Tim’s Friday Picks

Three-for-four. Three-for-four. Man, I churn out three-for-four nights like a Little League All-Star. Of course, I knew I was going to get ONE game wrong last night; I didn’t know which. It turned out to be the game I was most confident in with my pick, as Syracuse (my national champion) looked listless early and panicked late. A disappointing showing by the Orange, although it keeps alive the Butler storyline, which I’ve been harping all year.

So again, with a 39-13 record in this Tournament, you know I’ve got three of these right. But which one isn’t?

5. Michigan State vs.  9. Northern Iowa

Original: Kansas over Maryland

What I’ve Learned: I was pretty confident that KU would lose eventually and that when it did, it would likely be because Sherron Collins tried to do too much. Of course, I didn’t think it would happen in the second round, and even then, I had UNLV in the second round. But to say that Northern Iowa’s win over the Jayhawks is one of the biggest upsets in Tournament history ignores the fact that the Panthers are a very good team that has lost only four times all season—and one of those was without Jordan Eglseder. UNI is like Cornell in that it can beat you inside and out on the offensive end; the Panthers, however, are one of the nation’s best defensive teams and capable of forcing any team into playing their tempo.

Michigan State’s win over Maryland—without Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen—only proved Tom Izzo’s coaching wizardry once more. The Spartans had no business winning that game, but they did. There are two reasons to pick State in this one: Izzo and the idea that UNI might be overwhelmed by the media attention in the last week. There are more reasons, however, to pick the Panthers: Their win over Kansas wasn’t as big a fluke as portrayed and their defense will certainly dictate tempo to a team playing without its point guard and leader.

The Pick: Northern Iowa

2. Ohio State vs. 6. Tennessee

Original: Ohio State over Tennessee

What I’ve Learned: Not a whole lot, as neither team has looked particularly impressive in getting to the Sweet 16. My main concern for OSU resides in how its offense has struggled when opposing teams pressure Evan Turner at the point—something Tennessee will certainly do. Putting the full-court press on for 40 minutes can disrupt the Buckeyes’ offense and tire out their six-man rotation. However, this isn’t the Volunteers’ team of two or three years ago that played that style to a T. This Tennessee squad isn’t as deep, isn’t as intense on the defensive end, and just as important, isn’t as offensively potent. I think the Vols give Ohio State the same kind of scare they did in 2007’s Sweet 16, but I think the Bucks survive again.

The Pick: Ohio State

1. Duke vs. 4. Purdue

Original: Duke over Texas A&M

What I’ve Learned: Well, a lot. Let’s bring back in the NPI Interlocutor to show my growth:

At the beginning of the season, you thought Duke would be: A 3-seed that struggled to make the Sweet 16.

And that opinion first changed: When the Blue Devils played Arizona State in the NIT Season Tip-off.

For the better? Decidedly not. At halftime of that game, ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb called Duke “alarmingly unathletic in spots,” and I couldn’t disagree. The Blue Devils survived that night, but I was looking up the proper spelling of the word “walloped” to tweet about what I expected that Friday against UConn.

No h? Surprisngly, no h.

And then when they beat UConn? There were two strong opinions to have after that UConn game, and both ended up being right. The first is that UConn wasn’t very good (and by extension, the team the Huskies crushed a game earlier, LSU, was really bad, which it was). It didn’t have an inside presence anymore, it didn’t have shooters. I tended to think it was just a bad performance by the Huskies; I certainly didn’t think they were an NIT team at the time. The second and more important conclusion, though, was that Duke won a game in which it shot very poorly. This is not something that had happened in recent years, and it is what separates this Duke team from the ones since 2004 or so.

At what point did you think Duke could be a top seed? Not until Villanova started sliding a little. It wasn’t too long ago that everyone thought there was a clear-cut top four in the country: Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, and Syracuse in that order. Duke, Purdue, Kansas State, and West Virginia were always the peripheral teams that were not seriously considered title contenders. But only one of the “top” four is in the Elite Eight, and three of the peripheral four will be.

Is this Duke team the best team in a decade to feature two white players as its stars? No. I thought it would be, but that’s because at the start of the year, I said it would be surprising if Nolan Smith were “anything more than a secondary scorer.”

