Road to a Champion at Ford Field: UNC Verifies Its Greatness With Win

April 7, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… Simply, this North Carolina team is great.

The Tar Heels finished one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament runs of the modern era with a whipping of Michigan State team that had won every NCAA Tournament game by at least nine points.

Roy Williams’ squad backed up the pollsters’ decision to unanimously vote them the top team in the preseason. It’s a squad that everyone knew was the best team entering the season with talent bursting at every seam of their iconic baby blue jersey.

No team possessed the kind of talent the Tar Heels could put on the floor. At least five future NBA players graced the floor of Ford Field in a quest for this group of player’s first championship.

How does a team stop a four-time All-American, the country’s Bob Cousy Award Winner, two lethal shooters, and an array of deadly post-players? The answer is you don’t.

When things mattered, the Tar Heels always pushed forward, established their game and laid a punishment on the puny opponents that stood in their way.

It’s fitting that when UNC established its game, the Heels did it not only with offense, but equally decimated opponents with a man-to-man defense. Everyone knew of the juggernaut Tar Heel scoring attack, an attack that featured four players that ranked in the top 50 in the country in offensive efficiency.

But it was the defense that most pundits kept questioning. A defense that supposedly would keep this team from winning a national title.

But it’s a defense that all year long ranked in the top 20 in the country. It’s a defense that features tremendous athleticism and size. It’s a defense that stepped up on the national stage and held four very good offenses—Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Villanova, and Michigan State—to one of their worst games all season.

The defense has allowed the Tar Heels to leave a legacy that will be remembered in a positive light. It’s a legacy that extends past the Class of 2009 that features Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, and the pesky Bobby Frasor.

Two more core players of the Class of 2010, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington are likely leaving to play professional ball while freshman Ed Davis has showed against college basketball’s elite he could have started almost anywhere in the country—and dominated.

This class of players entered with such high expectations as they rode the coattails of Roy Williams’ first title team in Chapel Hill.

The 2005 team laid the foundations for what could have been one of college basketball’s greatest dynasties. But the Tar Heels floundered in the 2007 and 2008 tournaments, only to finally cash in on the talent gap between themselves and the rest of the country.

And as that class and likely also Lawson, Ellington, and maybe Davis, they, like the title team before them, leave a coattail for Roy Williams’ next great recruiting class to ride.

Incoming five-star recruits John Henson and Dexter Strickland will try to fill the shoes of Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. Leslie McDonald will help Carolina fans get over the likely loss of Wayne Ellington.

Incoming power forwards and twins, David and Travis Wear will give UNC the Stanford effect in the frontcourt. As those two could someday become as dominant as Cardinal twins, Brook and Robin Lopez once were.

But back to the present day, UNC also paved the way for the future of college basketball. The Tar Heels won a championship with not only pure talent, but the experience rivaled by few teams.

Six of the top seven players in Carolina’s rotation were in the midst of at least their third year in Chapel Hill. For four of those players, they could have been gone to the NBA well before their ‘09 title campaign. Tyler Hansbrough could have left after his freshman year to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft.

But he stayed.

And stayed again.

And stayed one more year.

For the other three of UNC’s stars, last season could have been their last in the Tar Heel State (unless they received the unfortunate honor of being drafted by the Bobcats).

Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington all declared for the NBA draft, but made a pact similar to the ‘06 Florida Gators to all return to school in order to improve their draft stocks, but more importantly win the national title that they didn’t want to be remembered as the group of Carolina players that couldn’t win the championship that mattered.

If the ‘06 Gators and ‘09 Tar Heels are trailblazers in a new era of college basketball, then North Carolina’s subsequent blowout in this year’s title game may be good for the game as a whole.

If the Heels’ performance keeps one group of players in school an extra year, it has done the sport good. Just think what college basketball could look like next if say Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins stuck around in Kansas, or Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf, and Paul Harris stayed at Syracuse or finally Hasheem Thabeet and Stanley Robinson finished their Connecticut careers?

If any of that happens, it is pretty safe to say: Roy Williams’ 2009 Tar Heels changed the brand of college basketball.

Defending Devendorf: The Vilification of Eric Devendorf Has Gone Too Far

March 24, 2009

by Jameson Fleming…

Has a college player been subject to more criticism and pure hatred in the last few years than Eric Devendorf?

The perfect storm of villainous characteristics have culminated to paint a putrid picture of displeasure and disapproval. Devendorf’s status as “America’s Top Villain” has drawn every media outlet’s attention. If a website provides any kind of college basketball coverage, then they’ve provided an article about the ” villain” Eric Devendorf is.

According to these article’s datelines, all of the writers for the following websites sent a journalist to Miami to cover the Miami Regional: Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, and CBS. That’s pretty much the mecca of online sports coverage. They sent someone to cover that regional and the Syracuse related story they all wrote about is the vilification of Eric Devendorf.

In their defense, they all essentially put a positive spin on the article, and none went the length of really criticizing Devendorf. But all their story lines did revolve around Devendorf being the player everyone loves to hate. A Syracuse sports blog, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, aptly puts the recent increase of anti-Devendorf talk by entitling a post, “Hating Eric Devendorf Officially Recognized as a Sport.”

I guess we’ve gotten to the age of sports coverage where we don’t want to read about the game or about the great, uplifting stories.

Apparently we want to know what kind of asshole Eric Devendorf supposedly is instead of wanting to know about the incredible turnaround Syracuse has experience over the last month.

Apparently we want to know about how Eric Devendorf’s tattoos make him a punk instead of how Eric Devendorf’s leadership on the court make him the best teammate Syracuse legend Gerry McNamara says he ever played with (according to a Pat Forde article).

Yes, most athletes will defend a former teammate. But there is defending a teammate and saying something nice about the guy and then there is calling him the best teammate you’ve ever played with.

McNamara was always known as one of the most well-respected, fiery individual known for his clutch performances.

Devendorf’s opponents know his game and certainly respects what he does. Opponents know Devendorf has a penchant for hitting the big shot and letting the opponent know what he just did.

Ironically, Forde says McNamara is “the guy who shows up in Madison Square Garden to watch his old team in an argyle sweater.”

The Syracuse blogosphere knows Devendorf is that same kind of guy after what Syracuse sports blog, “Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician” deemed Argyle-Gate. Devendorf never showed up in a flashy suit that you wonder how a college kid can afford. But he never stopped showing support for his teammates.

Last season, when Devendorf tore his ACL and sat out the last two-thirds of the season, he cheered for his teammates more than the Syracuse cheerleaders. He showed the kind of passion from the pine as he does after putting home a layup from the paint.

Devendorf doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Several of the articles linked above begin to touch on the fact that Devendorf is a very proud father. Ryan Miller of The Orange Segment documented Devendorf’s life after the birth of his now nine month old daughter, Madelyn.

Nobody mentions the fact that Devendorf is a good student. The senior (in terms of academics) was named a “Scholar Athlete of the Week” last year. Rarely does a Syracuse scholarship basketball player receive that award, but Devendorf attained the level of academics needed to garner recognition.

Devendorf after all is just an amateur athlete. He’s just a student. He’s just a father.

The amount of hate directed to one man who is just an amateur athlete, a student, and a father is incredible, unjust, and unfair.

He’s targeted because of his fire on the court. “E” as his teammates called him, usually directs most of his passion at his teammates and fans. Sometimes he’ll jaw at an opposing player (see Jeremy Hazell and Louisville’s guards), but anyone who watches this team knows his emotion is usually headed for his teammates, not the opponents.

Then there’s the jumping on the scorer’s table after he hit what almost was the buzzer-beater three. Some accounts have him screaming “f-bombs” when he jumped onto the scorer’s table which is a bit excessive and the wrong word choice. But most people who criticize him for that action don’t make any mention of what he says, but rather the action of jumping on the scorer’s table.

How often do players stand on the scorer’s table in celebration? The answer is all the time. It will probably happen in this NCAA Tournament at some point. Two years ago on Syracuse’s senior day, Terrence Roberts and Darryl Watkins stood proudly on the scorer’s table after beating a ranked Georgetown team.

Nobody criticized them.

People don’t realize Devendorf thought he had hit the biggest, most important shot of his entire career in the world’s greatest arena in the nation’s top conference tournament. If a player isn’t allowed to go nuts over that, what is he allowed to go nuts over?

Then there’s the off the court incident. Devendorf did get into altercation with a woman. But the story got way out of hand. Even the women’s lawyer later said that the police got the story wrong and that Devendorf never hit the woman.Yet everyone calls him a “women beater.” Georgetown’s student section even went as far as singing “Hey Devo, won’t you hit my girl” instead of “Hey baby, won’t you be my girl.”

He missed one of the biggest games of his collegiate career up to that point (at Memphis) to do the time for his crime. The kid spent his Christmas break at a kitchen for the needy so he could get back on the court ASAP.

He’s done some wrongs off the court in the past which can’t go unmentioned, but those wrong-doings shouldn’t make him the country’s “most hated player.”

