Rushing The Field: Poll Anarchy

Well, seven weeks in and we’ve got the same damned problem we had last year with college football (or non-problem, for without these issues, the sport isn’t as half as fun to discuss or opine on.)  The field has leveled out so greatly that you have three of the top five getting knocked off on a Saturday.

Oklahoma and Texas were essentially trading blows for about three quarters, with Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy upping the ante on who would be favored in the Heisman race. Texas turned it in the 4th quarter: prodding Bradford into picks and getting big play from McCoy (who was 28-35 passing, good accuracy) along with a huge 60-yard run from Chris Ogbonnaya, and the Horns took the win 45-35. However, any analysis of this game without a lament about the sorry Big 12 officials in charge is incomplete. I understand the reasons for stringent rules about roughing the passer or personal foul calls; you want to keep people from getting hurt. McCoy flopped twice on ruhses out of bounds that got called for 15-yard flags, he and Bradford both were given the gift of flags on roughing penalties that shouldn’t have been called, an OU interception that should have been in the first half wasn’t, and the OU punter put on an acting job that Cristiano Ronaldo would have been ashamed of.

The Swamp is an entirely different beast of a stadium, particularly for a new starting QB like Jarrett Lee in his first road game as LSU “supplied the butt” for Florida to whip, in Mike Patrick’s parlance.  Florida got out to a 20-0 lead at one point; LSU closed it to 6 points, but the Gators’ defense finally stepped up, turning the multitude of running backs of LSU into an ineffective rotation, and forcing them to try to win on Lee’s arm — never a good prospect for a redshirt freshman.  Urban Meyer’s squad wound up putting half a hundred on ’em in the first complete game where Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin were not the sole playmakers in the Gator spread.

T. Boone Pickens’ money is apparently going to good use; it’s enough to buy a defense when there apparently was none.  A 28-23 upset of Missouri at Columbia gives Oklahoma State some of the respect they’ve been seeking, as no other team made Chase Daniel look out of sync as often as the Cowboys did (Mizzou fans may be tempted to blame the fact that Daniel was wearing #25 in honor of a fallen teammate rather than his usual #10 jersey), forcing him into crucial picks late.  Zac Robinson was a revelation for those of us who haven’t taken the time to watch him, pulling touchdown passes out of his ass. One in particular impressed me in the second half: he rolled out left and had NOTHING at the time downfield, he’d just avoided a sack, and to avoid another one, he hurled it to a spot in the end zone where he had two receivers against one cornerback — leap, catch, touchdown.

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Rushing The Field: Another SEC Barnburner

Seriously, if we’re gonna go through this every week with SEC teams in the night game on ESPN, it’s gonna be a real long, nail-biting season.  LSU pulled out the victory in the Tiger Bowl against Auburn thanks to a late touchdown pass from Jarrett Lee, who was subbing after Andrew Hatch got concussed, to Brandon LaFell to end a game largely characterized by the hard hits on both sides along with fits and starts on offense that have to infuriate Auburn fans. I mean, just watching the passing on Tony Franklin’s offense look spectacular one minute and awful the next has to drive the Auburn faithful nuts rights now.  So much more of the game was about the heavy hitters on defense, and the eight guys LSU rotated in and out on the D-line came through and pounded Chris Todd in the end to secure the win.  Les Miles would also like to remind you about the size of his play-calling balls.

When UGA’s Rennie Curran took Rudy Carpenter’s helmet with him on a sack in the first half of Georgia’s visit to Tempe to face Arizona State, I knew this game was going to be in favor of the Dawgs, and ugly in the second half. Matthew Stafford now has a new target in A.J. Green, who caught for more than 150 yards last night and a score on top of two more touchodwns from the reliable Knowshon Moreno.  Carpenter now has a fifth off-brand orifice thanks to an offensive line that can’t protect him; at least two of them were provided by USC’s Rey Maualuga.

The Tennessee Volunteers just flat out gave up when Florida came to town. The final score does say that the Vols got on the scoreboard, but really, when you’re down 27-0 in the third quarter, do any points after that count?  It wasn’t exactly a spectacular game for Tim Tebow, and that offense still looks a little too dependent upon him and Percy Harvin, but the Vols defense had very few counters and the Vols on offense — well, this is a team with two studs at RB in Arian Foster and Monterio Hardesty whom they can’t open holes for and get the ball to. Jonathan Crompton is still being asked to do way too much.  In joining Steve Spurrier as the second Florida coach to beat Tennessee and Phil Fulmer four times in a row, Urban Meyer would be perfectly within his rights to snark, “You can’t spell Outback without UT.”