Wrong! Yes, wrong. To be fair, I did shift a little on this when I said Smith couldn’t be an X-factor for the season because he was too good to be an X-factor and said, “Possible Duke X-factors basically include everyone EXCEPT Smith, Scheyer, and Singler.”

Who has been the X-factor? It’s obvious: Brian Zoubek.

Zooooooooooooooooooooo: In the not-so-distant past, when I was a senior in Durham and previewing a showdown between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels for a certain college newspaper, I was asked who the X-factor would be for Duke. I said, quite jarringly, Zoubek. By that point in the season, he had lost his starting role (that’s right, folks, Zoubek started a lot last year, too) and was seeing increasingly limited minutes. I hoped against UNC that he would help clean the defensive glass and his length would bother Tyler Hansbrough (as it did Dexter Pittman in an underrated Tourney performance six weeks later). I was wrong; Zoubek barely played. But Zoubek has always been an effective per-minute player. His main problems were always foul trouble and an astonishing number of traveling calls. He scored and rebounded at roughly the same pace then as he does now; he just earns more time because he’s not always saddled with two fouls early and four fouls late and he doesn’t turn the ball over every time he touches it. He is, more than anyone, the reason Duke can win a game without shooting well in 2010.

So, Final Four bound? Duke should be. It should not lose. If the Blue Devils have done their homework, they should not lose.

How much happier are you to see Purdue here than Texas A&M? There was a weird emotion that went into watching Purdue beat the Aggies last Sunday because A&M always scared me more than any other team in this bracket for Duke. Theoretically, I should’ve been very happy they were losing, yet at the same time, if Purdue could beat the team that scared me the most, shouldn’t I be scared of the Boilermakers, too?

What does scare you about Purdue? They have no problems playing the pace we want to play. Chris Kramer will guard Jon Scheyer and shut him down for a half, then probably switch over and try to do the same to Nolan Smith. E’Twaun Moore could go off. JaJuan Johnson might be too athletic than Duke’s frontline. These things kind of scare me.

What doesn’t scare you about Purdue? Chris Kramer can only guard one member of the backcourt. Duke plays that pace better than Purdue. E’Twaun Moore hasn’t gone off in a long time. JaJuan Johnson will almost certainly be more bothered by the Blue Devils’ frontline than vice versa.

Admit it: You wanted Purdue even before Hummel got hurt: In mid-February, all I wanted as a Duke fan was to be the 2-seed to Purdue’s 1-seed. I think the Blue Devils are better than Purdue, and I’ve felt that way all season.

Even that night against Arizona State? Low blow. That was a weak moment!

Didn’t you go to a Duke-Purdue game once? Yeah, early last season in West Lafayette. It was cold and the offenses were colder. I spent most of the night telling the woman from USA Today that indeed, both these teams were ranked in the top 10. I did get a Purdue shot glass out of the trip, though.

Why? I like the train.

And tonight? I like Duke.

The Pick: Duke

3. Baylor vs. 10. Saint Mary’s

Original: Baylor over Richmond

What I’ve Learned: I totally nailed the bottom half of this bracket if you replaced one navy and red team (Saint Mary’s) with another (Richmond). SMC has played a very simple style the first two games: Throw it to Omar Samhan on the block, and let him score or pass out to one of four deadly three-point shooters. There’s only one way to stop this kind of offense when the shooters are on, and that’s to have an interior defender who can play Samhan one-on-one. Ekpe Udoh is such a defender. It’s complicated, though, by Baylor’s insistence on playing a zone, which may lead to a swarming of Samhan and more open looks on the perimeter. Either way, I don’t think Omar has a big game. He’ll be frustrated by the Bears’ athleticism on the post (and by Josh Lomers’ equivalent size), and the Bears will do their best to push tempo with Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, who both showed up in Round 2 after taking Round 1 off. The Gaels will hit enough threes to keep this one close for 30 minutes, but once they stop dropping, Baylor will methodically pull away.

The Pick: Baylor

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  1. […] Aught Lang Syne « Tim’s Friday Picks […]

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