Finally there is one last point that supersedes Devendorf’s situation and that’s the issue of race.

Devendorf gets singled out the most because he is white. It is as simple as that. A writer for Slate began labeling players as “annoying white guys.” Devendorf made his list as a freshman three years ago and would become America’s Most Annoying White Guy someday.

To single a player out as annoying not only because of his style of play, but his skin color is as racist it comes in my book. Levance Fields does everything an “annoying white guy” does, but he’s not white. I’ve never seen him called annoying and certainly never seen him labeled “an annoying black guy.” If I did, I’d know that writer probably be joining many Americans in the unemployed line.

Devendorf also take a lot of heat for his tattoos. According to many, they automatically make him a punk. Most don’t realize the majority of those tattoos are dedicated to loved ones. Across Devendorf’s neck, he has the birth date and name of his only daughter. Across his arm, he’s got multiple crosses.

But those tattoos make him a punk especially because they are white and stand out on his skin. It’s not like Devendorf has a spider web tattooed up his neck or labels himself as the “Chosen 1″ like LeBron James does.

Louisville’s Terrence Williams is covered in tattoos as well, but the Cardinals’ forward is “an excellent personality.” I’ve never seen Williams labeled a punk. In fact if you google “Eric Devendorf + punk” the first link says that will yield over 1,000 related links. For Terrence Williams, you get about two vague references to him being a punk.

But Devendorf has the tattoos like Williams. Devendorf plays with fire like Williams (who shows lots of emotion sometimes directed at his teammates, sometimes at his opponents). But one is a punk, the other a great personality.

If Devendorf’s actions make him a punk, then Williams must be a punk. If Williams’ actions make him a great personality, then Devo can’t be a punk. There’s no both ways.

But Devendorf knows it doesn’t go both way. He knows the fans will hate him for things he didn’t do. They’ll hate him for the clutch shots he makes. They’ll probably hate him if he clips his finger nails too short.

But for Devendorf, that hate inspires him to be a better basketball player, but most importantly, prove to his haters that he’s a better person and father.

So maybe all this hate isn’t so bad after all?

Road to the Final Four: Analyzing the Midwest Bracket’s First Round

March 19, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… Dayton, Ohio

(1) Louisville vs. (16) Morehead State

Why the Cardinals will win: These two teams met already this season and Louisville won the first matchup by almost 40 points. The Cardinals are the hottest team in the nation, winning the regular season title and the country’s toughest conference tournament, the Big East Championship.

Why the Eagles will win: Morehead State has four players that average double-digit points, which could give Louisville problems trying to stop all of them. That’s really the only logical reason the Eagles could win this game.

Who will win: Louisville. Obviously. The Cardinals’ second-stringers could beat the Eagles with the kind of pressure they can crank up.

(8) Ohio State vs. (9) Siena

Why the Buckeyes will win: Ohio State is playing some of its best basketball of the season after reaching the Big Ten Championship game, knocking off Wisconsin and Michigan State along the way.

The Buckeyes aren’t going to push the ball up and down the court, but with the half-court offense, Thad Matta’s club is deadly. Ohio State ranks 26th in the country in offensive efficiency. That’s going to allow the Buckeyes to score at will against Siena’s porous defense.

Ohio State also won’t be afraid to fall into Siena’s up-tempo style. Some of the Buckeyes’ most efficient offensive games came in their fastest paced games this year.

Thad Matta has three solid scorers in Evan Turner—who quickly has become one of the best players in the conference—Jon Diebler, and William Buford.

The majority of the games the Buckeyes lost this year were against stout defensive teams, not in games against great offensive teams. That’s exactly what Siena is—a bad defensive team, but a great offensive team. Siena provides for a great matchup for Ohio State.

Why the Saints will win: Siena has incredible scoring depth, with six different players tallying at least eight points per game, including three scoring more than 13 per contest. Ohio State isn’t a very good defensive team also. The Buckeyes’ zone defense hasn’t progressed enough to prevent teams from getting wide open three-pointers.

Teams shoot 35.2 percent from three against Ohio State and score over 40 percent over their points from beyond the arc—two extremely high ratios. Siena isn’t about to light it up from long range, but Siena does have a few strong shooters that could knock down an extra long bomb or two if they get the open looks.

Siena will try to get to the hoops as often as possible and get easy baskets in transition. They are one of the most productive teams from two-point range. If the Saints find holes in the zone, they’ve got the kind of players that can drop mid-range jumpers.

Ohio State has had success in its most up-tempo games, but if Siena runs as much as they can, Ohio State will be forced to play the fastest it has all year. This could take the Buckeyes out of their comfort zone.

Who will win: Ohio State. Siena couldn’t beat anyone of note during its tough non-conference schedule. The Saints feasted on less athletic, less talented teams in the MAAC. If the Buckeyes keep this game from turning into a track meet, they will dominate Siena in a halfcourt game.

Miami, Florida

(5) Utah vs. (12) Arizona

Why the Utes will win: Get to know Luke Nevil. It’s 7′2”, Australian, and should be known as Andrew Bogut Jr. Despite the fact that Utah doesn’t like to run up and down the court, the Utes still boast four players in double-digits. Utah will not have trouble scoring against Arizona’s matchup zone. The Utes are a very talented team in the paint and beyond the arc.

‘Zona’s defense has statistically been awful despite the problems a zone can create.

What will win this game for Utah more than its offense will be suffocating Arizona in the halfcourt. Arizona hasn’t seen too many teams that are as good defensively as Utah. The Utes are the best defensive rebounding team in the country and will clog the paint, forcing teams into becoming jump-shooting teams.

Arizona also only plays six players, which can cause issues of wear and tear.

Why the Wildcats will win: Becoming a jump-shooting team is what ‘Zona can do best. The ‘Cats get a high percentage of their points from three-point range to begin with, so if Utah gives them that shot, it could be a long night for the Utes.

Arizona has multiple players that can absolutely go off from long range, so Lute Olson’s former team won’t have any qualms with launching long bombs.

Arizona shouldn’t be too worried about its depth because even though they only play six players, the ‘Cats play a zone defense that allows them to conserve energy. This is also an Arizona team that isn’t going to push the tempo like many of the great Wildcat teams of the past.

Arizona’s matchup zone can also cause problems if Utah doesn’t adjust to the ever-changing gaps of the zone. Finding those gaps is key to developing an offensive rhythm. The zone has caused a few teams to have some of their worst offensive games of the season.

Arizona has three outstanding scorers in Chase Budinger, Nic Wise, and Jordan Hill. All three score at least 15 points per game.

Who will win: It’s very, very tempting to pick this upset because of the incredible talent of Budinger, Wise, and Hill. But Arizona has too often than naught been absolutely awful defensively. The odds are Arizona is bad defensively again and Utah wins the game.

(4) Wake Forest vs. (13) Cleveland State

Why the Demon Deacons will win: Wake Forest has three future NBA stars in Al-Farouq Aminu, Jeff Teague, and James Johnson. Typically, teams with the most future NBA talent do the best in the NCAA Tournament. Teague is one of the best scoring floor generals in the country. He’s shown a penchant for scoring 30 plus points on any given night.

Johnson is a good rebounder with a great scoring touch as well. When the Wake Forest inside-outside combo gets going, the Deacons are almost impossible to beat.

Wake Forest has had no trouble this year forcing teams to speed up the tempo play to the Deacons’ liking. Cleveland State will try to make it a halfcourt game, but that won’t hold up when Wake tries to score every possession within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.

Why the Vikings will win: Cleveland State is one of few mid-majors that are as long and athletic as major-conference programs. They are a very scrappy bunch that can slow down even the most explosive offensive teams. The Vikings slowed the Syracuse attack to a halt and made scoring impossible for West Virginia.

They might not be able to slow things down much, but there’s a good chance the Vikings will be able to force Wake Forest to grind things out during enough possessions to prevent the pace of the game from getting completely out of hand.

Wake Forest has struggled holding onto the ball, while Cleveland State is extremely strong at forcing turnovers. CSU must make WF get careless if it wants to have a chance.

Who will win: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons may be a young team, but few teams with this much NBA talent lose this early in the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest was too good for too long this year to lose to a Cleveland State that can’t score.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

(6) West Virginia vs. (11) Dayton

Why the Mountaineers will win: Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings love the Mountaineers. Despite 11 losses, Pomeroy’s model ranks them in the top 10 in the country. West Virginia is a productive, versatile offensive team, and an in-your-face defensive team.

The Mountaineers will rebound as well as anybody in the country, making scoring even more difficult for opponents. Dayton is terrible offensively, which against West Virginia’s size and skill will be magnified.

West Virginia can score in many different ways. Alex Ruoff, Da’Sean Butler, and Truck Bryant can all hit a three-pointer. But when the long balls aren’t falling, West Virginia can really score in the paint. Butler and Devin Ebanks are some of the most talented mid-range players in the Big East. Freshman Kevin Jones is also starting to come around offensively.

If all of the Mountaineers’ shots aren’t falling, they can always fall back on getting second chance points as the sixth best offensive rebounding team in the country.

