Well, Tim and John combined to go an impressive 1-3 yesterday. Guess which one of us got the only game right! Here’s a hint: It was Tim. Hopefully we will fare better today. The first game on the docket features two of John’s favorite coaches, Bruce Pearl and Tom Izzo, going head-to-head in a game that will hopefully wash the stink off of last night’s Bob Huggins-John Calipari duel.
TIM: John, I’ve had a lot of fun at your expense these last few weeks, from your decision to knock Butler out in the first round to your incredible ability to pick games incorrectly on second and third tries. But, there has been one thing (and one thing only, it seems) that you have been right about where I was wrong: You just don’t pick against Tom Izzo in March.
JOHN S: Well, first of all, some of my incorrect second or third tries were not what I had originally said, so that’s a little unfair. For example, I had West Virginia in the Final Four in my original bracket so….basically I’m a genius.
But yeah, it’s hard for me to really take credit for the Tom Izzo thing, because by now everyone should realize that Michigan State almost always outperforms expectations in the Tournament. Only three times in the last decade has MSU lost to a team seeded lower, and once was in the Final Four to national runner-up Arizona and another was to a George Mason team that would end up in the Final Four. Just as often, the Spartans have made surprising runs of their own, including one to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed in 2003, to the Final Four as a 5 in ’05, and to the National Championship game last year as an unheralded 2-seed. Izzo simply knows how to coach in the Tournament. So it’s not really surprising that Michigan State is once again in the Elite Eight, even in spite of the injury to Kalin Lucas.
The only reason I’m not dead-set on picking the Spartans, though, is that they are facing ANOTHER coach I have a particular fondness, Bruce Pearl.
TIM: It was a few years ago that I started understanding Izzo as the anti-Coach K; that is, a guy whose teams almost always underperform in the regular season before finding a groove in March. But as much as I want to say that’s true for this year’s Spartans–who, remember, were No. 2 in the preseason poll–there’s one problem: They’re missing their best player! After barely slipping by New Mexico State with Kalin Lucas, the Spartans have managed to beat Maryland and Northern Iowa without their point guard and leader.
Izzo has, on the other hand, been the benefactor of a tremendous amount of luck in the bracket around him this season. Michigan State has a chance to be the first team to make the Final Four without beating a top-three seed since Cincinnati pulled the trick in 1992–and that team at least had Nick Van Exel. This also happens to be the worst-seeded matchup in a Regional Final since 2000 when, believe it or not, two Elite Eight games were worse (6. Purdue against 8. Wisconsin and 7. Tulsa against 8. UNC; might be worth noting the lower seed won each).
As for Tennessee, J.P. Prince just keeps passing the Eye Test. I’m always surprised to see how low a lot of Prince’s stats are because whenever I watch him play, he looks phenomenal. If I’m an NBA GM, I’d take him in the second round in a heartbeat.
That reminds me though: Didn’t you have Tennessee losing to San Diego State? How embarrassing would a Final Four matchup of two teams you had out in the first round be for you?
JOHN S: Wow, resorting to the Eye Test? You’ve sunk pretty low, Tim. I thought you were better than that.
The Spartans are missing their best player, but they were missing him for most of the game against Maryland, and for the entire game against Northern Iowa. If they can beat those teams with Korie Lucious at the helm, then they can beat Tennessee. It’s true that the Volunteers are probably a better rebounding team than either the Terps or the Panthers were, and that had a lot to do with how MSU pulled out those games, but I’m still not convinced that Tennessee can hang with the best rebounding team in the country.
Tennessee was able to beat Ohio State largely because of 22 points from Wayne Chism and 23 rebounds from the duo of Chism and Brian Williams. But will those guys be able to rebound and score with such ease if they’re going up against Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe? I don’t think so.
TIM: The biggest surprise emerging from Tennessee’s win over Ohio State Friday night wasn’t that the Volunteers won; it was how they won. Rocky Top simply dominated the Buckeyes on the glass, and it’s not like UT is a much better rebounding team statistically than OSU. That’s why I’m not all that confident that the Vols* can duplicate that effort against a school that has been the best rebounding team in the nation for most of the last decade. Chism and Williams won’t be able to get the kind of tip-ins that won Friday’s game (indeed, it was a Williams put-back that put Smokey’s Crew up for good in the final minute).
*I’m trying to see how many different ways I can refer to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in a single paragraph.
I don’t really know how Michigan State keeps doing what it’s doing, aside from marveling at Izzo’s ability to adjust on the fly and do what it takes to win. Lucious has looked pretty good since Lucas went out (if the winner v. Maryland was Ex. A of that, I’ll take the spin, stepback jumper late against UNI as Ex. B), and Durrell Summers, Raymar Morgan, and Chris Allen have stepped up enough to compensate for the loss of Kalin.
I think I’ve reached my decision. For the sixth time in 12 years, Izzo and the Spartans will be in the Final Four.
JOHN S: I’m going to have to concur, although I really wouldn’t be surprised by any outcome for this game: I could see a close win by either team, or a blowout win by either team. These teams are evenly matched and well-coached, but we’ve also seen both of these teams lay eggs in some games during the season.
I’m sticking with Izzo (as you said, he’s the one thing I got right in this Tournament, so I can’t bail on him now) and the Spartans in a close game throughout. And maybe Lucious hits another big shot and we can hear Lundquist or Raftery bust out the “a luscious shot by lucious” call. I don’t ask for much.
TIM: Oh, Verne and Raft…. I always get a little winsome when it’s Raftery’s last NCAA Tournament game of the season. It’s such a shame CBS still thinks Nantz and Kellogg are the best they’ve got.
JOHN S: Yeah, how could they still think that when we carefully laid out their announcing teams from best to worst last week?