Saturday, March 10, 2012

Biased NCAA Preview

I'm massively a fan of major college basketball, and this has been a banner year for the teams I back--probably the most exciting for me since 1985 and 1986. With one or two exceptions, all my top 10 faves are right there in the mix on the national scene. Here they are, in order, and with comments explaining some of my emotional ties:
1) U. of Kentucky--#1 in the nation, by a good distance now. I've been a fan since the early '60's; suffered through the infamous Rupp's Runts team loss to the all-black Texas Western team in the NCAA championships (and Kentucky integrated their team soon after, not coincidentally).
2) U. of Louisville--They had fallen back, to the edge of the top 25, but proudly rose to the occasion and are playing in the Big East Championship as I write. They should be about a #5 regional seed regardless of whether they win tonight. Louisville was my hometown for a formative period in my life; been a fan since the days of Wesley Unseld, and I thrilled to their 1986 championship. See Pervis Ellison. I'm also a fan of Rick Pitino, backing his teams at U. of K. and the Knicks. For awhile the rivalry between UK and UL was such that one was not allowed to back both, but that has eased a bit. In the old days, UK would not play Louisville and risk its prestige as top dog in the state, but the change to playing once a year has defused that jealousy/ire.
3) U. of New Mexico--They just finished winning the Mountain West tournament, which should raise them up to about a #4/#5 seed, as well. Their team pulled off several strong wins on the road this year. The Lobos were a team I backed before I ever lived in the state; I liked things like their team name, the fact they played in "The Pit", some of their players over the years.
4) Syracuse University--The 'Cuse should remain #2 seed in the whole nation, despite losing yesterday to Cincinnati. They have a lot of depth and will be hard to beat in the tourney--at least until the regional finals (the "Elite Eight"). They've dropped a notch or two in my esteem with a decision to move from the Big East after this year, primarily for lame Big Football money-related reasons, and I'm not sure what to think of the Penn St.-esque allegations made against a member of their coaching staff. I lived in Syracuse in my pre-teens, and became a backer, even though longtime coach Jim Boeheim is a little distasteful to me.
5) U. of Virginia--As they often do, this year's team has overperformed for its level of talent. They were upper-middle in the ACC and will get a berth around #7/#8 in their region. Lived there, saw many an event at University Hall; they have a few treasured wins there against arch-foes Duke and North Carolina.
6) Indiana University--The one team that has beaten my #1 this year, with a famous last-second three-pointer. Almost invincible at home, like most of the Big Ten teams this year, they have lost often, in conference, on the road. The alma mater of both my parents, I find it more than acceptable to back them since Bobby Knight left.
7) Yale University--Not one of their better years, and they have been eclipsed in the Ivy League (halfway decently competitive) in recent years by Harvard, of all teams. My alma mater, of course--also, my cousin played for the team in the '60's.
8) Villanova--An off year for them, but they did have some good moments. Obviously, playing in the Big East is extremely tough for a small college if you don't have the horses. They earned a permanent place in my heart with their performance in that historic NCAA championship game in 1985 in which they were underdog at something like 20-1 odds against a great Georgetown team, winning by two points after playing out of their minds all game, setting an all-time record for field goal percentage (I want to say 78%.) See Ed Pinckney.
9) Connecticut--An OK season for the defending champs; they may make the tourney. They've won some big games for me over the years, so I was all in favor of Kemba Walker and his heroic leading of the team to post-season magic last year.
10) tie--Notre Dame, Butler--After incredible runs as runner-ups the last two years, Butler fell off this year. The Fighting Irish are the one team to defeat Syracuse this year, and they seem always to overachieve. They've been a great addition to the Big East. I admired Butler's plucky play, and it was a tough call who to back in last year's championship game vs. UConn. As for Notre Dame, they won my heart when the broke the longest winning streak in major college basketball history, beating Bill Walton's UCLA team. See Austin Carr.

Honorable mention to the Cincinnati Bearcats, the team of Oscar Robertson and Kenyon Martin.

I can do a reasonably good job of ranking these teams because they do sometimes play each other, and I just look into my heart when that happens.

A bit more on Kentucky: their team is an atypical one for coach "One and Done" John Callipari, who's been there five years or so, had great success, but no titles yet. What's different this year is that the engine of the team's success this year is not the penetrating, driving point guard of so many of his past teams--Derrick Rose at Memphis, and John Wall and, most recently, Brandon Knight at Kentucky (they do have one, freshman Marcus Teague, who's likely to turn pro after his freshman year, but he's not the star of the team). Instead, it's the usual outstanding crop of freshmen, but big guys--with Anthony Davis being one of the best talents to emerge in years. The team has shown great heart in tough games, with today's game with Florida and the comeback against Mississippi State a couple weeks ago as examples. I think they could definitely go all the way, though their lack of depth probably will mean that an early foul trouble situation to one of their two or three top players--Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, or upperclassman Jones--could lead to a dicey outcome. The game when that happens will be their supreme test, and a test of whether Callipari has fully prepared his (rapidly-improving, once again mostly one and done) team.

College basketball is a coach's game, so the story of these teams is about half the history of their coaches and their characteristics, and half the kind of players they can attract and polish.

I don't want to give too much away, as I am an active participant in "bracket pools"--and I particularly recommend the "survivor pool" version, where you pick one winning team each day and cannot repeat teams. My picks for the Final Four are Kentucky, Syracuse, Kansas, and Ohio State (I'm not sure that will be feasible with the seedings), and my longshot picks to make tourney run would be VCU (like last year), Purdue, South Florida, Murray State, and, if they are even selected for the tourney, Drexel. Also, I'm looking for both New Mexico and Louisville to make the final 16--probably one of them will end up losing to one of my other faves.


Chin Shih Tang said...

As I expected, Louisville and New Mexico got matched up in the second round (the NCAA jerks are trying to enforce calling it the "third round" but I refuse to do so) last night. It was a close game at the end--I rooted for UNM to get back into it, but found myself open to either winning in the end.
#1,#2,#4,and #6 have all made the Sweet Sixteen.

My brackets had some highlights, particularly calling game-for-game the upsets in the weak Midwest--but I had Missouri and Vandy doing well in most of them.
My survivor pool picks floundered in the second round with Duke. My sorrow at losing was tempered by the joy of seeing them lose early (I was looking for them to lose early, but not that early--that's why I picked them in survivor in the first round.)

Linda said...

Know you will watch the Indiana Kentucky game with interest, as will our dad. Linda