It’s questionable whether Dayton even deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament. This team isn’t very good offensively and its defense is pretty good, but not outstanding. Those same Pomeroy rankings place Dayton 83rd, the worst at-large team to make the tournament.

Why the Flyers will win: Chris Wright is a high flier that can excite the crowd with rim-rattling dunks as well as just score on a consistent basis. Dayton may not score much, but the Flyers have a few players capable of getting hot enough to put just enough points on the board.

Dayton’s defense can be devastating, holding opponents to a low shooting percentage and frequently turning them over. The Flyer’s defense is the only reason why they made it out of the Atlantic-10 and into the tournament.

Who will win: West Virginia. This one shouldn’t really be close, as the Mountaineers are a sleeper team to make it to the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers will control both ends of the floor. Dayton won’t be able to score and won’t keep Bob Huggins’ team off the scoreboard.

(3) Kansas vs. (14) North Dakota State

Why the Jayhawks will win: Kansas has turned into a great team in the Big XII play after a slow start. The Jayhawks have a great young center in Cole Aldrich, who never misses if he gets the ball five feet or closer to the basket.

Kansas also boasts one of the best point guards in the entire country, Sherron Collins. The junior is a great free throw shooter and connects on more than two three-pointers per game. Collins is one of the best in the Big XII at getting to the free-throw line, allowing Bill Self’s team to get a few extra easy points per contest.

The Jayhawks are also great defensively. Few teams can score consistently against them inside the arc and in the paint. Cole Aldrich is a solid rebounder and defensive presence that makes life a living hell for teams that want to attack the basket.

Why the Bison will win: North Dakota State is one of the best stories of the season. This team is loaded with fifth-year seniors and great shooters. Usually, hot shooting mid-majors struggle against power house major-conference teams because the mid-major lacks size.

But NDST has the height to be able to compete with Kansas. Only point guard Ben Woodside lacks height (5′11”), but Woodside is a fearless offensive shooter. He can take the ball to the basket with ease and gets to the line frequently. He could give Sherron Collins, who isn’t the greatest defender, fits.

North Dakota State also has five players that are incredible efficient offensively. Kansas can’t focus on just stopping one or two, or else the Bison will burn them elsewhere. They can score from the inside or outside. NDST is a senior-laden team compared to a Kansas team that’s full of freshmen and sophomores.

Who will win: North Dakota State. About every other year a 14 seed gives a three seed a run for its money or even shocks them. This is the perfect opportunity for it to happen against. NDSU will use its great duo of Ben Woodside and Brett Winkelman to knock off the Big XII regular season champs.

(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Robert Morris

Why the Spartans will win: Michigan State is one the best defensive teams and rebounding teams in the country. Repeatedly, the Spartans stopped great defensive teams by out-rebounding them. Against a smaller Robert Morris squad, Michigan State is absolutely going to clean the glass. Plus, MSU is much more talented, winners of the Big Ten regular season didn’t even come close to a let down game against any lesser team.

Why the Colonials will win: There really isn’t a why you can justify this upset. Robert Morris got handled in every game it played against tournament competition and has multiple losses against RPI 200 or worse teams.

Who will win: Michigan State. The Spartans will use this game as a tuneup.

(7) Boston College vs. Southern California

Why the Eagles will win: The Eagles are an extremely talented offensive squad with multiple players with high efficiency ratings. Tyrese Rice is a very strong scorer, but also a reliable distributor of the ball. He’s got the capability of absolutely taking a game over and leading the Eagles to victory.

Boston College crashes the glass better than almost every team in the country, which makes up for the fact that they are an average shooting team.

With wins against Duke and North Carolina this year, BC has shown it can beat anybody.

Why the Trojans will win: Southern California is one of the hottest teams in country, winning five consecutive games, including becoming the lowest seed to ever win the Pac-10 Tournament. USC is finally healthy and playing nasty defense. UCLA, the third most efficient offense in the country, had its worst game of the season against the Trojan defense, scoring less than a point per possession for only the second time this year.

Coach Tim Floyd uses “junk” defense to get physical with opponents and force them into tough shots. They won’t turn a team over much, but opponents typically struggle to hit shots and don’t grab offensive rebounds against the Trojans.

Freshman DeMar DeRozan is finally starting to figure out his role in the Trojan offense after struggling to fill the shoes of another star freshman, O.J. Mayo.

Boston College is terribly overseeded. The Eagles deserved a nine or 10 seed, which makes this game a virtual toss up.

Who will win: Southern California. The Trojans are too hot right and should be able to handle Boston College easily. They’ve got the guards to shut down Tyrese Rice, but also enough scorers with standout Taj Gibson dominating the post. The Trojans are finally living up to the preseason hype that had this team in the top 25. They could give Michigan State a real challenge in the second round.

Road to the Final Four: Analyzing the East Bracket’s First Round

March 17, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… This is the second of four regions previewed. The Southern region has already been broken down.

Dayton, Ohio

(1) Pittsburgh vs. (16) East Tennessee State

Why the Panthers will win: The Panthers have an incredible amount of athleticism and talent compared to the Buccaneers. Pittsburgh has three of the smartest, veteran players in seniors Sam Young, Levance Fields and sophomore DeJuan Blair. Pittsburgh is the second most efficient offensive teams in the nation and also one of the best rebounding teams in the land.

Why the Buccaneers will win: Really there isn’t a way to justify an East Tennessee State win. This is essentially the same group of players that allowed 125 points to Syracuse last year. Just imagine what Pitt will do to this team.

Who will win: Surprisingly, Ken Pomeroy only projects a 18 point win 86-68. Me thinks this one actually will be close to 30 points, if not more, depending on how long Pitt’s big three play.

(8) Oklahoma State vs. (9) Tennessee

Why the Cowboys will win: Oklahoma State is going to get up and down and the floor and they are going to score. Start out a little bit cold against the Cowpokes and they can and will bury you. Oklahoma State’s attack revolves around two very talented perimeter players.

Senior Bryon Eaton has been around long enough to play with JamesOn Curry and will brings great experience and a high basketball IQ. He’s going to get to the hoop fairly often, especially out in transition—the area of the game Oklahoma State excels the most in. Eaton averages over seven free-throw attempts per game.

His wingman will be the extremely talented and future star James Anderson. The sophomore, if he sticks around by his senior year, will be one of the premier players in the Big XII. Anderson is a deadly three-pointer shooter who’s capable of going off for a handful of threes. If Eaton and Anderson can get going, Oklahoma State will even be able to knock of Pittsburgh in the second round.

Tennessee still haven’t found a reliable point guard to distribute to the Volunteers’ two best players, Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith.

Why the Volunteers will win: Tennessee can also score at will and get up-and-down the court almost as well as Oklahoma State. The Vols have a tremendous wing player in junior Tyler Smith who averages about 17 points per game.

While the Volunteers have been terribly inconsistent throughout the season, they still have shown the star power that made pundits think they were the team to beat in the SEC in the preseason. UT has knocked off Siena, Georgetown when the Hoyas were still relevant, and Marquette in the non-conference.

The Volunteers will do a variety of different things defensively as their depth allows them to flexible with the amount of pressure they want to put on Oklahoma State. Bruce Pearl’s club can try to confuse the Cowpokes with different looks on the defensive end of the floor. Bruce Pearl has ten different Volunteers he can throw out on the floor to create the mis-matches he needs.

Tennessee as a whole is a very long team that will give an undersized Oklahoma State squad fits around the basket. OSU doesn’t have a single player in its normal rotation that stands 6′6” or taller. Tennessee has a bunch. Oklahoma State still rebounds the ball on the defensive end of the floor, but is usually one shot and done on offense.

Bruce Pearl needs to extend ball pressure as far as he can on the court to prevent Oklahoma State from getting good looks at the basket.

Who will win: Tennessee. Picking Oklahoma State seems to be trendy as the Cowpokes have been playing better than the Volunteers. But Tennessee’s depth compared to OSU’s lack there of will be a major advantage for Bruce Pearl. Assuming he pressures the ball for all 94, Oklahoma State should wear down eventually.

The Vols will also have the luxury with all its depth to figure out whether they should attack the Cowboys with a more guard oriented lineup or put an extra big man or wing player on the floor to have more length on the perimeter, the crucial area that Tennessee must defend.

Boise, Idaho

(5) Florida State vs. (12) Wisconsin

Why the Seminoles will win: Florida State is down right nasty on the defensive end of the floor. Wisconsin is used to seeing that kind of defense in the Big Ten, but remember the Badgers were only 10-9 in the league. Florida State is a strong defensive field-goal percentage team, but also turns teams over frequently, something many of the great defensive Big Ten teams don’t do.

Toney Douglas has emerged as one of the best players in an ACC loaded in talent. While he’s a one-man show offensively, FSU will run eight to ten players deep depending on the game. The Seminoles have a tremendous amount of size and athleticism that few Big Ten teams have.

The Seminoles have really only lost one game they weren’t expected to and that was early in the season against Northwestern. They have an impressive win over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and swept the season series against Clemson.