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Like A Tiger, Defying The Laws Of Gravity

I’m burnin’ through the sky yeah
Two hundred degrees
That’s why they call me Mister Fahrenheit
I’m trav’ling at the speed of light
I wanna make a supersonic woman of you

– Queen, “Don’t Stop Me Now”

I’m more than conscious of the mantra that defense wins championships and KU’s dismantling of UNC early in the late Saturday game was a thing to behold. I was watching that game in a sports bar, and our jaws were dropping as the Jayhawks built margins of 20+ points, only to let the Tar Heels back in — but they eventually exposed the biggest weakness in Tyler Hasnbrough’s game: an inability to pass out of double teams effectively rather than try to bully his way in. Plus, the Jayhawks have enough depth to bear offensive struggles by some of their stronger players. I think Bill Self has exorcised his Final Four demon whether his team wins on Monday night or not — at least Kansas has dealt with the specter of Roy Williams’ departure by getting back at its old coach.

But the real impressive assault from Saturday night was the one Memphis performed on UCLA. Darren Collison gave up five inches and major wingspan to Derrick Rose as Russell Westbrook was assigned mostly to handle Chris Douglas-Roberts — this was a situation where basic man-to-man match-ups would be completely useless, as the two guards turned into absolute dynamos of fluid movement on the court — Rose’s gyrations, off-balance shots, and other ephemera to put the full arsenal of NBA-ready moves on display for anyone watching, along with CDR’s acrobatics, including the pictured facial of UCLA center Kevin Love, defined the game. As for Love: being frustrated by Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey should make this perfectly clear for NBA scouts: his game is good, but he needs to spend another full season in Westwood hitting weights and pounding that post game into higher focus.

That said, what’s coming during tonight’s championship game, with another variety of offense vs. defense match-up? If Calipari and his recruits can break down UCLA’s vaunted defensive game, they can certainly do it to Kansas as well, particularly if both guards and Joey Dorsey can avoid early foul trouble. Kansas is a touch deeper than Memphis, and the interesting thing to see will be how much Self goes to Sasha Kaun off the bench to battle in the paint wiht Dorsey. Rose is this team’s own Mr. Farenheit. Memphis might as well be singing “Don’t Stop Me Now” at this juncture, but they’ll be trading it for another Queen standard in the sports world: “We Are the Champions.” This, despite Science Daily providing us with knowledge of a computer system that has predicted 30 of the last 36 Final Four teams — and it’s picking Kansas.

Hey, I always said these picks were ill-advised.

Photo: AP/Matt York

Rock Chalk Jayhawk (Bruin, Tiger, and Tar Heel Too)

Maybe having all #1 seeds play in the Final Four for the first time ever will ensure us some close, interesting games — because watching three of the four teams whoop up on their opponents in Elite Eight games isn’t the most scintillating viewing.

UCLA was expected to win the West easily — playing a series of what could have been considered home games in Anaheim — and took apart the #3 seed Xavier with the precision Ben Howland teams have become known for in Phoenix.  Double-doubles for Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute represented ownership of the post and the boards, and Darren Collison showed his development as a point guard and a scorer by putting up 19 and turning Drew Lavender into a non-factor. Also important: UCLA got Josh Duncan in foul trouble early and kept B.J. Raymond from getting hot — which offset the apparent loss of Josh Shipp’s mojo.

I didn’t watch UNC-Louisville; I wasn’t sure it would be a double digit win, but apparently I did not miss a ton here. If the Tar Heels are clicking on all cylinders, that’s scary.

Memphis just flustered Texas completely, with size and strength inside and guards Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts just being bigger than D.J. Augustin and Damion James. Apparently John Calipari has figured out how to get this team to shoot from the stripe in the tourney, and Derrick Rose has probably shot up to where it has become a discussion of who would go first in the NBA lottery should he choose to go — him or Michael Beasley, and it would be a total toss up. Rose plays like UCLA’s Collison and Russell Westbrook combined and grew a couple inches: on the defensive end, he sees passes coming and is already going down the other way as soon as you’ve made the pass.

Bill Self is a very lucky man. Very lucky that Sasha Kaun bashed in the paint and Stephen Curry had a hard time getting open off screens all day, only shooting 9-for-25.  The one glaring fault with Curry’s game is that he does not have the ball-handling skills to create his  own shot, without the assistance of at least a screen or two — and when Self decided to go to the box-and-one defense, he couldn’t get those screens.  Kansas survived off nights from both Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush, but they had better show up against UNC next weekend.  As for Davidson’s future: the Wildcats will be back next year, and they may be better if Curry does learn a better handle.

Photo: AP/Eric Gay

Ill-Advised Elite Eight Predictions

Eh, like I’m not already in the hole and my bracket’s busted for good. Oh well.

Xavier vs. UCLA — the Bruins squeak this one out by the barest of margins. Ben Howland’s team has been scaring its fans from the beginning of the tournament with either comebacks or having teams get to very close margins. Xavier is the first threat of a team; one that people could actually see knocking off the Bruins. It essentially comes down to how Josh Duncan will play Kevin Love. I’ll enjoy watching two good point guards square off, too.

