March 27, 2012

Critiques from the Couch: March Madness Ups and Downs

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Staying in Ithaca over this Spring Break, I told myself that I would catch up on sleep and work, hit the gym and generally be productive. Then I lied on a couch for six hours a day watching the NCAA tournament, eating Insomnia cookies and knocking back a few Keystones. From watching so much basketball, I noticed some things I liked, some things I hated and some interesting trends. Luckily for you, I’m going to share my thoughts!

Let’s start with the importance of the 3-point shot. After watching the games this weekend, I firmly believe that 3-point shooting is by far the most important factor in March Madness.

In the Syracuse-Wisconsin matchup, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone completely befuddled Wisconsin; they forced them to take (mostly) contested threes — exactly what they want — and they did not allow anything inside. In fact, Wisconsin scored only 10 points in the paint, and didn’t even attempt a shot in the paint in the last 14 minutes of the game. The only reason the game was decided on the last possession was Wisconsin’s incredible shooting display — in one stretch they made 3-pointers in six straight possessions. Think about that stat for a second. When was the last time you saw a team attempt six threes in a row?!

People will say that Wisconsin was patient and ran its offense, getting open threes and not turning it over (amazingly, just six turnovers); however, the fact remains that if Wisconsin didn’t shoot a blistering 14-of-27 from three (compared to its season average of 36 percent), this game would not be close. The last possession of the game was completely indicative of the rest of the game; Syracuse allowed no penetration, and instead the Badgers had to toss up a three — albeit tougher than most of their others, that just didn’t go down.

The handling of stars in foul trouble also made a huge difference this weekend. In the Indiana-Kentucky game, three important players — Indiana’s point guard Jordan Hulls, center Tyler Zeller and Kentucky’s monster Anthony Davis — were all taken out of the game with two fouls with more than 13 minutes remaining in the first half. With 9:55 to play and Indiana down, 31-22, Indiana coach Tom Crean brought back both of his starters. They promptly went on a 19-8 run to take the lead, before going into the half down three. Meanwhile, Kentucky coach John Calipari glued Davis to the bench.

I know it’s conventional to take players out when they get two fouls in the first half, but is it always smart? Despite playing with two fouls, Hulls and Zeller picked up just one more foul each, while Davis picked up none. Also, consider that since Kentucky’s last matchup with Indiana, Davis has not picked up more than three fouls in any game. Why would you not trust him to play his usual brand of spectacular defense without fouling this time? If Davis — who is by far the best defensive player in the country — had been in the game for that stretch, it’s doubtful that Indiana would have made their run. The Wildcats probably would have cruised to victory instead of fighting off a feisty Indiana team in the second half.

After this weekend, the field has been narrowed down to four perennial contenders. Ohio State boasts some major talent with Jared Sullinger in the post and lethal scorers Deshaun Thomas and William Buford surrounding him, but the team is led by my favorite player in the tournament, Aaron Craft. With his rosy cheeks and boyish charm, he looks like a kid who was picked on in middle school, but boy does he have game. On offense, he completely controls the pace of the game, but defense is where he shines. Opposing guards always look at his stature and try to blow by him with a flurry of moves, but they simply cannot get by him, turning it over half the time. He’s harder to get by than Snorlax in those Pokemon games — it just can’t be done.

Meanwhile, OSU’s opponent, Kansas, has one of the best guard-forward duos in Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson — Jared Sullinger 2.0 — and a talented center in Jeff Withey to protect the rim. Plus they have Zac Efron’s character from High School Musical, under the pseudonym Connor Teahan, coming off the bench to provide them with a spark.

Ohio State has played in the toughest conference all year and I think that toughness will show in this game. Additionally, Craft will have a major impact by shutting down Taylor, so I foresee the Buckeyes making the national championship game.

Louisville probably has the least talent out of the four teams left, but they definitely are the scrappiest, and in my opinion, have the best coach in Rick Pitino. With Peyton Siva and Russ Smith pressuring ball handlers the entire game and center Gorgui Dieng manning the middle, it’s a surprise whenever someone scores on them, possessing the best defensive efficiency the country. Then again, it’s a surprise whenever they score, as they rely heavily on Siva to set up most of their scoring opportunities.

Louisville’s matchup, Kentucky, is the overwhelming favorite this year and for good reason. It has a once-in-a-generation talent in Anthony Davis, a Top-5 lottery pick in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, NBA-level talent up and down their roster and no noticeable holes. In the first half of its beat down of Baylor, the Bears actually looked scared to play Kentucky. The team was hesitant on every take and on defense; it cowered every time Kentucky drove. Baylor — who is one of the Top-10 talented teams in the nation — had such a talent disparity with the Wildcats, that they were scared!

I can see Louisville’s pressure befuddle Kentucky’s freshman point guard Marquis Teague to start, but Louisville simply does not have the firepower to keep up with the Wildcats, but then again, no team does. And that’s why I will pick the Kentucky Wildcats to beat the Buckeyes in the finals and capture their first title since 1998 and Calipari’s first elusive championship. Now let’s just hope that he’ll be able to keep it.

Original Author: Albert Liao