Plus, FSU gets a team that really doesn’t even deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin isn’t NCAA quality and the Badgers didn’t beat anyone that is as good as Florida State during the season.

Why the Badgers will win: Wisconsin has the offensive fire power and depth to beat Florida State’s strong defense. Despite playing in a defensive minded Big Ten, the Badgers were the 24th most efficient offense in the country. Wisconsin rarely turns the ball over and should handle Florida State’s in your face defense pretty well.

Wisconsin has five solid scorers which won’t allow Florida State pick one or two opposing players to key in on. If the Seminoles do, they could get burned because Wisconsin has the offensive depth to score.

While the Badgers aren’t a strong defensive team, they are still good enough to keep the Seminoles off the board. What Wisconsin does do well is clean the defensive glass. If Florida State struggles from the field, the Seminoles will not get second chances.

Plus, Wisconsin has the extra motivation to prove that this is a bubble team that did deserve to sneak into the NCAA Tournament.

Who will win: Florida State. This 5-12 matchup is probably the second safest after Purdue-Northern Iowa. FSU is more athletic and has played better ball consistently all year. Wisconsin only has two important seniors, so the Badgers will use this tournament as learning experience for next year.

(4) Xavier vs. (13) Portland State

Why the Musketeers will win: Xavier is clearly the better team of the two and has a roster full of players that each have a distinct roll. Those players all bring different talents to the table which makes the Musketeers’ lineup very flexible.

Xavier can really flex its muscles with a big lineup that will pound the glass. XU ranks in the top 35 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. Against an undersized Portland State squad, Xavier will really be able dominate PSU. Portland State will take an absorbent amount of three-pointers, so if they aren’t falling, Xavier won’t give them second opportunities.

Because of Xavier’s size, the Musketeers get to the line frequently and run teams into severe foul trouble. Xavier also is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. The Musketeers can score inside the arc, but also from outside.

Why the Vikings will win: Portland State took Washington to the wire earlier this year, but did knock off fellow mid-major and four seed Gonzaga. Seeing the four next to Xavier’s name won’t intimidate the Vikings because they know they can beat a team of this quality.

PSU may have a small lineup, but the Vikings have a group of guards that Xavier will have trouble matching up with. Portland State will slow things down and work for a good shot. The Vikings are one of the best and most frequent shooting teams from three-point range. Only 13 squads shoot threes more frequently than Portland State.

Xavier has been faltering of late as the Musketeers have lost five of their last ten games, all against an Atlantic 10 which is having a slightly down year. PSU has been the complete opposite winning its last six games of the season.

Who will win: Xavier. This is an intriguing upset to pick and is a realistic possibility. When Portland State goes off from three like the Vikings did against Gonzaga, they can knock off anyone. But Xavier’s overall size and depth should be too much for Portland State to overcome.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(6) UCLA vs. (11) Virginia Commonwealth

Why the Bruins should win: UCLA hasn’t put a lot of eye-popping scoring totals on the board because the Bruins don’t play at a fast pace. When you break down how many points per possession they score per possession, UCLA ranks third in the country.

The Bruins average tempo makes them even harder to beat because when they get a lead, opposing teams have fewer opportunities to comeback in the game.

UCLA’s great offense is led by one of the absolute best floor generals in the game. Darren Collison has been a bit overlooked this year being out west in a subpar year in the Pac-10. He’s never going to miss a free throw and is a sure bet to get several easy baskets a game around the rim.

UCLA is good defensively, not great, but the Ben Howland is well on his way to developing the next great lockdown defensive guard in the country. Jrue Holiday ranks in the top 500 as a 6′3” guard in both steal and block percentage. The defensive instincts he must have to put up those kind of numbers has to be out of this world. Plus seeing him jump helps explain his great block percentage numbers.

Why the Rams can win: UCLA is going to be flying across the country to Philadelphia to play VCU in front of a crowd that should have a bunch of Rams fans in attendance. The Rams have played enough quality teams this year to know what to expect against the Bruins.

Virginia Commonwealth will need to find a third contributor to knock off UCLA. Eric Maynor can get hot and carry this team, but the chances aren’t good that he’ll be dominant especially if Jrue Holiday ends up guarding him. Larry Sanders is a tremendous shot blocking forward. VCU is lucky from the standpoint UCLA isn’t very tall on the frontline show Sanders 6′9” frame will stand up against the Bruins.

Who will win: UCLA. This has also been a trendy upset pick since UCLA isn’t nearly as good as the recent Final Four teams the Bruins have fielded. But this VCU team also isn’t as good as the team that beat Duke. There is enough talent for the Rams to win this game, but the odds are with UCLA’s great offense, VCU won’t be able to stop them.

(3) Villanova vs. (14) American

Why the Wildcats will win: Villanova is very good offensively and defensively. They aren’t great on both ends of the floor, but they are one of a few teams in the country that can win a game on both ends of the floor.

‘Nova provides teams with matchup problems because ‘Nova will usually put three guards on the floor and two power forwards. Dante Cunningham technically plays the five, but he’s built like a four and can play out on the perimeter. The ‘Cats are still a good rebounding team on both ends of the court despite their deficiencies in size.

Rick Pitino talked very highly of this team at the Big East Tournament from the standpoint that Villanova has eight players that play at a high-major level. That was Pitino’s way of saying ‘Nova has eight bodies that can play 30 minutes on any given night if Jay Wright needs them.

Why the Eagles will win: Be the nation’s most patriotic team with the name American Eagles is probably the best thing AU has going for them. American won’t be caught up in the glitz and glamour in the tournament as the Eagles kept last year’s two seed, Tennessee within striking distance for awhile.

Garrison Carr will never meet a shot he doesn’t like and has the ability to drop 30 plus points any given night. If ‘Nova loses track of the senior, then AU could find itself hanging around much longer than it should be.

American shoots at a pretty high percentage, but also allows teams to shoot just 44.9 percent from the field which ranks 27th in the country.

Who will win: Villanova. The Wildcats are simply too good of a team. They will be able to push American out of its comfort zone and run the ball up-and-down the court. American likes to slow things down, but Villanova’s speed will certainly turn this game into a more up-tempo affair.

Greensboro, North Carolina

(7) Texas vs. (10) Minnesota

Why the Longhorns will win: The easiest explanation for why Rick Barnes’ club will be victors is Minnesota can’t score and lacks size. The Golden Gophers won’t put points on the board in a hurry so if A.J. Abrams can get hot early, Texas can put Minnesota in a hole Tubby Smith’s squad likely can’t overcome.

Texas also provides Minnesota with some major matchup problems. Dexter Pittman is emerging as a great center who will be more physical than the entire Minnesota frontline. On top of Pittman, Texas also has a talented shooter in 6′10” Connor Atchley and winger 6′7” Damion James who can take the ball outside and inside to score.

Why the Golden Gophers will win: Minnesota comes out of the brutal Big Ten conference that doesn’t allow anybody to score. Sometimes those teams reach the NCAA Tournament and all of a sudden the flood gates open and they start scoring.

Minnesota will drop back into a zone at times which could also give Texas fits. The Longhorns don’t have another player that knock down a three-pointer after AJ Abrams. Minnesota can pack things, but aggressively pursue Abrams on the perimeter and let the rest of the Longhorns bombs away.

Minnesota ranks first in the country in block percentage and 11th in steal percentage. That’s a trademark of a Tubby Smith team. ‘Sota will provide a lot of weak side defense that can cause teams trouble if they aren’t ready for it.

Who will win: Texas. The Longhorns are probably slightly over-seeded, but this is really just a bad matchup for Minnesota. The Gophers are really going to have to pack the zone in because Texas will have multiple players that can score in the paint area. Zone defenses also allow a lot of offensive rebounds, something Texas excels at.

(2) Duke vs. (15) Binghamton

Why the Blue Devils will win: Where to begin? Duke has more depth, athleticism, much better offense and defense. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has this team playing to or above its preseason potential as the Blue Devils have become a superior team on both ends of the floor.

Why the Bearcats will win: D.J. Rivera is an absolute stud in the America East. He can really go off and win Binghamton games. If he doesn’t have a career game, BU doesn’t stand a chance.

Binghamton lacks size (don’t have a regular above 6′6”) and that will doom the ‘Cats. They are a scrappy bunch, but Duke’s size will allow them to frequently get offensive rebounds and easy baskets.

Who will win: Duke. This may end up being the closest 2-15 game of this year’s tournament, but close will be 25 or 30 points. This year’s Duke team isn’t going to make mental mistakes and check out of games. This year’s America East representative won’t make noise like Vermont in the past. That Catamount team that knocked off Syracuse will be the best team this league produces for awhile.

Road to the Final Four: Analyzing the South Bracket’s First Round

March 17, 2009

by Jameson Fleming…

Greensboro, North Carolina

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Radford

Why the Tar Heels will win: While the Heels haven’t lived up to their unanimous preseason pick as number one, they’ve still been very, very good.

