28 February 2007

Return of the Sweetness

Hello, readers. Hello, fellow Lion-in-Oilers. The Sweetness has been on a well-deserved break, but has decided to come back on this beautiful Atlanta day with some thoughts on college basketball.

But before we delve into the evaporating regular season, I want to share something that has been on my mind. The Sweetness has always appreciated a good-looking jersey, be it the UCLA classic, the home Georgetown uni, or the gold get-up that Vanderbilt breaks out from time to time. While I’ve never been one to don such apparel, sticking to polos and jeans and generally conceding that I’m devoid of anything resembling street cred, this new Dwyane Wade Marquette jersey from Nike is something to behold. It’s complicated, however, because I hate Marquette. D-Wade is pretty much the only thing that has come out of this Midwestern Catholic abyss that I respect. Tom Crean? Can’t stand him. Travis Diener? One of my most-hated players of all time. But damn it if this jersey isn’t nice, a throwback to the days of Marquette's 1977 championship squad. I ask you, dear readers: is this wrong? And to the clowns: Hak, would you sport a Giants throwback? What about you, Goran? Any respect for USC’s football outfits? I am but an aesthetically confused soul, and I seek your help.

Now, onto other matters, namely, the state of the two programs in my beloved home commonwealth. First, my boys.

It is hard to believe that three weeks ago, the Louisville message boards were lamenting another lost season. Since a thorough beatdown at home from Georgetown, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals have reeled off five in a row and established themselves as one of the hottest teams in the nation and a veritable lock for the Big Dance. How did this happen? Huge wins at Pittsburgh and Marquette, two Top 15 teams are the primary reasons. David Padgett (the man with two bionic knees) and Juan Palacios (the slowest healer in NCAA history) have managed to stay relatively fit, and a veteran frontcourt works wonders for a team. Then there are the freshmen. Everyone knows about Derrick Caracter by now, the head case with loads of talent who has finally gotten his act together. Yes, he is a beast in the post, with an array of moves and fakes that most in the college game don’t have. But it is the other three freshmen who have propelled this team into the Top 20. Edgar Sosa. Jerry Smith. Earl Clark. All talented freshmen with unique abilities, all hyped out of high school. It’s not that they were disappointing early; they simply didn’t develop at a supersonic pace a la Kevin Durant, or the kids at Ohio State and North Carolina. For better or worse, those guys are the measuring stick, and an impatient fan base does not want four-start recruits to be good eventually. They want them to be good now. Luckily, that’s finally happening. This team closes out the season at home against Seton Hall. Assuming they win that game, they’ll have a bye in the Big East Tournament, and probably set themselves up to be anything from a 4 to a 6 seed in the tournament. Maybe that will shut up those lunatics over at Planet Red for awhile. The future is bright in the Derby City.

Not so much over in Lexington, however. If Louisville fans are apologizing with their collective tale between their legs for the way they criticized Pitino, Kentucky fans are threatening to storm Tubby Smith’s office the way the French stormed the Bastille. There is no denying the Cats are down, and struggling, having lost four of five games. The lone victory was an uninspired effort against last-place LSU, and late-game meltdowns against Vanderbilt and Tennessee have Big Blue Nation demanding a change at the head of the bench. But as a native, I refuse to believe that the criticism isn’t at least somewhat racially motivated. Of course the dynamic has always been there, but it is magnified in times of trouble, when fans poisoned with short memories are prone to irrationality. I don’t need the lectures about tradition, about how this is all unacceptable for the all-time winningest program. What I need is for a literate, articulate UK fan (which eliminates about half of their fans immediately, mind you) to look me in the cyber eye and tell me that Tom Izzo or Roy Williams would receive the same treatment in this situation. I simply don’t believe it. Before last season, the Cats were an overtime away from the Final Four (in 2005) and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2003 and 2004. How quickly they forget such facts with two relatively mediocre seasons, seasons which owe their struggles in large part to the players, not the coach. The current junior class, Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Randolph Morris, were all highly touted, McDonald’s All-Americans who have simply not played well in important spots. The talent is there, the coaching is there, but for whatever reason, these guys buckle in the limelight. Tubby can’t make Crawford or Bradley make threes. He can’t make Morris decide that it’s time to come play. Motivation only takes a kid so far. Eventually, they have to take it upon themselves. Of course no one wants to hear this, and Tubby will probably be canned. At least then I can cheer for this outstanding in-game coach and first-class citizen without having to cheer for the enemy. Silly UK. May you never reach the Final Four or national prominence ever again.

Now that the Homer-ness is out of my system, here are the six teams that I believe have a shot to win the national title, from most to least likely….

