It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Andy Williams first sang that line in 1963 about Christmas, but for sports fans, March Madness simply can’t be beat. Beginning with Championship Week, where teams battle for #1 seeds and invites to the Big Dance, all the way through the Final Four, it’s more than a full month of uber-intense, single-elimination action. We’ll see a few stud freshmen like Kevin Durant and Greg Oden try to lead their teams through the minefield. And we’ll see seniors, most of whom have been playing competitive basketball for 15-plus years, lay it all on the line hoping to go out with a win. As we get ready for opening-round action, I thought it appropriate to put together a countdown to the tourney, but this year, I’m going to start with a negative. (It’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream, folks.)
Coaches on the court
Hey, Coach, see that line there? That’s called the sideline. If you step across that line, it means you’re on the court, and only players and officials are allowed on the court while the game is going on. I know, I know, you have some really important instructions to relay to your team, but you still can’t cross that line. I nearly ran into you coming down the court. What? I should watch where I’m going? Listen, I understand that you used to be a great player in your day or whatever, but you’re no longer playing! You’re wearing dress shoes – so get off the court! I’m trying to ref a game here!
As I recently watched a marathon of ESPN’s “Knight School,” where Bobby Knight held a surreal reality show competition to pick a single walk-on to join his Texas Tech squad, I developed some sympathy for these crazy guys that agree to practice day in and day out with virtually no chance for any meaningful playing time. Still, isn’t it enough that these guys have the best seats in the house? Do they really need to dance around like fools every time their team makes a good play? In one of his recent columns, Bill Simmons quoted an email from Smitty in Jersey that talked about another walk-on trend – the “hand-gate.” Smitty writes, “A hand-gate is earned when a player (while on the bench) over-dramatically shields his ecstatic teammates from spilling onto the court during a big moment in the game.” That’s some great stuff.
Joakim Noah’s jersey
I watched two Florida games this season and Joakim Noah’s jersey went untucked for 68 of the 70 minutes he was on the court. The nine other players had their unis tucked in 100% of the time, but not Noah. His jersey just flaps in the wind, not unlike Bruce Jenner’s feathered hair in the 1976 Olympics. Jenner won a gold in the decathlon that year, and Noah is a champion too, so I guess I should cut him some slack. But the guy already has a ponytail. Can’t he just keep his jersey tucked in? Isn’t there some way to staple it to his jock? (He’s a pretty annoying dancer, too.)
Billy Donovan’s look
As long as I’m griping about one Gator, I might as well gripe about another. What’s the deal with Billy Donovan? He’s got a Gordon Gekko meets the British Bulldog, with his slick-backed stockbroker look and his unbelievably-barreled chest. He apparently started out on Wall Street, which explains a lot. He’s obviously a great coach, but tone it down a bit, Billy. You’re coaching a basketball team, not executing a hostile takeover!
Josh McRoberts’ temper tantrums
In many ways, I understand Josh’s frustrations. Heading into last summer, the kid was projected to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft, but decided to head back to Duke for his sophomore year. This decision was both wise and unwise at the same time. His second season exposed a lot of holes in his game, from a lack of a consistent jumper to a less-than-stellar arsenal of post moves. The truth is, his decision to return to Duke cost him a lot of money, but in the long run, he’ll be better off with another year or two under Coach K. Most importantly, Josh needs to get his emotions under control. It seems like he flies off the handle any time he’s confronted with real adversity, yelling at the refs, his teammates or even himself. It’s fine to play with emotion, but it’s a hell of a lot tougher to score when you’re all wound up like that.
Mike Conley, Jr., G, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ other freshman leads his team in assists (6.3) and steals (2.3), but his biggest responsibility is to keep his teammates on task. The Buckeyes have a tendency to go a little willy-nilly with their shot selection – like in the Big Ten title game when Greg Oden didn’t have a single shot attempt in the first half. It’s Conley’s job to keep the big fella involved. If the Buckeyes share the ball, they should be able to punch a ticket to the Final Four.
Alando Tucker, F, Wisconsin
With Brian Butch out for the foreseeable future, Tucker has to step his game up. He’s not a natural shooter; he’s streaky, which doesn’t bode well for the Badgers. He’s averaging 19.9 points on the season and the team only has one other scorer in double digits (Kammron Taylor, 12.6 ppg). Over the last six games, Wisconsin is 3-3, averaging just 54.5 points per game. In the three wins, Tucker averaged 22.7, and in the three losses, he averaged just 12.7. He’ll need to literally carry his team to the Elite Eight.