North Carolina has the depth in the post between Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis to stop Radford’s only real threat—Artsiom Parakhouski, the Big South Player of the Year. If Parakhouski can actually cause enough trouble to give North Carolina a game, the Tar Heels will have 15 fouls to attack the 65.5 percent free-throw shooter.

Even if Ty Lawson isn’t healthy in the first round, Radford doesn’t have strong defensive guards, so Wayne Ellington and whatever UNC gets out of Lawson should toy with the Highlanders. UNC ranks first in offensive efficiency and plays some of the fastest basketball in the country.

Why the Highlanders will win: Radford needs Ty Lawson to be very ineffective with the injured toe, but with about a week of rest, his injury shouldn’t be much of a factor. Parakhouski has to have the game of his life on both ends of the floor, and shut Hansbrough down. He’s a good defensive center and a very good rebounder. Radford has had success beating teams that run up and down the floor—they beat Virginia Military Institute twice.

Who will win: North Carolina. Duh. It doesn’t really need to be repeated, but will be anyway: a 16-seed as never beat a 1-seed. This game won’t be the first.

(8) LSU vs. (9) Butler

Why the Tigers will win: LSU has the advantage of being a team from a major conference. Typically major conference teams have better pure athletes than mid-majors, with the exception of Gonzaga and Memphis. Butler only played two major conference teams all year—Ohio State and Northwestern—and split those two games.

The Tigers are a very old team. They may not have a lot of NCAA Tournament experience (only Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple were critical parts of the Final Four team three years ago), but LSU has seven upper classmen, including five seniors in the rotation.

Butler likes to shoot a lot of threes, 45 percent of their field goals are trifectas, but LSU is very strong at defending the three-point line. Tiger opponents hit just 31.1 percent of their threes, which is 28th in the country.

Why the Bulldogs will win: Butler may have only played two major conference teams, but Brad Stevens’ squad has five wins over very talented mid-major squads. Butler beat Cleveland State twice, who is almost as athletic and long as many major-conference teams, as well as Xavier, a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Davidson, and UAB.

Butler ranks 14th in the country in effective field-goal percentage defense, while LSU is 145th in shooting the ball. If Butler can force turnovers on top of keeping LSU to its normal shooting rate, the Bulldogs will have a good shot at winning. Look for Butler to gamble a bit more defensively knowing LSU doesn’t have a lot of pure shooters that can knock down open looks.

The Tigers are also struggling down the stretch, losing three of their last four games.

Who will win: LSU’s list of reasons to win is longer and more impacting reasons. Butler is a good team, but will be at a disadvantage against the Tiger’s more athletic roster.

Portland, Oregon

(4) Gonzaga vs. (13) Akron

Why the Zags will win: Gonzaga is one of the longest teams in the nation, ranking fifth in the country in effective height. 6′10” Austin Daye is athletic enough to guard three different positions and shut down dangerous wing players. The Zags’ size will also play a role in exploiting Akron’s biggest weakness—allowing offensive rebounds.

Akron is very good at holding teams to a low shooting percentage and forcing turnovers, but ranks almost 300th in the country in allowing offensive rebounds. With Gonzaga’s size, Mark Few’s team should be all over the boards. If Akron sends an extra player to the glass to try to neutralize Gonzaga’s rebounding, it will open up the three-point shot.

Gonzaga ranks 14th in the country in three-point percentage and five different Zags shoot over 35 percent.

Mark Few’s Zags will also have a significant home court advantage playing in Oregon.

Why the Zips will win: The Mid-American Conference has a decent history of producing upsets, but typically those teams were great teams. Akron is not, but the Zips have been put through a tough conference schedule and tournament.

The Zips do play a lot of defense in the halfcourt, turning teams over on more than one out of every four possessions. Akron will also force teams into very tough shots, but don’t crash the boards. If the Zips can clean up the boards without allowing Gonzaga to get easy shots, they’ll have a chance to keep things close.

Gonzaga has also put up its three worst defensive performances in terms of efficiency against mid-majors from the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs can play down to their opponents, which is always a possibility in the NCAA if they are looking ahead to round two.

Who will win: Gonzaga is clearly the better team and playing extremely well after struggling in December. The chances the Zags look past the opening round aren’t very good since they are playing in front of what should be a boisterous home crowd.

(5) Illinois vs. (12) Western Kentucky

Why the Illini will win: Illinois finished third in the Big Ten, winning games against Purdue and several other strong teams from the league. The Illini are one of the best defensive teams in the country, allowing a mere .86 points per possession.

They defend the three-point extremely well, which will be key since Western Kentucky is a solid three-point shooting team whose offense doesn’t exactly revolve around the three-pointer, but the three opens things up for the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky also struggles on the defensive end of the floor. Illinois isn’t very good offensively, but in a defensive minded Big Ten, it will be nice for the Illini to be able to get out and score against a bad defensive team.

Western Kentucky hasn’t exactly beaten anybody this year. The Hilltoppers caught a Louisville team in November that was as dysfunctional as a team gets in the halfcourt offense. Western Kentucky has numerous bad losses and aren’t nearly as good as last year’s team that gave eventual Final Four bound UCLA a run for its money in the Sweet 16.

Why the Hilltoppers will win: Western Kentucky’s hopes ride on two factors. The first is the trend that has developed that a five-seed almost always loses to a 12-seed. That will be a possibility because Western Kentucky has been fairly hot winning 11 of 12 games, while Illinois has lost three of four. Bruce Weber’s team also lost starting point guard Chester Frazier, who will likely miss the tournament with a broken hand.

Frazier is solid distributor and a decent shooter who will connect if left open. Illini struggled to put points on the board against Purdue without Frazier in the lineup.

The Illini are already a poor offensive team and should struggle even more without Frazier. If Western Kentucky can manage to put points on the board against the stout Illini defense, then the Hilltoppers will stand a great chance of winning the game.

Who will win: The Hilltoppers. This will be that trendy 12 over 5. Illinois started the year off well, but have been struggling down the stretch. Not having Frazier really hurts and should stall an already bad offense.

Miami, Florida

(3) Syracuse vs. (14) Stephen F. Austin State University

Why the Orange will win: For anyone who has been cut off from SportsCenter the past three days, the ‘Cuse finally won marquee games, showing the heart that the team has lacked at times. The 2-3 zone has been as good over the last eight games (seven Syracuse wins) as its been basically since the 2004 Sweet 16 team.

Jonny Flynn is an energizer bunny and Eric Devendof has been almost as clutch lately as Gerry McNamara was in 2006.

Stephen F. Austin State doesn’t have much of an offense (that’s an understatement). With the Lumberjacks struggling from the field on a regular basis, the chances SFASU shoot better than about 30 percent from the field are slim to none.

Why the Lumberjacks will win: SFASU slows the tempo down dramatically, and if they can establish their style of play, SU might have trouble scoring without getting easy transition opportunities. The Lumberjacks don’t turn the ball over a lot which will also limit the Orange’s opportunities in transition.

Who will win: Syracuse has a history of losing to very low seeds, but that won’t be the case this time around. STASU isn’t the kind of team that can beat the zone or stop the ‘Cuse offense enough to make the game even close.

(6) Arizona State vs. (11) Temple

Why the Sun Devils will win: Arizona State plays a lot of zone defense which can give a team like Temple fits. The Owls will rely on Dionte Christmas to lead them to victory, but the zone defense may make him shot happy. Any decent look he’ll get, he’ll take. If ASU knocks him out of his rhythm early, Christmas could be well on his way to a terrible offensive day.

Arizona State is also one of the most efficient teams in the country on the offensive end of the floor. The Sun Devils will use all 35 seconds of a possession regularly in order to get the open look they want. Their patience in Herb Sendak’s offense pays off usually as the Devils have the second highest field-goal percentage in the country.

With ASU’s tempo of play, falling behind by four or five possessions is difficult to overcome because they won’t let teams push the basketball and get quick scores. ASU is used to running down the shot clock and getting good shots, so in late game situations, the Sun Devils are more likely to be able to still put points on the board.

ASU also has James Harden, who is arguably the best player in the country not named Blake Griffin.

Why the Owls will win: Dionte Christmas single-handedly beats teams when he’s on fire. When his jumper is falling, the slasher can get to the hoop when defenders guard him closer to stop his outside shot. If Christmas gets going early with open looks that ASU’s zone might provide, then he might be able to carry Temple to victory.

Temple is used to playing at a slow tempo, so ASU’s grueling slow pace shouldn’t phase the Owls as much.

Arizona State is not a very deep team. The zone defense typically keeps teams out of foul trouble, but Temple gets to the line frequent enough that the Owls have a decent chance to work ASU into foul trouble.

Who win will win: Arizona State is the better team on both ends of the floor. The Sun Devils have a unique style of play that Temple won’t be able to figure out in time to knock off ASU. An upset here is definitely not out of the question since ASU hasn’t been playing well while Temple has been hot.