UCLA

Wow, do I feel like an idiot for believing that the Oregon Ducks were anywhere near as good as this team. They have rolled through the last month of their Pac-10 slate. Darren Collison is a quicker, more unselfish version of Jordan Farmar, and I think that might be what takes this team to their first championship since 1995. Afflalo can score, Shipp and Mata and Mbah a’ Moute can rebound and play defense, and Jim Halpert can give them a lift when necessary. Tough game at Wazzu this weekend, but I expect the Bruins to win the Pac-10 Tournament and enter the dance as the no. 1 overall seed.

Florida

Relax, everybody. This team has lost three of four, but they’re still the most talented bunch around. When they play their best, no one, I repeat, no one, can beat them. They are still 12-3 in a power conference, correct? Tennessee and Vanderbilt are both tournament teams who are tough to beat on the road, right? Get off their backs, everyone! Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green aren’t shooting well, and Joakim Noah is finally realizing that he doesn’t have an offensive game outside of three feet. Not to worry. The backcourt will break out of their slump, and if these guys can come out awake in the first 10 minutes of a game, the frontcourt can thrive in a breakneck pace where the backcourt doesn’t have to shoot its way out of a large deficit. The Gators will handle Kentucky on Saturday, then pick up steam in the SEC Tournament. I still expect to see them in Atlanta at the Final Four.

Wisconsin

Alando Tucker didn’t exactly come up huge in that game at Ohio State last weekend, and the Badgers suffered a major blow when Brian Butch landed awkwardly on the floor with his elbow in Cleveland. Butch, the team’s leading rebounder, is out for the year, but once again, everyone is panicking because these guys aren’t completely perfect. Michigan State needed a big win against the Badgers and pulled it out; same with Ohio State. These are not bad losses, and if Wisconsin stops settling for a perimeter game and gets Tucker more involved mid-range, they will be a tough out. The defense is still there, and it is a lot easier to slow a team down in the Tournament than speed them up. Bo Ryan’s guys will do that to everyone in March, and it will drive opponents crazy.

North Carolina

Assuming that everyone is back but Wright and Terry, I think next year is the year for the Baby Heels, but they are nothing to laugh at this year. Their pace is the opposite of a team like Wisconsin’s but if their shots are falling and they play 100 miles an hour, no one can beat them. Ty Lawson is a better scorer than predecessor Raymond Felton and every bit as quick. Ridiculous depth will also keep this team from wearing down, though their youth (three freshmen, a sophomore in the starting lineup) may ultimately get the best of them, as it has in February (three ACC losses this month). This team’s success depends on who they play, but in a year of mediocrity, they have a decent chance to win it all.

Georgetown

Again, an example of a team who lost a game and has subsequently sent bracketologists scurrying to drive down their seed. I think they’re a two, and a damn tough two at that. John Thompson’s Princeton offense has a history of being rather effective in a single-elimination format, and it is all the more difficult to defend with athletes like Jeff Green and DaJuan Summers executing the screens and backdoor cuts. They did win 11 in a row, and they’re easily the best team in the Big East; what could break them is their backcourt, however. They can’t score lots of points quickly the way that a lot of teams can, and an early deficit could seal their fate. In a tough physical battle with the score in the 50’s, however, I’ll take the Hoyas. If they get hot, they can get to Atlanta. Believe the Hoya Paranoia, or whatever they call it.

Kansas

ESPN’s Jay Bilas, everyone’s favorite Giant Dork (literally), says that Kansas could be this year’s Florida. I don’t buy it, but as I look at mock brackets with Washington State and Southern Illinois as three seeds, it makes me think that these guys really could get hot and make a run. It’s not that teams like Wazzu and Southern Illinois aren’t deserving of these high seeds in the age of RPI and computer profiles; but can you really expect either of those teams (or Memphis, or Nevada, or Butler) to cut down the nets? I don’t think so. Julian Wright and Brandon Rush and co. have the talent at all positions to win six in a row, but a lot of things have to go their way. Don’t forget that these guys got hot at the same time last year, and promptly bowed out in the first round to Bradley. A date with Texas and their performance in the Big 12 Tourney should give a better indication of their capability, but they have to be the monsters that beat Florida, not the underachievers who lost to Oral Roberts.

Where is Ohio State, you ask? Not here. A second-round upset waiting to happen. More on that next time.

4 comments:

Marco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marco said...

I like where your head is at, i had a post about a week ago predicting an Ohio State second round loss....check it out at justcallmejuice.blgospot.com....Nice blog, adding it to the blogroll

HAK said...

Thanks for adding us, Marco. I'll check yours out.

And Bullwinkle, that's a nice D-Wade jersey, but I would never wear a Giants jersey -- UNLESS it's the sick throwback Giants sweatsuit I saw Mike Vick wearing at Phillips Arena a couple years ago. I might have to give some thought to that one, but it would probably take some encouragement from Mr. Vick.

Adeline Niesha said...

I know where I'm going and l know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.Thankyou i really love it.