 'Twas time to head home, get some rest and turn the focus to Bracket Day.

Here are 10 things I'm thinking on the morning of Section Sunday, with T-minus seven hours until the great unveiling:

1. This weekend has taken on an almost Biblical tone. Disaster struck in Atlanta during the SEC tournament, as an F2 tornado hit the Georgia Dome, sending debris falling from the ceiling, and forcing an already crazy SEC tournament to move to Georgia Tech, where it got even stranger. Intense storms hit Charlotte, the site of the ACC tournament, and rain fell onto the court at Bobcats Arena during the Duke-Clemson semifinal, causing a delay and forcing the remainder of the game to be played with towels lining the floor. All of it lent an eerie feeling to the final days of college hoops' regular season.

2. One would like to think that there will be basketball miracles to balance out the natural and man-made disasters. We've already seen one -- Blake Hoffarber's Laettner-esque shot to lift Minnesota over Indiana on Friday at the Big Ten tournament -- and there are two more miracles waiting to happen on Sunday. Those would be 16-18 Illinois upsetting Wisconsin to earn the Big Ten's automatic bid, and 15-16 Georgia knocking off Arkansas to win the SEC's automatic bid. (The Bulldogs, mind you, would have to win their third game in two days to do this -- they beat both Kentucky and Mississippi State on Saturday.)

3. Wisconsin deserves a No. 2 seed over Duke. The Badgers lost -- by a lot -- to the Blue Devils at Cameron in November, but the selection committee simply cannot deny a team that won the Big Ten regular season title and (most likely) the Big Ten tourney a top-two seed. Especially when stacked up against a Duke team that won neither its conference or nor its postseason tourney.

4. If Kansas wins the Big 12 tournament today, I don't think the Jayhawks are a lock for a No. 1 seed. Tennessee, which is No. 1 in the RPI and has non-conference wins over Memphis, Xavier, Gonzaga, West Virginia and Western Kentucky, would still deserve that fourth No. 1 over the Jayhawks, who played a pretty lackluster slate outside of the Big 12.

5. If Texas wins the Big 12 tournament, on the other hand, the Longhorns should get the fourth No. 1 over Tennessee. Not only did they blow out the Vols in head-to-head competition, but the 'Horns would also have more wins over top-50 RPI teams (12) than anyone else in the country. Beating Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas (twice) has to count for something, right?

6. A few facts on 14-20 Coppin State, the never-say-die story of this NCAA tournament: The Eagles did not win a single game between Nov. 24 and Jan. 14. They started 0-8 in the MEAC, and 2-19 overall. They then went 12-1 to finish the season, upsetting top-seeded Morgan State in the MEAC tourney title game. In a quote that will go down as one of the Great Uses Of War Metaphors, CSU coach Fang Mitchell said after the win, "We were life and death. Last night we were in Afghanistan, and today we're in Iraq. We were in a battle. That's all we knew. So when we got out of there alive, we were happy."

7. For a team with eight losses and no chance of getting any higher than a No. 4 seed, Clemson can look pretty dangerous at times. When the Tigers' perimeter players -- namely K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby -- get hot, they're capable of outscoring anyone. Even North Carolina.

8. I really wish I would have covered the SEC tournament rather than the Big East. All the drama has been in the A-T-L.

9. The selection committee has saved the final two spots in its bracket for Illinois and Georgia, should they win their way in at the 11th hour. I think the last two teams in the committee's "working" bracket are Villanova and Oregon. They should both be huge Wisconsin and Arkansas fans today.

10. If you're looking for a better way to play the national anthem at a major basketball game, consider hiring this guy: Mark "The Loveman" Pender. Initially I laughed when I saw Pender, the trumpeter from the Max Weinberg 7 on the Conan O'Brien Show, step onto the court before the Big East tourney's finale. What happened after that -- a goosebump-inducing instrumental Banner which many of the Garden's fans began signing along with, organically -- was impressive. Pitt's DeJuan Blair raised his hands up in the air near the end of the song, almost as if he was summoning its power. And it worked: He had 10 points and 10 boards in the title game. Both DeJaun and I would prefer to see trumpet-only anthems for the rest of the month.

Important Pool Business: The Bracket Challenge images in the right-hand rail are your three-step instructions for joining the third annual Tourney Blog Pool, now on Facebook. Or you can just click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page. Join up now!

As of Sunday at 11:45 a.m., we have 566 members of the Blog Pool. One hundred and twenty five of those folks have been kind enough to friend my SI profile on Facebook; the rest -- as well as any new entrants -- are invited to do the same.