Kansas City, Missouri

(7) Clemson vs. (10) Michigan

Why the Tigers will win: Clemson is a tenacious defensive team that pressures teams from the second the ball goes through the hoop on one end until it’s in the air heading towards the hoop 94 feet away. Clemson is surprisingly efficient on the offensive end of the floor as Oliver Purnell’s club picks up a lot of points in transition.

Clemson has the parts to effectively pick apart Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone if Jim Beilein chooses to go zone. Rebounding isn’t part of the Wolverines’ repertoire as grabbing misses coming out of a zone is tough to do. Clemson is the 22nd best offensive rebounding team in the country; if the Tigers do start chucking threes over the zone, they should have no trouble getting second opportunities off of misses.

Clemson’s frenetic defense forces the pace of the game, so Michigan probably won’t be able to dictate the tempo to its liking. The Wolverines sometimes need the full 35 seconds to get a good shot, but with the pressure defense, that amount of time Michigan will have to get a shot will be cut down.

Why the Wolverines will win: Michigan hasn’t had any trouble knocking off very good, athletic teams. The Wolverines already have wins this year over Duke, UCLA, and Purdue, three teams that have excelled defensively.

Michigan is one of only a few teams that have enough depth that will allow it not tire out late in a game against Clemson. The Wolverines also have Manny Harris, who can beat the press on his own with superior athleticism and ball handling skills. He can explode against good defenses and is a pro prospect after the season.

Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone also can give teams fits. Even though Clemson should have the parts to beat it, teams can inexplicably struggle against defenses they aren’t used to seeing. The unknown factor could be in play here.

Who will win: This one is really tough to call. Both teams have been terribly inconsistent since conference play began so picking either team isn’t a bad idea. Clemson is more athletic and better offensively; if this game becomes more of a shoot-out Clemson has the advantage.

(2) Oklahoma vs. Morgan State

Why the Sooners should win: Oklahoma will be favored by at least 20 points for good reason. In the non-conference schedule that was filled with under-sized cupcakes, Blake Griffin tore teams a new one. He should do the same against the Bears who don’t really play anyone taller than 6′8”.

Oklahoma should be hungry after losing early in the Big XII Tournament; coming out flat against Morgan State isn’t likely with the kind of competitor Griffin is.

Why the Bears should win: Morgan State has two wins over major-conference teams: DePaul and Maryland. The Bears have shown they can at least compete a bit with the athleticism of major-conference teams.

Who will win: Oklahoma in a land slide. There really isn’t much more of an explanation needed.

Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf Take the Lead in New York

March 15, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… NEW YORK — Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has had trouble putting into words his thoughts on the most outstanding parts of this year’s Big East Tournament. He was at a loss on how to recount the ‘Cuse’s six overtime thriller against Connecticut.

Boeheim had the same problem after point guard Jonny Flynn won the Dave Gavitt Trophy for the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“You can’t even describe how he played down here. He played as good as you can play the game.”

Louisville’s Terrence Williams had more to say about the ‘Cuse star.

“I told Andre [McGee] that was the best point guard in the country to me, just the way he handles the ball, the way he runs his team, and the way he is always smiling.”

Flynn handled the ball with incredible efficiency. The sophomore tallied 37 assists in four tournament games and turned the ball over only 14 times in 181 minutes of play. The 37 assists broke the Big East Tournament record set by Marc Jackson who notched 36 in 1986.

Because of his performance over essentially five games worth of basketball in four days, Flynn became the first player since Georgetown’s Victor Page in 1996 to win the tournament’s most outstanding player award.

Flynn was so good that he even impressed teammate Paul Harris who played with Flynn in high school.

“I’ve never seen him play like that. That’s the best basketball he’s ever played.” Harris said. “The whole world sees how much heart he has.”

In the locker room after the Syracuse’s 76-66 loss to Louisville, Harris also said he had to tip his hat to the aforementioned Flynn and sharp-shooter Andy Rautins for the effort they gave.

Absent from Harris’ short list of players was Eric Devendorf who broke the Big East record for most points in a single tournament. When informed about Devendorf’s feat, Harris had a blank look on his face.

“He did what?” Harris asked rhetorically. “Whose record did he break? How many points did he have?”

After being told Devendorf had 84 points, breaking Connecticut’s Ben Gordon’s record of 81 points in 2004, Harris didn’t seem so shocked. “Oh wow. That’s great for Devo. He stepped up and led us these past couple days.”

“He brought his game all four nights. He was there game in and game out,” Rautins said of Devendorf.

The ‘Cuse shooting guard almost broke another record over the four nights, drilling 15 three-pointers, one shy of Connecticut’s Albert Mouring who knocked down 16 in 2000.

Devendorf’s emergence and Flynn’s consistent dominance finally gives Syracuse the stability in the backcourt it hasn’t seen all year. The duo lead the Orange in scoring in each Big East Tournament game except against Connecticut when Flynn led the team and Devendorf was third in scoring, but still put 22 points on the board.

Devendorf’s four-game performance earned him a spot on the 2009 Big East Championship All-Tournament Team, but afterwards Flynn grabbed the attention of at least one Louisville fan.

After the game, when the Big East announced Flynn won the Dave Gavitt Trophy, some Cardinal fans expressed their displeasure that a member of the Orange, not a Cardinal won the award. But one fan was OK with it, but his approval came with a big but.

“He was great. But I don’t want to play him next year. He better go pro.”

Syracuse-UConn: Orange Win in a Game To End All Games

March 13, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… NEW YORK—Syracuse and Connecticut had 70 minutes of game time and three hours and 46 minutes of real time to figure out how to describe Thursday night’s six-overtime battle between the Huskies and the Orange.

But when it came time to step up to podium after the marathon, nobody could come up with words to recount the night’s 127-117 Orange win at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“I’ve got no words to even try to describe it,” were the first words out of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s mouth at the post-game news conference. All the SU representatives—Boeheim, Jonny Flynn, and Paul Harris—could do were poke fun at the event and each other.

“I’m just proud of these guys for hanging in there and especially Paul [Harris] because Paul was just, I can’t describe how awful he was for most of the part of that game,” Boeheim joked.

“He was even smart enough to miss the dunk so he could get a three-point play. How much smarter can you be than that?”

Boeheim was referring to Harris’ attempt to throw down a monster dunk in the sixth and final overtime, but missed terribly. That play is probably the earliest play anyone can remember about the game.

“I just wanted to get the game over with,” Flynn said. “For a second I’m just thinking, Lord, let’s get this game over and go home.”

Flynn had good reason to want to go home. The super sophomore played over 67 minutes, six minutes more than anyone else. He totaled 34 points, 11 assists, and somehow found the energy to nail all 16 of his free throws. Flynn had extra motivation to hit all his attempts from the charity stripe.

“When AO [Arinze Onuaku] hit two free throws, we had pressure on us to hit our free throws,” Flynn said. Onuaku, a 29.6 percent free throw shooter, connected on two free throws with just over two minutes left to break the 11th of tie of the game.

UConn capped off its comeback with a Kemba Walker put-back to tie the game with a second half. Then the craziness began.

A full-court pass made it into the hands of Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf who launched a miraculous three that found the bottom of a net that was probably as fatigued as the players.

Madison Square Garden erupted. For five minutes everyone in the building stood staring at three officials huddled over a little monitor.

Those three officials ruled it no good. If the ball left Devendorf’s hands a tenth of a second sooner, we wouldn’t be talking six overtimes, we’d be talking one of the greatest buzzer-beaters in NCAA history. Both scenarios presented win-win situations for the ‘Cuse when it came to the memory books.

“I was mad,” Devendorf said, “I was furious. We couldn’t lose at that point. If we lost, that would have been a dagger.”

The Orange was on the verge of losing in each of the first five overtimes.

In the opening overtime, SU trailed by four, but the squad came back with a Rick Jackson dunk to tie the game.

In the second, the ‘Cuse trailed by three, but Devendorf’s free throws sent it to a third extra session.

The third overtime? More of the same.

This time UConn jumped out to a six point lead with two minutes on the clock. Eventually an Andy Rautins three tied the game. Ironically, it was Rautin’s dad, Leo who played for the Orange 28 years ago and won what was the longest game in the Big East Tournament history with a tip-in.

Flynn also kiddingly wanted UConn to give in after the third OT.

“I said to A.J. [Price], you’re a one seed regardless, just let us win at this point,” Flynn said.

To the fourth overtime the two teams went. The Huskies once again led, this time by only two points. Two missed Paul Harris layups sent the never-ending contest to a fifth OT.

UConn once again grabbed a four point lead, only to squander it as SU started another parade to the free throw line to send it to a sixth and final overtime.

At this point, a game of rock, paper, scissors would have been a fairer way to end it. SU resorted to playing small forward Kris Joseph at center with the team’s three big men fouled out. The ‘Cuse also had walk-on Justin Thomas record seven minutes of action.

UConn was in just as much trouble. Jim Calhoun was forced to use Donnell Beverly and Scottie Haralson.

SU’s group of misfits outscored UConn’s misfits 17-7 in the sixth and final extra period. The sixth overtime was the only time in all six overtimes that the ‘Cuse led the game.