Darren Collison, G, UCLA
In many ways, when Jordan Farmar left for the NBA, Collison was an upgrade at the position. He’s not quite as steady as Farmar, but he leads the Bruins in assists (6.0), steals (2.3) and, at 45%, is their most accurate shooter from long range. The Bruins aren’t very big, which doesn’t lend itself to their plodding offensive attack. Collison has to know when to push the ball and has to make good decisions when he does. His assist/turnover ratio (2.1) isn’t going to cut it.
Jeff Green, F, Georgetown
The pundits question the Hoyas’ guard play, wondering if Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp have what it takes to turn Georgetown into a Final Four team. The real key is freshman phenom Jeff Green, who has scored in double figures in 13 of the last 14 games, including a terrific 30-point/12-rebound effort against Notre Dame in the Big East semis. If he’s able to keep up this offensive attack it will take the pressure off Wallace and Sapp.
I know, since Southern Illinois is a #4 seed, technically they should be expected to make the Sweet Sixteen. But really, how many people are picking them over Virginia Tech in the second round? The Salukis are battle-tested, having played the eighth toughest schedule (according to Jeff Sagarin), and have performed well against good competition. Before losing to Creighton in the MVC Tourney, they won 13 straight, so they’re capable of putting a string of wins together. Jamaal Tatum (15.0 ppg) leads a balanced attack (four players average 9.8 points or more).
Nick Fazekas (20.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg) justifiably grabs a lot of headlines, but the Wolf Pack also have good guard play in the form of Marcelus Kemp (18.5 ppg) and Ramon Sessions (12.5 ppg, 4.7 apg). Two of the team’s four losses were against Utah St., and the other two losses came to tournament teams (UNLV, New Mexico St.). Nevada hasn’t played a tough schedule, but they have the talent to beat Memphis in the second round, who hasn’t played anyone either. The only problem is that they have a first-round matchup against…
The Bluejays have great guard play in Nate Funk (17.6 ppg) and Nick Porter (10.6 ppg) along with an inside presence in Anthony Tolliver (13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg). According to Sagarin, they’ve played the 19th toughest schedule and have fared pretty well (5-2) against top-50 competition. Creighton has lost three of their last eight, so which team will show up? The one that lost to Illinois St. by 10 or the one that rattled off back-to-back wins against Missouri St. and Southern Illinois to win the MVC Tournament? Whoever wins this #7/#10 matchup is a live dog against Memphis.
#2 UCLA vs. #6 Duke
People seem to be clamoring for a Pitt/UCLA matchup that would pit Ben Howland against his former school. In reality, this contest would probably devolve into a brutal defensive struggle, so why not replace the Panthers with the Blue Devils? The Dookies have played an arduous schedule and Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus and the boys have gone through more adversity this season than the last five Duke teams combined. I think they’ll welcome a new life in the Big Dance and will give the Bruins all they can handle.
#1 North Carolina vs. #3 Texas
Wow, Roy Williams must have been pissed to see the hot Longhorns on his side of the bracket. This matchup would feature five of the best freshmen in the country – Texas’ Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, along with North Carolina’s Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson – playing for two of the best teams in the country. In the end, the Tar Heels’ depth will probably wear down Durant en route to an Elite Eight berth, but not before the POY drops 30 points in the first 30 minutes.
#3 Texas A&M
Texas A&M is easily the most dangerous of the #3 seeds. Unfortunately, they have a pretty brutal road to the Final Four. A potential second-round matchup against #6 Louisville (in Kentucky!) isn’t favorable, and A&M might have to go through #2 Memphis and #1 Ohio State to punch their ticket. The Aggies feature unparalleled guard play in senior Acie Law (17.9 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Josh Carter (12.6 ppg), but also have an inside presence in Joseph Jones (13.4 ppg) and Antanas Kavaliauskas (12.3 ppg). A&M’s biggest asset is their “sticktoitiveness,” their unwillingness to give in. Law’s clutch shooting could be key, but surprisingly, in seven games decided by five points or less, the Aggies are just 2-5 this season. They’ll need to do better than that if they hope to still be dancing in April.