Saturday, March 17, 2007

SIU 61, HC 51, final

A slow bleed.

Southern Illinois didn't win pretty, but they pretty much neutralized both dimensions of Holy Cross' game. They were persistent, they never fell asleep, and withstood Holy Cross' beating underneath. Most of the game they were only up 5, 6, 7 points, but it felt like 13 or 14 points at times. This is one hell of a team - even without a single star, this team should be able to make the Sweet 16. Easily.

Sadly it wasn't meant to be tonight. The shame is that Thomas and Simmons were shut down so thoroughly that they weren't really able to shine the way they had all year. Even when they did get open they seemed rattled and took bad shots. At the end, they were even missing foul shots. Game over.

In a way, it stinks playing another big mid-major team since it's dissatisfying whether you win or lose. I see now that you want to take down a former national champion or storied member of the SEC, not a small school with thoughts of the Sweet 16. Everyone loves to hate Duke. Nobody hates Southern Illinois. And I don't either.

Congratulations to Holy Cross. In a first round loaded with blowouts and overmatched teams, Holy Cross hung in there. No seed lower than 11 won in the first round, and Holy Cross comes out with the rest of the lower seeds.

P.S. When's spring football?

Friday, March 16, 2007

HC 45, SIU 52, under 4 to play

Still doable! But make those damn free throws!

HC 38, SIU 44, 8 minutes to play

Watch the foul situation at the end of this games. There are a TON of kids in fould trouble out there.

Am I being naive that Thomas is bound to make some FGs by the end of this game? I have this hunch he will be heard from in crunch time. Hopefully I'm right.

Go Crusaders!

Start of 2nd half

The begining stages of this half, and this is going to be a war the rest of the way. Bodies are flying everywhere. Turnovers. Two changes of the possession arrow. Shaw on the Salukis at the end of the hlf has a high ankle sprain.

3rd foul on Clifford now. Will Holy Cross have enough bodies to end this game? Go Crusaders!

HC 25, SIU 30, halftime

Somewhere on my notepad I wrote: "Thomas and Simmons are wound tight."

Again, "Simmons can't make anything."

"Thomas wild shot".

Now it's halftime, and I'm still waiting for the Thomas and Simmons I saw destroy Lehigh during the season and Bucknell during the final. I know the Salukis are one of the best defensive teams in the tournment, but some of these missed shots were definitely missed open jumpers and "tightness".

The game was tied when freshman Van Der Baan got his third foul. That's when the complexion changed and Southern Illinois strung a few fast breaks together to get sa 5 point lead.

If I'm Willard, I'm saying to stick to the gameplan. The shots will fall and they're not exactly shooting the lights out. In the back of my head, I'd be thinking of the Butler game yesteday. Old Dominion got victimized by the 3-pointer midway through the second half and the Bulldogs never looked back. Willard should guard the perimeter and avoid the three-point killers - imperative in a tight defensive game like this.

Holy Cross is only down by five, and they're in a fine place to be. Courage, you Crusaders. This is very, very doable.

HC 16, SIU 17, 7:00 left 1st

Well, my in-running diary is off to a fantastic start - it ate my first post. Way to go, blogger (who has been having major problems tonight).

Defensive-minded game, but it's great to see Clifford get involved early. However, I'm worried that SIU will get hot from outside... but the Crusaders' 2-3 zone seems to be causing problems for the Salukis. Both teams seemed to only be getting warmed up, even though both teams are gritty, defensive teams. Holy Cross doesn't seem rattled, which bodes well. However, Thomas and Simmons both seem awful ragged, which does not.

Mike Gminksi and the play-by-play guy called this game a "half-court grinder". How long did it take Dan to come up with that one? Better not let him close to any sharp metal objects.

Holy Cross just lost the lead, down 17-16. Will be an interesting end of the first half.

Hopefully Blogger will fix their issues by the end...

10 Reasons to Root for Holy Cross

I know it can be hard sometimes to root for the Patriot League representatives in the postseason, being a Lehigh fan. But today is the time. In one of the last games of the first round, Holy Cross will playing Southern Illinois on CBS in your local area (or, if you can't do that, you can sign up for March Madness On Demand for free) at about 9:45 EST tonight.

I'm so thrilled with the Crusaders that I'm going to attempt to write an in-running blog of the whole affair as it's going on. I'm not sure if I would have done it anyway, but after hearing that famous Holy Cross alumnus Bill Simmons would be dropping out of his ESPN in-running first-round diary just before the best game of the first round at 9:45PM, I felt like somebody needed to pick up the slack, and that person ought to be me. Bill, just think of me as your CLOSER.

For you Lehigh fans (and other non-Holy-Cross fans out there), here's 10 really good reasons to root for Holy Cross over Southern Illinois tonight.