“You can’t say enough about the guys off the bench,” said Rautins, “They took charges and got rebounds.”

At the end of the game, everyone in the building was tired and exhausted. Pretty much the entire crowd stuck around for all six sessions, with most fans never sitting once the game hit multiple overtimes.

The game lasted so long, it seemed like the inebriated fans around me in the upper deck press row were sobering up.

Even SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins needed some medical advice from a ‘Cuse trainer after the game.

“He told get some water and Gatorade and I’ll be good to watch game tape until the earliest hours of the morning,” Hopkins said. Apparently Hopkins didn’t realize he was saying this at almost 2 AM—it was already the earliest hours of the night.

Obviously, not everyone was in a jovial mood after the game.

“I’m sure in the summertime, I’ll look back and say what a historic battle it was,” said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. “Right now, it’s a loss. There’s no other way.”

But Calhoun will remember it. All 19,000 people in attendance will remember this game. The hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who watched it on television will remember this game. Jonny Flynn will remember this game.

“I’ll tell my kids about it,” Flynn said, “I’ll tell my grand-kids about it.”

Ironically, two NBA scouts were sitting in the upper deck press row and left the game for the night in second half. I said to them, “Why you leaving?”

The one responded, “We’ve seen these kinds of games all the time.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and gander they have never seen what went on in the world’s most famous arena Thursday night (and Friday morning).

Notre Dame and Providence Begin To Make Cases To Go Dancing

March 11, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… NEW YORK — Big East bubble talk is in full swing with two of the conference’s squads notching victories on the first two days of the Big East Championships.

Notre Dame kept its hopes alive with a hard-fought victory over Rutgers 61-50 Tuesday night and will tip-off against West Virginia in a chance to pick up a solid win Wednesday night.

Providence struggled mightily to end DePaul’s attempt at a Cinderella run through the Big East Tournament. The Friars needed a 15-1 run in the second half to overcome a six-point Blue Demon lead.

After both games, coaches and players were talking NCAA chances.

“We haven’t won enough games to be in discussion, but I think we’re playing better and our frame of mind is better,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. The Irish coach made a good point about his team’s schedule and results.

According to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology on ESPN, ND has played six games against the current top seeds (Connecticut, Louisville, UNC, and Pittsburgh).

“Has that ever happened before with three on the road, two at home, and one at a neutral site?” Brey asked.

“We have 13 losses. Do we have a bad loss? Look at it and tell me if we really have a bad loss.”

Sorry Coach Brey, but you in fact have bad losses. Losing to St. John’s, who tallied just six wins in the conference, is a bad loss. Losing to UCLA by 26 points is a bad loss. The Bruins are a good team, but the selection committee won’t think very highly of you if you’re losing games by 26 points.

Losing to Cincinnati, the same team that opened the Big East Tournament with a loss to winless DePaul comes as close as you can to a bad loss.

Brey did admit his team’s shortcomings, “We don’t have enough good wins. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve got work to do.”

The Irish could use some more quality wins, but they aren’t hurting as much in that department. Thumping Louisville and beating Texas on a neutral court are pretty impressive wins. With games against West Virginia and then Pitt looming, if the Irish keep winning, ND can make some noise and get back on the bubble.

If Notre Dame keeps winning, and defeats the Mountaineers and Panthers, then loses in the semifinals, there is precedent to send a 20-14 team that would then be 11-11 in conference to the NCAA Tournament.

The Irish have fixed a major weakness that could make a deep Big East run possible.

“I think we’ve been unselfish defensively,” Brey said.

“We’ve rotated over and helped our teammates much more willingly and I think we’ve done that the last two games.”

Notre Dame has held its opponents to their lowest scoring totals since playing Delaware State in December.

While Notre Dame needs to keep on winning, Providence may have accomplished enough to go dancing even if the Friars don’t win another game in the tournament.

“I think we’re squarely on the bubble,” said Providence head coach Keno Davis.

“I know that playing Louisville, tomorrow, win or lose, I don’t think it hurts us if we lose.”

With bubble teams floundering across the nation, a victory over the Cardinals would make the Friars a virtual lock. Signature wins over Pittsburgh and Louisville would put Providence over the top because of its Big East play.

Providence beat who it was supposed to (and them some with wins over Syracuse and Pitt) and lost to who it was supposed to (no bad conference losses).

Taking care of business is what Keno Davis says Providence should hang its hat on.

“They’ll [the selection committee] remember those big-name games for us, but it’s really these kind of games [beating DePaul] that have set us apart from the other teams,” Davis said.

At this point, Providence is at a crossroads in its relationship to gaining an at-large berth. The Friars can’t really be too upset with the selection committee if they are left out because of a lack of quality non-conference wins. But they also shouldn’t be shocked if they get in because of their ability to take care of business in conference.

Mid-Major Stars Won’t Be Going Dancing

March 10, 2009

by Jameson Fleming… Stephen Curry has carried the Wildcats on his shoulders for an entire season. The only remaining chance his teammates will get to repay the favor will now be in the NIT after a disastrous performance by both Curry and his teammates against Charleston in the Southern Conference Championship Semifinals.

The Cougars knocked off the ‘Cats to advance to the finals of the Southern Conference Championship, sending Stephen Curry and Davidson’s weak resume packing for the NIT. With only a win against West Virginia and tough losses against Duke, Oklahoma, and Purdue, Davidson doesn’t stand a shot to make the tournament with an at-large bid.

Curry faced double-teams and aggressive hedges all game to knock the superstar out of his rhythm. The junior connected on just two of 11 three-point attempts, needing 18 field goal attempts and eight free throws to tally his 20 points. Besides struggling to shoot the ball, Curry also only contributed three assists, tying his season low (discounting the one game he left early injured).

Stephen Curry is legitimately a one-man team in 2009. A one-man team that dazzled the young and the old with his jaw-dropping moves in the paint and toughness to boot. A one-man team that won’t get a shot to knock off the Georgetown’s and Kansas’s of the game. A one-man team with a little left to prove in Charlotte.

But Curry isn’t the only mid-major superstar that lost his chance to put on his dancing shoes.

Tennessee-Martin put together an incredibly athletic group of players that posted a solid 22-9 record overall as well as won 14 league games. A potential NBA draft pick because of his superior athleticism, Lester Hudson spurred the Skyhawks’ attack.

But in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, Tennessee-Martin couldn’t knock off the one OVC team the Skyhawks couldn’t beat in the regular season. Morehead State didn’t contain Lester Hudson, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, but shut down the rest of his teammates to stamp UT-Martin’s ticket to the NIT.

Hudson is one of the most prolific scorers in the country, dropping over 27 points per game. He just doesn’t score either. Hudson recorded a quadruple-double last year reaching double-digits in points, rebounds, assists, and steals.

The senior took his one-man act into the conference semifinals and put on a show to be talked about in the Ohio Valley for years. After scoring 42 points in the quarterfinals, Hudson never stepped off the court against Morehead State, tallying 34 points, seven three-points and 10 rebounds. Hudson failed at out-scoring the Eagles, but succeeded at dominating his teammates who only scored 21 points.

Since Tennessee-Martin won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title, the NIT awards them an automatic bid.

While Stephen Curry and Lester Hudson are a one-man show, two brothers have set a multitude of records together. Twins Chavis and Travis Holmes have combined to score over 3,700 points and in the process turned the Virginia Military Institute into a Big South power.

VMI plays an up-tempo style of play that ranked first or second in pace each of the past three seasons. That tempo has produced some incredible scoring totals. The fast pace creates more opportunities to score, but talented players must be in place in order to cash in on all those chances.

Travis and Chavis Holmes can score from all over the court, in the half-court set as well as in transition (which is the overwhelming majority of the time). Together they contribute over 40 points per game this year and almost seven steals. The fraternal duo dropped 46 points against Kentucky in their season opening upset win.

Immediately the country knew that the Holmes’ boys could beat anybody, anywhere. Unfortunately the Keydets’ swagger began to fade, eventually losing three consecutive Big South games.

VMI righted its ship (well tank in its case), looking to take down top-seeded Radford in the conference championship game. The Holmes’ twins didn’t have their best games, Travis scored 12 points and Chavis notched 21, but sophomore star in waiting Austin Kenon scored 34.

The Keydets also forced the tempo and forced Radford into 27 miscues. But unlike the first matchup between the two teams which VMI won, the Keydets couldn’t turn Radford’s 6′11” Belarus center Artsoim Parakhouski into a non-factor. The Big South Player of the Year, Parakhouski scored 26 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to end VMI’s season.

Radford legitimately ended VMI’s entire season. An NIT bid won’t likely be waiting in the wings as VMI doesn’t have a very good RPI and didn’t win the Big South regular season title. A postseason berth may only be in the waiting if the NIT wants to raise its ratings.

This year’s NCAA Tournament won’t have a mid-major behemoth like Chris Kaman who led Central Michigan in 2003 to its first NCAA Tournament win since 1975. There won’t be a Speedy Claxton torched the nets in 2000 as a member of the Hofstra Pride.

