It's been a week where Lehigh was picked by one person to get to the elite 8 thanks to our 12th man, 7'1 junior C David Safstrom; a rallying cry from the West Coast to root for junior G Michael Ojo, who hails from Santa Monica, California, and the topper: the revelation that Pizza Hut will offer the university 10,000 free slices of pizza if Lehigh can shock the world tonight. (A reminder of the good old days: in the 1990s, when Lehigh used to score more than 70 points in a game, the local McDonalds used to give out free hamburgers if you had a ticket stub.)
Pizza Hut had better start getting those ovens ready. (more)
Like most of America, I picked my brackets last night after cramming about the relative merits of Sasquatch, the no-name defense of Fran Dunphy's Temple team and weighing whether Siena, coached by former Lehigh assistant Fran McCaffery, can make the Sweet 16. (They can.) But there was no doubt I would pick the upset that will shock the world - Lehigh upsetting Kansas.
Don't get me wrong: I can see the enormity of Lehigh's task tonight. I understand that the odds are long. 99.9% of all brackets have Kansas moving on to the second round; only my bracket, and a few other diehard Lehigh, Missouri or Illinois fans, probably picked otherwise.
But I decided that it would be better to pick Lehigh and be wrong than to pick Kansas and be right.
Having said that, I honestly believe that this team has the capability of hanging with Kansas. The dirty secret nobody will dare say going into this tournament is that the No. 16 seeds of yore are nothing like they used to be. There was a time when the 16 seeds had no height and maybe one solid player. Lehigh does not fit that bill at all, no matter how many people are trying to make this a matchup of freshman G C.J. McCollum vs. Kansas.
Senior F Zahir Carrington is 6'7 and 220, and sophomore F John Adams is 6'6 and 220. Senior G Marquis Hall has evolved into a true point guard - and has shown the ability to pull up and take the big "3". If Kansas elects to treat this as a practice and half-heartedly double-team C.J., I think it could be Hall and senior G Dave Buchburger who in reality could make Kansas cry. Lehigh doesn't look like it could have walked off the set of Hoosiers. They are a Division I basketball team and have some very, very good basketball players. We didn't get in the tournament only because of C.J.
“We’re very fortunate to have one of the top academic universities in the entire country," coach Brett Reed said in yesterday's media session. "We also have tremendous student-athletes who really embrace both ends of that responsibility and do a wonderful job in the classroom. They’re very goal-oriented, very focused on their future. But as we’ve been able to demonstrate this year, we also have a team that is extremely talented. With that has come a regular season Patriot League championship, Patriot League Tournament championship and the most wins in school history.”
And yet, Kansas is not a team that seems on first glance built for a first round upset by any seed, let alone a 16 seed. They're the hottest team in the country. They coasted through their conference tournament, and have pretty much all the stats in their favor: Outside shooting percentage. Defense. Depth. They have the versatility to bring any number of potential types of play to the game - post-up, run-and-gun, live-by-the-outside-shot. Worse of all for Lehigh, they're unselfish. Freshman G Xavier Henry only had seven points in the Big XII final, and five players scored in double figures, including junior G Tyrel Reed off the bench. Missouri only turned over the ball 11 times and still lost by 21 points.
Adding to this is that Kansas - if you believe the press reports - is "focused":
The Jayhawks are calm – but not complacent.On my Facebook feed, I've already challenged Mr. President to give me a phone call if Lehigh does indeed shock the world. I'll be waiting by the phone tonight, obviously.
They’re having fun without losing focus.
“We’re hungry,” said senior G Sherrard Collins, a senior. “There is no time for errors. There is no time for slipups. I’ve been here a lot. I’ve been successful at it and not so successful, so I know how it feels on both ends.”
Even President Barack Obama picked Kansas to win the NCAA title when he filled out his bracket Wednesday.
“That’s a good omen, hopefully,” Reed said. “Last year he picked North Carolina and they won it all. Glad to have the president on our side.”
How can Lehigh stay with Kansas?
1. Trade 3's for 2's. Lehigh has to shoot well to win this game, and shoot well outside the arc - but also have to frustrate the perimeter. Senior F Zahir Carrington will have to pull the same trick he's been doing for months and cheat up to defend the outside shot along with senior G Dave Buchburger. If that means junior C Cole Aldrich goes wild underneath, so be it - but if we're exchanging 3's for 2's, we'll be in the game.
2. Use the outside to set up "Z". In football, the expression is "use the run to set up the pass". In out case, getting C.J., Buchburger and senior G Marquis Hall warm from outside could cause Kansas to put more men outside - and may give Carrington a chance to get points underneath. Getting some good inside play to complement outside shooting could possibly give Kansas a reason to sweat.
3. Ball Control. Free points to a team like Kansas is like giving them candy. Taking care of the ball will be crucial. Any mistake is likely to give the Jayhawks momentum, so turnovers have to be at a minimum. I'd say no more than ten.
4. Limiting possessions. Getting out to a big start is key, but once Lehigh has a lead the ability to lengthen the game and get high-percentage possessions - ending in baskets, preferably jumpers from freshman G C.J. McCollum - will be crucial.
I understand I don't have a lot of people who are with me on this. But I think its foolish to opine that Lehigh will be out of it after the first ten minutes - as ESPN's Joe Lunardi did - and to say that Lehigh is just "happy to be here", as The Shiver.Com reported:
Lehigh enters this game ecstatic to be in the NCAA tournament and pleased with the fact that they were able to avoid the play in game. Now they have the pleasure of taking on the Jayhawks, the consensus number one team in the country. The Mountian Hawks have decent guard play and freshman sensation CJ McCollum from Canton, OH who has been lighting up the scoreboard this year from the perimeter. He is a good shooter from the outside, shooting 42% from beyond the arc and he will get after it on the boards as well. The Mountain Hawk frontline is undersized and lack the skill to stop Aldrich or the Morris twins, which is where the Jayhawks will need to press their advantage. On top of that, their guards and wings are not overly athletic, which help the Jayhawks create turnovers and get plenty of opportunities in transition. Look for this game to be over by half time. Kansas 96, Lehigh 60
Let's just let senior F Zahir Carrington dispel that myth himself:
Carrington was then asked if it’s a daunting challenge going up against what is widely considered to be the odds-on favorite in this year’s Big Dance. “No. Honestly, when we step on the court, you know, everybody is the same. There’s no 1 or 16 (seed). We’ve been playing basketball our entire lives. We’ve worked just as hard as anybody else. You have to have the utmost confidence in your ability. If we were to come down here and think we’re going to play hard, or you know, come and think we’re going to lose, I would rather not come at all.”
It's a day of Madness. I picked a 16 seed to upset a 1 today. And I'm starting to believe that it actually might happen.
Let's make 99.9% of America rip up their brackets tonight, shall we?
I'll be available via my Twitter feed tonight if you'd like to follow my thoughts and comments on the game this evening.