1. What's good for Holy Cross today is good for the Patriot League in the future. Just imagine what THREE first-round upsets in THREE years will do for our national visibility. You won't hear much about the MAAC or Mid-Horizon from Dick Vitale; you'll be hearing about the CAA and Patriot.

2. Crayola has a surplus of purple body paint - one more game will allow them to dump that product. Anything good for the local economy is OK with me.

3. Everyone loves mid-majors, and whomever wins this battle will be a mid-major that has a chance to make the Sweet 16. Seriously, do you really think Illinois or Virginia Tech is unbeatable?

4. A good game is the only way to knock Kentucky/Villanova off your TV screen. If you are not fond of Tubby Smith auditioning for a Rolaids commercial for two hours, I'd suggest roting for the Cross to make things interesting. (Maybe Tubby could join classic footage of Rollie Massemino, but not on my time, please!)

5. Famous Holy Cross alumni: the aforementioned Bill Simmons, beltway pundit Chris Matthews, NBA hall-of-famers and Celtic Legends Tommy Heinsohn and and Bob Cousy, Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, Jr., and supreme court justice Clarence Thomas. Famous Southern Illinois alumni: Jim Belushi and Walt "The Salukis doing Kabuki as they slice and dice... to the hoop!" Frazier. No contest.

6. This is your last chance to see senior guards Torey Thomas and Keith Simmons out-shoot and out-hustle another opponent. We'll all be glad to not have to face them ever again, but these hard-working kids richly deserve an NCAA tournament, and I think they're going to perform really well in this spot.

7. Those Southern Illinois guards turn over the ball, and Thomas and Simmons get a whole lot of steals. As anyone who watched the VCU game can attest, good guards can carry you to a win, and there's a real chance of this happening here.

8. We need some shots of Ralph Willard in these CBS NCAA montages. Not only is he a great coach, I can't think of any coach that went with such suddenness from "Just For Men" to a cool-looking head of grey hair - and pulled it off. Saluki coach Chris Lowery just can't match Willard in the style department - you'll see that today.

9. Holy Cross actually can have a size advantage underneath if Willard plays his cards right. In 6"10, 270 lb Tim Clifford can get everyone out of his area, we could have a surprising presence underneath.

10. What can Patriot League basketball be? It can be Holy Cross and Bucknell the past three years -- hopefully all with first-round wins and gunning for their first-ever Sweet 16 bid. Can you picture next year's Holy Cross/Lehigh game on ESPN? The way it becomes closer to reality is with a Crusader win tonight.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

My NCAA Picks: Tigers, Pigs, Asses, and Nightingales

I always seem to get suckered into Christopher Guest movies. With a boatload of incredibly funny actors, in theory they should keep you laughing all the way through the movie - though, in practice, they generally end up being too angry towards whom they're satirizing and aren't funny enough. What ends up happening is like what happens in his latest movie, For Your Consideration - about three dozen of the funniest people on the planet trying to steal the airtime with characters that probably belong in their own movie.

How does this relate to today, the opening day of the NCAA tournament? One of the characters from is the movie, publicity agent Corey Taft (hilariously played by John Michael Higgins), has one of those characters that you end up quoting for weeks afterward -and has the line that sums up the NCAA tournament in one, neat line.

"Inside every [NCAA Tournament team] there's a tiger, a pig, and ass and a nightingale, and you never know which one is going to come out."

And it's absolutely true. Sure, if they play their best game four games in a row, Xavier or Crieghton could make the Final Four. But you know one day Creighton's going to come out and shoot like pigs, and the Musketeers are going to shoot like donkeys, while some other team out of nowhere (like Louisville or Memphis) will become tigers and take down everyone in their path. It's maddening. They could have won that game, you end up justifying to yourself as you tear up your pool.

For fun, I'm going to separate the NCAA tournament teams into these four categories as a different way to show who I picked in the first round. (Of course, a team I picked as an ass or pig will probably end up winning the whole thing, so be warned.)

1st Round Piglets
Jackson State, Niagara, Texas A&M-CC, Weber State, North Texas, Central Connecticut State, Belmont, Eastern Kentucky, Penn, Miami (OH), New Mexico State

These guys, like piglets, are cute but shouldn't have the talent, juice, or matchup to make it out of the first round. Hopefully you didn't have them advancing out of your bracket - that would be a mistake.

1st Round Asses
Purdue, Georgia Tech, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Duke, Indiana, Michigan State, Arkansas, Washington State, Texas Tech, Xavier, Virginia, Stanford

These guys, in my mind, are ripe to be first-round victims to either nightingales that are contenders for the national championship, or adolescent tigers that will be able to write a chapter in NCAA Tournament lore for years to come. Note how many middling power-conference teams there are in here (Purdue, Duke, Texas Tech, Stanford) as well as an Atlantic 10 team that couldn't beat anyone in the last weeks of the year (Xavier). To me, those are prime donkey candidates.