There won’t be a high scoring duo like Loyola Marymount’s Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble. The Lions are probably the only team that could out run the Keydets.

At least for the first time in awhile the NIT will be worth watching for all college basketball fans since it will be the last chance to view the greatness that is Stephen Curry, Lester Hudson, and the Holmes’ Twins.

Big East Tournament: First Round Breakdown

March 8, 2009

By Jameson Fleming… The best conference tournament in all of college basketball begins a five-day whirlwind on Tuesday in the world’s most famous arena.

Besides the fact the Big East Championship (yes, the tournament is called the Big East Championship, not tournament) usually provides for some of the most dramatic runs (see Syracuse 2005, Syracuse 2006, Pittsburgh 2008), this year’s field runs all 16 teams deep from a conference argued by many to be the best collection of elite teams in the history of the game.

Two teams that, at different points in the regular season, peaked into the top 10 in the country—Georgetown and Notre Dame—will play on the first day of the tournament.

The Hoyas and Irish will need to win an unfathomable five games in five days with the potential to play two or even all three of the conference’s potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds (Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut) along the way.

I’ll be heading to MSG representing Bleacher Report and CBS Sportsline for all five days of the tournament. Depending on my assignments, I’ll try to provide a preview for each round of the Big East Championship, using input from coaches and players during postgame media opportunities.

First Round

The first round will pit the bottom eight teams in the league against each other with the four winners facing the fifth- through eighth-place teams.

(9) Cincinnati vs. (16) DePaul

About 10 days ago, the Bearcats looked like one or two more wins could clinch an at-large berth, but after a tumultuous finish, losing five of six games, Cincinnati needs to reach the Championship Game to even have a prayer of making the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Yancy Gates is one of the least talked about first year players in the country, despite his solid 10.8 points per game average and six plus rebounds he grabs. Gates is quickly looking like a more composed low post presence as he dominated a very strong West Virginia team recently.

DePaul doesn’t have a pulse. It’s as simple as that. Anyone who says the Big East is the best conference from top to bottom clearly hasn’t watched the Blue Demons. Jerry Wainwright is on the hot seat after DePaul went winless in conference play.

The former Conference USA power has some nice parts. Dar Tucker is one of the best scorers in the league, Mac Koshwal is a tank under the basket, and Will Walker has a nice touch from deep.

But the Demons don’t have a talented point guard or anyone who averages more than six points a game outside of their top three.

The Bearcats are playing pretty awfully, but it is hard to imagine the Blue Demons making their fans anything but blue in the opening game of the Big East Championship.

When these two teams met early in Big East play, Cincinnati went into Chicago and left with a four point victory. The ‘Cats led by as many as 15 and stud scorer Deonta Vaughn led the way with 18 points.

The opening round game for Cincinnati will act as a chance for Mick Cronin’s Bearcats to get back on track before facing a very experienced Providence team in the second round of the Championship.

My pick: Cincinnati 68, DePaul 53

Georgetown vs. St. John’s

The Hoyas still had a shot to go dancing with enough Big East Championship wins after knocking off Villanova in GU’s 16th Big East game. But then the pretty hapless Red Storm came along and, instead of playing the role of cirrus clouds with a cherise hue, St. John’s actually stewed up a Red Storm and mildly gusted Georgetown away.

Georgetown is still ranked as one of the 25 most efficient teams in the country according to Ken Pomeroy. But G’Town lacks depth, defense, and leadership. Seniors Jessie Sapp and junior DaJuan Summers haven’t provided defense or become the senior leaders of a young Hoya team.

In the Big East, a lack of defense and leadership means that a 7-11 conference record is completely understandable.

Georgetown must win at least four games to get into ear shot of an at-large bid. Unfortunately for the Hoyas, four wins in four days used to result in an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. With the new format, four wins in four days earns a tired, dilapidated team a date with one of the three best teams in country.

The Hoyas will get a Johnnies team that is very young but picking up steam. After winning just three of their first 13 conference games, the Red Storm have notched victories in three of their last five games.

St. John’s is very athletic and will go after a team defensively. Norm Robert’s team doesn’t have a lot of really big bodies in the post, but an array of wing players that can finish.

On their home court, the Johnnies will have the advantage being the hotter team as well as the comfort of home cooking, and they will advance to the second round to take on a struggling Marquette team.

My pick: St. John’s 64, Georgetown 62

Notre Dame at Rutgers

The Irish are in a similar position to the Hoyas. Both teams needed at least one more regular season win to be in at-large contention but, like the Hoyas, the Irish couldn’t deliver, blowing an opportunity in a close game against UConn and getting hammered at home against Villanova.

The combination of Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlareny is good enough for the Irish to reel off several consecutive victories in the Big East Championship. Notre Dame has the best shot to actually garner five wins in five days, albeit it’s a really awful chance (don’t be going to Vegas looking to make enough money to pay off those three overdue mortgage payments).

The Irish fell so quickly in the Big East because of a lack of defensive intensity. Notre Dame deserves a plaque for finishing behind every single Division I team in forcing turnovers. That’s right, a Big East team is the absolute worst in the country in creating turnovers. On just 14.4 percent of its defensive possessions, ND forces an opposition’s miscue.

Rutgers sits at 2-16 in the conference with its only wins over DePaul and South Florida. Ouch. Fred Hill’s Scarlet Knights do have hope down the road with a bevy of stud freshman and sophomores. A win in New York City could go a long way to helping Hill recruit in a very fertile ground for future stars.

The first time around, Rutgers gave Notre Dame a run for its money at the Joyce Center in South Bend. The Scarlet Knights actually led at the half by eight but eventually withered down the stretch, surrendering their lead and succumbing by five points. Luke Harangody had one of his worst performances against Rutgers, scoring 20 points on seven of 25 shooting.

RU center Hamady N’Diaye is a big reason for shutting down Harangody. He will be the key once again on Tuesday in order to stop ‘Gody and the Irish. There should be a decent Rutgers crowd on hand to support the Scarlet Knights, but Notre Dame will still have the edge on the third game of day one.

West Virginia will be waiting in the wings for the winner.

My pick: Notre Dame 78, Rutgers 65

Seton Hall vs. South Florida

It’s been an interesting season for the Pirates. A 9-3 non-conference mark got the Hall in bubble consideration, but then a six game losing streak to open league play put a quick damper on that. A five-game winning streak suddenly had the Pirates talking Tournament again, if they could finish 9-9 in the Big East.

Unfortunately for them, SHU then lost five of its final seven Big East games and enter the Championship as the No. 11 seed.

Bobby Gonzalez essentially plays just six guys, so Seton Hall won’t be a threat to go deep in the conference tournament, but has the talent to knock off the Bulls as well as give the Orange a fright in the second round if the Pirates get hot from the field.

Seton Hall can be very explosive on the offensive end of the floor when the Pirates slow things down. Typically, the faster the tempo, the lower the offensive rating for the Hall. South Florida’s style of play will play right into the hands of Seton Hall.

USF plays one of the slowest brands of basketball in the country, which will allow SHU to operate its offense as well as conserve energy for a potential second round contest against Syracuse. The Bulls will try to beat the Pirates with defense because they are fairly anemic with the ball.

South Florida puts up Big Ten-ish scoring totals, struggling to break the 50-point barrier on any give night.

Seton Hall took the only meeting between the two teams fairly easily. As long as SHU doesn’t wear down against South Florida’s above-average defense, the Pirates will be survive to wage war a second day in the Big Apple.

My pick: Seton Hall 77, South Florida 60

All-Big East Tournament First-Round Performers

PG Mike Rosario, Rutgers

The Scarlet Knight floor general is Rutgers’ first McDonald’s All-American. He can score in bunches but tends to make freshman mistakes in terms of shot selection. The freshman is good enough to carry Rutgers to a victory in the tournament.

SG Jeremy Hazell, Seton Hall

A bona fide scorer, Hazell has the punch to also carry the Hall to not just one victory, but multiple wins in the tournament. His 22.6 ppg scoring average ranks near the top of the conference, and this is as a sophomore. His point per shot ratio is up from 1.24 to 1.31 in just two years, and he could be a Big East star in the making.

SG/SF Dominique Jones, South Florida

Another pure scorer, the 6′5” Dominique Jones has no trouble creating his own shot on a team that struggles to put points on the scoreboard. He’s got numerous three-point outbursts on his resume already and with USF relying on him to score, he could explode for another against Seton Hall.

PF DaJuan Summers, Georgetown

Despite not playing a lot of defense this year, Summers is still one of the biggest impact players that will be competing on day one. Summers can hit an outside shot, but he can also get to the hoop as well as finish after grabbing an offensive board.

C Luke Harangody, Notre Dame

Last year’s Big East Player of the Year would deserve the honor once again if the Irish had a pulse in league play. ‘Gody recorded a god-like 23.1 ppg and 12.1 rebounds per game. He’s the only player in the entire country who ranks in the top ten in the country in both scoring and rebounding.

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