Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lessons Learned from the NCAA Tournament

Well, after getting slaughtered by the second round of the tournament (7 of the sweet 16? Embarrassing!), it’s time for the autopsy to determine what went wrong and what can be improved when picking the sweet sixteen games.

First, since everyone is talking about the “health care reform” package that moved closer to reality, I found a hilarious quote. I don’t actually care what side of the political wall you fall on, you have to appreciate this sentiment: “Shove it down our throats now; we’ll shove it up you’re a$$ in November.” Classic angry protesters. I also found it interesting that the approval rating for the Skeletor look-alike, Nancy Pelosi, was 8%. That’s not a typo. EIGHT percent. 92% of the people disapprove of you. As bad as my picks were for the tournament, I got a lot more than 8% right.

Lesson #1: Offense can trump defense

I’m not ready to declare defense dead, but in this year’s tournament, offense was the king. Kansas had the 5th ranked defense (efficiency adjusted according to Ken Pomeroy), and was shredded by the Northern Iowa attack. Temple and Wisconsin were among the best in the country for fewest points allowed per game. Cornell shot over 50% against both teams and lit them up for 78 and 87 points. Pittsburgh plays a tough physical defensive style, yet it was no match for the offense of Jordan Crawford of Xavier. Obviously, offense is easier on the eyes, much like it was much more enjoyable to watch Erin Andrews on Dancing With the Stars than it was to watch the heavy set woman from Reno 911 (I legit don’t know her name, don’t really care and am too lazy to look it up). Side note: Andrews was fairly impressive on the dancing show but I have less than zero standing to judge dancing, as in my opinion the best dancing I have seen was Usher & Chris Tucker dancing a tribute to Michael Jackson.

Lesson #1 in the Sweet 16: Duke vs. Purdue
Purdue has gotten to the sweet 16 despite the loss of Robbie Hummel by redoubling their defensive focus and holding Siena and Texas A&M to 64 and 61 points, respectively. They will attempt to apply that same defensive grind to the shooting attack of Duke which is led by the perimeter trio of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Will the physical defense of Chris Kramer, E’Twaan Moore and JaJuan Johnson be able to keep the Blue Devils in check? Purdue also was able to harness the lack of respect card (even the President picked them to lose in the first round), but that motivation may wear out by the time the second weekend rolls around.

Lesson #2: Coaching Matters

In the one-and-done format of the NCAA tournament, coaching is critical, especially for the second game of the weekend. The best veteran coaching minds in the game, Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, and Thad Motta are still alive. Joining them are the young impressive coaches like Cornell’s Steve Donahue, Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobsen and Kansas State’s Frank Martin. These coaches have the ability to make adjustments during the game like Tom Izzo after his team lost Kalin Lucas, or the ability to rally his team to believe they can beat anyone like Ben Jacobsen and Steve Donahue. It’s much like Buzz Aldrin on Dancing With the Stars, who was brave to try dancing at 80 years old, but definitely could not really do the required dancing. Yet because he had a good dance partner/coach, he was able to go out there and not embarrass himself.

Lesson #2 in the Sweet 16: Michigan State vs. Northern Iowa
If someone told you there was going to be a matchup with a team that just beat the top-seeded team in the tournament against another team that just lost its best player to a torn Achilles tendon, it would sound like a mismatch. If you then add in that the first team is a mid-major and the second team lost its top player, yet hails from the best conference in college basketball, you might hesitate for a second. And finally, if you find out that the team that lost its best player has the game’s best coach on its sideline, now you’re really struggling with picking the game. That’s exactly what’s happening with the Northern Iowa and Michigan State game. Tom Izzo is the best coach in the country during March, and he is the only reason you don’t count out Michigan State to beat Northern Iowa.

Lesson #3: Success Formula for Non-Majors

Some people are claiming that parity has arrived in college basketball. I don’t buy it. Every couple years the tournament has a season when there are an inordinate amount of upsets, everyone claims we’ve never seen a tournament like that before, and the next year we get three #1 seeds in the final four. I think what’s more interesting than the potential parity is that the teams from the non-major conferences that are having success have found a formula for success: An intelligent coach, a serviceable big man and one star shooter/scorer with the rest of the team guys that can knock down jumpers. Look at Cornell – a strong coach, 7-foot center, a son of an NBA player who can fill it up, and then a cast of screeners who are capable of knocking down a jumper on occasion. St. Mary’s has a big man in Omar Samhan and surrounds him with a bunch of Australian guys who can shoot from anywhere. Butler has effective size and bunch of guards who knock down open three-pointers. It’s the same formula Davidson used with Steph Curry. It’s the same formula George Mason used in 2006 with Jai Lewis inside and Tony Skinn & Will Thomas on the perimeter.

Lesson #3 in the Sweet 16: Cornell vs. Kentucky
Cornell will take that formula into their battle with top-seeded Kentucky this weekend. The Big Red will hope that their disciplined application of the formula will be enough to frustrate the young Wildcats. Side note – why are the supposed “smart” people in the Ivy league too dumb to come up with a better nickname for their teams than a color? The Cornell Big Red and the Harvard Crimson. Rally around a color? Syracuse is the Orange, but that was a change to political pressure from the former name Orangemen. Anyway – back to the point…..Cornell will try to ride the hot shooting to overcome the major talent gap between its players and those at Kentucky. If Cornell can stay hot from the outside and their big guy can slow the inside game of DeMarcus Cousins, the Big Red has a chance to stay in the game.

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