1st Round Baby Tigers
Butler, Nevada, Winthrop, Wright State, Southern Illinois, George Washington, Davidson, Long Beach State

I like all these teams (which is why I'm calling them "tigers"), but to me they seem to be victims of a bad matchup or a numbers game (someone out to be brought up on charges for having Butler and Old Dominion play in the first round). It killed me, for example, not to take Davidson over Maryland, but the Terps just match up much too well against the Wildcats in my mind. Now, put them against Virginia, and I smell an upset.

Second Round Asses
Arizona, Kentucky, Pitt, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Memphis, Vanderbilt

Simply, these are the teams that should be much better than they are that snuck into the second round due to good matchups (Pitt, Wisconsin), they play overrated non-scholarship conferences (Penn), or their coach needs to win one game to avoid getting fired by impatient fans (Kentucky). Also, don't you just know Vanderbilt is going to have that awful game at some point during the tournament? I bet it's in the second round.

Memphis gets a special mention since I really hate their head coach John Calipari. That's enough reason alone to have his team as a "donkey".

Second Round Piglets
Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Marquette, USC, Boston College, BYU

These guys aren't bad teams, but they are just going against powerhouse teams. They may give a push (Gonzaga leaps to mind), but in the end the guys on top here are just too powerful.

Second Round Nightingales
Holy Cross, Albany, Old Dominion

Yes, I know this is a "homer alert", but I see these guys are going to be the darlings of the first round. They're not the biggest small-college winners, but they will be on the map and will probably get a good run in the second round as well before fading on the court with honor.

You can probably guess my bracket from here, but if you care, my full bracket is here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Random Tournament Thoughts

Admit it, you've sneaked a look at the brackets already today. Face it, is your boss really going to buy into your plan that you suddenly got the flu at 12:03PM this Thursday? Can Butler make the Sweet 16... or can Old Dominion? It's tournament time, and it's a magical time when everyone's bracket is still correct, everyone in the nation is having fun speculating who to pick in their office pools, and Office Depot's stock goes through the roof as companies desperately look for printing supplies and copier toner.

Some random thoughts to whet your appetite for the tournament.

* I don't know about you, but every year I enter every contest that I can think of. Not only the office pool, but I submit everything I can find on the internet for men's brackets on CBS Sportsline, ESPN, and others. Irrational? Probably. But it's like this: if I (for some reason) ever pick the perfect bracket that nobody can beat, brother, I'm going to be ready.

* Of course, this doesn't explain my brackets for the NCAA Women's tournament and the NIT. I think in gambling parlance the existence of these brackets are commonly called "hedging one's bets". More accurately, when three of my final four get eliminated by dinnertime on Sunday, I'll still be rooting for the Lady Huskies the next weekend.

* It's funny how some of the teams seem like old friends you see once a year. Butler. Gonzaga. Long Beach State. Seriously, I'm a nut for NCAA football and the NCAA tournament, and I only hear about these schools once a year, when the brackets are announced - and after that, I study up on all of them looking for strengths and weaknesses. (If only I could have channeled this energy to, say, my schoolwork. I coulda been a Rhodes Scholar.)

* Seriously, aren't you surprised nobody has done a study for heart attack rates during the television broadcasts of the NCAA tournament? You have to believe when George Mason upset UConn last year to make the Final Four, cardiac arrest rates had to have hit some sort of record - not only in Connecticut and the D.C. suburbs, but in Las Vegas as well as punters who sunk their life savings into UConn as a "sure thing" started to turn a shade of shamrock green.

* My friend Ray always had the best line during the tournament - at the moment when his NCAA pool was officially finished. "That's it - I'm going to root for who I want to win!"
The best was when this happened on Saturday in Round 2 - a treasured memory.

* The best thing about Syracuse not being selected for the tournament is that it's one less maddening team you have to pick that has the talent to reach the Elite 8 or get eliminated by (say) Central Connecticut State. In the day, I used to call this the "Temple problem" - every year, you'd pick Temple to lose to (say) Princeton in the first round in a 6-11 game, and somehow they'd be playing North Carolina for the Final Four. But if you pick them, all of a sudden the guards would forget how to shoot and a team like Providence would knock them out easily.

I attribute any loss of hair I have to Temple's basketball team in the 80s and 90s, though there are other great candidates - Syracuse, Arizona, even (lately) Duke. If you lived through it, you know what I mean.

* Speaking of Providence, whatever happened to God Shamggod? Still playing in China? Isn't that proof that the Big Guy Up Above has a great sense of humor?