The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:

Day 5's track is Del the Funkee Homosapien's Bubble Pop. In honor, perhaps, of the fates of Arizona State and Virginia Tech later tonight. Download and enjoy.


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3/16/2008 01:44:00 AM

Panther Revival: From Nearly Dead to a No. 4 Seed

Levance Fields, who had six assists Saturday night, is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- It was 86 days ago, on Dec. 20 of a young and promising season, that Pitt upset an undefeated Duke team here at Madison Square Garden. Junior point guard Levance Fields hit what would go down as one of the most cold-blooded shots of the year, a step-back three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, to beat the Blue Devils 65-64. It established the Panthers as a legitimate top-10 team -- they jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 in the next Associated Press poll -- but coach Jamie Dixon called it "the most bittersweet night in my coaching career."

The reason: senior forward Mike Cook, who might have finished as the team's second-leading scorer, had crumpled to the floor during the win with a torn ACL, lost for the season. There was speculation that after beating Duke, the rest would be downhill for the hobbled Panthers. What happened nine days later in their next game only strengthened that theory: Fields fractured his left foot in an 80-55 loss to Dayton and did not return until Feb. 15. The basketball gods were being especially cruel to Pitt -- said Fields, "We were mad, and we didn't understand why things were happening to us like that" -- and did not relent even after Fields was back in the fold. By Feb. 24, Pitt had fallen to 7-7 in conference play, all the way out of the polls, and on the fringe of NCAA tournament bracket projections.

So what does one make of the scene at the Garden late Saturday night, after Pitt's fourth win in four days to take the Big East tournament title as a No. 7 seed? There was Fields, dribbling out the clock on a 74-65 win over Georgetown in the championship game, then launching the ball skyward before his teammates, including Cook, mobbed him on the floor. And there was junior forward Sam Young, the tourney's MVP after scoring 16 points in the finale (and 70 since Wednesday), soaking in the celebration. Young said later that it "felt like I just won a million dollars."

What the Panthers had done was return to their comfort zone on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and revive their season, going on a surprise run that may elevate them all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs when the field is announced Sunday night. With this Big East tourney crown, the win over Duke, and the argument that their 26-9 record would be 28-7 or even 29-6 had Fields not been sidelined for a month and a half, Pitt has a compelling case to jump onto the bracket's fourth line. Such a position would have seemed unfathomable as of a week ago.

This rise was not built on a new style of play, but rather a return to the blue-collar identity that had faded during the Panthers' swoon. On Saturday against the Hoyas, that grittiness was on full display: Pitt barreled its way to the foul line for 44 attempts compared to Georgetown's nine, and the Panthers won the offensive rebounding battle 19-7, with freshman forward DeJuan Blair grabbing 10 on his own. Young even had three blocks -- all of Roy Hibbert shots -- to go with his MVP-clinching night. "For whatever reason, I didn't think we were playing as aggressive as we needed to, say 10 games ago," said Dixon. "But when we got all our guys back, we have just been more physical, more aggressive, and just more like we normally are, I mean, more like Pitt."

At the center of this renaissance is Fields, the stocky Brooklyn floor general who earned 13 attempts at the charity stripe en route to scoring 10 points. He may never get mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin or UCLA's Darren Collison, but Fields is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point. Over four games in the Big East tournament, he had 22 assists against just four turnovers -- an incredible 5.5-to-1 ratio -- making it clear just how much better Pitt is when Fields is running the show.

While standing outside of his locker room around midnight, with a piece of the championship net stuck behind his right ear, Fields mentioned that he had the option to heal for the remainder of this season rather than return in February. "I knew the risks and consequences of sitting out," he said, "but I chose to come back even earlier than projected, and that turned out to be a good thing."

Good indeed, for without Fields this hometown party would not have been possible. The question now is, was this celebration just that -- a nice streak of wins in a friendly setting for a team heavily populated with New York-area players -- and nothing more?

The Big East tournament title game is not new territory for Pitt; it has reached the final round in seven of the past eight years. Nor is the NCAA tournament a foreign place; the Panthers have been in the dance for each of the past six seasons. What they haven't managed to do this decade, however, is make it past the Sweet 16. The possibility here is that this Pitt team is uniquely on the upswing, haven already taken its beating from the basketball gods and built itself back into a contender. This time, they left the Garden with no bittersweet emotions, only hope that their best work is still ahead.

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