Louisville vs. UNC — the Tar Heels roll too deep on the bench to lose, in my eyes. Louisville makes it close — very, very close, and if this game goes to OT I won’t be shocked at all — but UNC will be in the Final Four come next weekend.  Also: please make note of how many times Tyler Hansbrough and David Padgett are referred to as “gritty” or “gutty” or “hard-working.”

Texas vs. Memphis — I give Memphis credit; they’ve lasted one round longer than I expected, but after watching the Longhorns destroy Stanford I think the Tigers will somehow manage to fuck it up, either via bad free throw shooting or being forced out of their game.

Davidson vs. Kansas – I don’t see this upset happening. Kansas is way too talented on both ends of the floor to get knocked off by a #10 seed. But if Sunday night ends with watching the Wildcats celebrate a trip to the Final Four, I won’t be surprised. Eventually we’re going to get used to Stephen Curry being amazing. Bill Self needs to get over the no Final Four hump here, but I have to admit, I’d like to see if Davidson’s trustees will cough up the funds to send students to the Final Four like they sent students and lodged them in Detroit for these games.

Photo: AP/Pat Sullivan

Ill-Advised Sweet 16 Predictions

Just the usual quick and dirty here. My Final Four is still intact, but I can’t say that I think it will be after the next two days.

East Regional:

  • UNC over Wazzu — this’ll be a slog of a game, I think, because this is the best defensive team the Heels will see unless they play UCLA in the final. UNC has enough talent to get by the Cougars, but they won’t be scoring 100 this time.
  • Tennessee beats Louisville — the Cardinals are streaking right now and the Vols look vulnerable. My pick of Tennessee is pure sticking with my bracket; it could go either way.

West Regional:

  • UCLA tops Western Kentucky — Nice run, Hilltoppers, but UCLA gets calls and plays defense too well. The Bruins can overcome a bad start.
  • Xavier over West Virginia — Like L’Ville/Tenn, this is a bracket pick that I’m sticking with because I think this will be a close game and don’t really know how it will go. I think Xavier’s defense will be the defining factor.

Midwest Regional:

  • Kansas over Villanova — Jayhawks, although it will not be a walkover and Villanova will give them a very good game.
  • Wisconsin ends Davidson’s run — On a Sweet 16 bracket, I picked Davidson for fun, but really, Bo Ryan’s defense seems to smother all and I don’t see another upset for the Wildcats here.

South Regional:

  • Michigan State upsets Memphis — Watch. The Tigers will kill themselves with bad free throw shooting and being forced to take jumpers that don’t fall.
  • Stanford beats Texas — Guard play is a big thing in the NCAA tournament, but having the Lopez twins to get points and clean up the boards will be crucial in a close Stanford win.

Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren

So, We’ve Got 16 Left

What did I screw up? Plenty, but all my Final Four choices are still in.  Let’s look at the less than obvious choices. UNC was expected to be at this level and are playing lights-out ball right now.  That’s about as simple as it gets. Tennessee and Memphis are serious liabilities at the free throw line, UCLA scared the crap out of just about everyone who’d picked them to win it all.  Kansas made short work of its first two opponents.

I should know better after watching the Pac-10 all year to have dismissed Washington State so easily. That’s a bad oversight, because I forgot that they played lockdown defense. Do I think they will beat UNC? Probably not, but it’s more validation for Tony Bennett.

Michigan State looked really inconsistent all year and then reels off two solid games to get back to the 16 — beating a Pitt team that was a very popular choice to go to the Final Four in the East. Now they get Memphis, and this is the round where no one will be surprised if Memphis loses to any of hte teams left.

I knew nothing about Western Kentucky going into the tournament. I guess I better know now.  I don’t have the same excuse for Davidson — I knew Stephen Curry was good, but 70 points in two games good? That I wasn’t aware of.

Wisconsin is consistent. They play Bo Ryan’s style and do it well enough to get back to the 16 even though they were a popular upset target.

Xavier worries me, they’ve had to make comebacks, and they’re going against a West Virginia team that’s overachieving in ways no one expected this year (this is one of the only feathers in my cap that I get to claim, predicting that WVU would beat Duke in that exact game.)

Texas has great players, but they’re just as likely to shoot poorly at the line as Memphis and Tennessee — and they have to play Stanford, who shoots well from the line, has better inside presence. Rick Barnes better hope Trent Johnson gets pissed off for no reason again.

Villanova, I completely passed on, and forgot that Jay Wright had gotten Wildcat teams to the Sweet 16 twice, now three times in four years as head coach. Oh well. Beating Siena wasn’t the hardest road into the 16, but who expected Villanova to be here right now?

Photo: AP/Chuck Burton