* Exactly why are all the writers and pundits saying that the mid-majors aren't going to make the same type of push to the Final Four that George Mason did a year ago? Sure, the NCAA did their best to stiff deserving mid-major at-large teams. But that has all the whiff of bluster and being out-of-touch. Have Southern Illinois, Wright State, Creighton, Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, and Gonzaga all of a sudden become terrible? I'm betting not. The trend has been the "mid-majors" have all gotten better, and I see no reason to doubt that this isn't still true.

* I really don't know why, but whenever I see Winthrop in the NCAA tournament, I have to fight the urge to say, "I picked Winthrop when it wasn't cool to pick Winthrop!" If their 1998 game had ended after about ten minutes of play I would have had a chance when #16 Winthrop was ahead of #1 Auburn. I don't know why I remember that so well. Maybe picking a #16 to beat a #1 is kind of like hang-gliding or tasting your first beer - memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. (80 reasons to 41 reasons.)

* I hate #3 seeds. It seems like their only purpose is to tease you to pick them for the final four, while you watch them on Thursday afternoon lose to a team like Manhattan and thereby eliminating your pool from contention. When you combine this with the fact that the 14 seed YOU picked gets drilled by Kentucky, it makes you want to tear your hair out even more.

* It's awfully easy to pick the favorites to advance (and it's probably better for your pool too), but nothing comes close to the rush of adrenaline you get when you pick the correct upsets, especially in the 13-14-15 range. I still remember Siena upending Stanford, Richmond upending Syracuse, and (my favorite) Bucknell over Kansas. I can't remember the title game two years ago, but I remember that Kansas hook shot clanging off the iron very, very well.

* And, yes, I had picked the Patriot League winner for a while to advance out of the first round, because I wanted to be able to say that I picked it when it happened. (Well, at least since 2001.)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thoughts on the NCAA Tournament

How hard could it be? Like sinking free throws in Pop-a-shot, all the committee choosing the NCAA men's basketball had to do was pick the right teams. Drexel beat Villanova, Creighton and Syracuse. Appalachian State beat VCU, Vanderbilt, and Virginia. They did everything they needed to do to get in - scheduled conference-worthy teams on the road, and beat them. A free-throw. Right?

Um, maybe not. The men's committee thought that a 17-12 Stanford team (who lost four of their last five) deserved to make it in the tournament, and a 21-13 Arkansas team that went 6-8 in the SEC (with terrible losses to SEC cellar-dwellers LSU and Auburn) were more worthy than two "mid-majors" that proved that they belonged with the big boys.

It's no secret as to why Stanford, Arkansas, and borderline teams Texas Tech (who got thrashed by Kansas State in their conference tournament) and Illinois (who beat only one ranked team all year). Rather than give the Colonial Athletic and SoCon extra TV money for their deserving teams, they'd rather reward the schools that already make a mint from their athletics programs. It's no coincidence that the schools who made it in are from the Pac-10 (Stanford), Big 12 (Texas Tech), Big 10 (Illinois) and SEC (Arkansas). Rather than let a smaller school (or conference) get a little more TV time or TV money, they have to stack the deck to crowd out the "little guy" and give an undeserving school one more game on TV (and the money that comes with that). If there was any doubt that the selection of teams is ultimately about money, this should put that to rest. Is it any coincidence that the "screwed teams" are in the CAA (Drexel), SoCon (Appalachian State), MVC (Missouri State) and WAC (Air Force)?

It's really amazing how little the NCAA cares about the actual tournament when you look at the entire field in this way, diluting the quality of its product in the first round and beyond. Put it this way: Where's the compelling story in a Illinois/Virginia Tech 5-12 first-round game? Is it likely to enter into the lore of the NCAA tournament, or is it likely to fade into history as a game versus tournament also-rans? Now, think of a Appalachian State/Virginia Tech game or a Missouri State/Illinois game. Which games have more juice? Which ones are David vs. Goliath? Which one has teams storming the court if they win, and Billy Packer saying "That's what March is all about!"

In addition, there's some "David vs. David" matchups in the first round that has me puzzling. Southern Illinois/Holy Cross? Butler/Old Dominion? Nevada/Creighton? Sure, they guarantee good "David's" to play in Round 2 and have a good shot at the Sweet 16. But it also eliminates three legitimate sleepers right away - and, hmm, it also protects that precious extra Pac 10 or Big 10 possibility.

The way the men's tournament is set up now, the committee would rather have two Goliaths with bad knees and broken noses play in a meaningless game rather than give any of the real Davids' out there a real shot. In a year where there are not a lot of compelling big-conference heavies beyond the top 8 or 9 teams, it's a real travesty.

I'll weigh in more about the tournament in the next couple days (I think the next part of my "New Realities" will have to wait for next week), specifically about Holy Cross, why you should root for them, and why I think they have a chance against Southern Illinois. But someone ought to call the NCAA out for being a slave to keeping big money to the big conferences, and I'm doing that right now.
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