Monday, March 21, 2005

To sum up the first round of the tournament, and to decipher the code between those favorites remaining in the tournament and those favorites who didn’t remember to confirm their Bracketville reservations, you simply must look to see who was a good neighbor and who wasn’t.

By neighbor I mean teammate, a word that you probably don’t want to whispering to Wayne Simien or Hakim Warrick right now, as theirs essentially abandoned them in their first-round upsets Friday night. The Player of the Year candidates were forced to go one-on-five on the offensive end, with Simien’s backcourt mates reluctant to take a shot and Warrick’s running buddy reluctant to make one. Because of that reason, despite a combined 45 points and 22 rebounds between them, the seniors are going home.

That’s not surprising from Syracuse, who had a two-and-a-half man offense all year (Warrick, McNamara and Josh Pace’s left hand), but it comes as quite a shock to Kansas fans, who know that Aaron Miles is better than his 0-for-5 performance and know that a healthy Keith Langford would have been better than 1-for-7.

Thankfully, for Warrick and Simien, they were not alone. Talk to Adam Morrison about teammates disappearing down the stretch, or ask Marcus Williams how a sophomore who didn’t play on the Final Four team last year had to keep his team in the game until the rest of the defending champs woke up from their slumber five minutes and two or three questionable calls too late (To say the refs had nothing against it is very anti-UConn, while to say the lack of intensity wasn’t what put them in that position when they could have been blowing out NC State is very pro-UConn). Jarrett Jack was on one leg, trying to hold off a Cardinal attack that just wouldn’t stop, while BJ Elder picked up stupid fouls and Will Bynum wasn’t anywhere to be found.

(For the record, nobody on Wake Forest really fell apart. They just couldn’t guard anybody, and unless your Andy Katz, you realized that would be their weakness before the tournament started.)

Andrew Bogut himself wasn’t nine points better than Oklahoma, but when you get Marc Jackson shooting nearly perfect and the folks from Norman collapsing quicker than their football team in a championship game, that’s what made the difference. Joey Graham goes down, Ivan McFarlin steps up. Channing Frye only has six points against UAB’s speed? No problem, Salim Stoudamire will drop 28. And when Dickie V’s Player of the Year, JJ Redick, can only come up with two field goals in the second half to go along with his five turnovers, Prototypical Duke Senior Guard Daniel Ewing refuses to lose, just like he did in the second round against Notre Dame his freshman year when the more heralded players on his team weren’t showing, and gets his team the win, with some defensive gems by Shelden Williams and one by Shavlik Randolph(?!). Chuck Hayes’ college career would be over if it wasn’t for the freshmen Tubby’s been developing all year.

The NCAA tournament cannot be won without some NBA-level talent. You can attempt to argue against it, but the last five years alone will prove you foolish, with names like Okafor, Battier, Peterson, Hamilton, Anthony and Dixon being thrown around. But none of those teams would have made it if it wasn’t for the players around them doing the dirty work. The Lucas Johnsons and Ricky Moores of the world win it for you, the ones that step up when everyone’s eyes are blinded by the stars.

So looking to next weekend, will Francisco Garcia still be getting help from the rest of Louisville’s gunners, or will they fade away? It’s been all Ronald Ross and Jarrius Jackson for The General’s Raiders, but they won’t make it past the best player in college basketball, Mike Gansey, and his Mountaineers if they don’t get some help.

So if you’re in a second-chance bracket or simply picking this weekend’s games against your friends for pride, I warn you to not just look at the best on the team, but at the guys nobody notices unless they aren’t there. It’s those guys who remember after a night out on the town that they need to extend their reservation, because if you’re a senior and you check out of Bracketville, there’s no coming back.

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