Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Countdown to One Shining Moment

The ball is tipped
And there you are
You’re running for your life
You’re a shooting star
And all those years
No one knows
Just how hard you worked
But now it shows….

Maybe it’s my longing for spring, combined with the fact we’re in the dogs days of football, but the only songs I listened to today were the CBS college basketball theme and “One Shining Moment”, two tunes that handle the task of bridging the last gap from winter to spring. I think it was the Villanova/UConn game last Monday night that gave the me the final push into college hoops obsession, but I’m fully there now.

Save for the fantastic competition in the Big East, the rest of the nation has been a letdown. Memphis, Duke and Gonzaga are all dominant, but the last couple of months they’ve been dominant in crappy conferences. The Big Ten has some depth, but Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State have all been inconsistent, and let us not discuss the Hoosiers. The PAC-10 and Big 12 will be lucky to combine for a half-dozen NCAA bids between them. The SEC has been on the downslide for a few seasons now, and it appears to have bottomed out, with Rocky Top being the sole bright spot (You’re more than welcome to bet on Florida, but I’ll pass). While the potential for Kansas and UNC’s kids to finish growing up – both squads have been playing great the last month – , for George Washington making a run and the Missouri Valley Conference getting more bids than the mighty ACC give hope for a more entertaining March, the Redick vs. Morrison debate has been the only consistent storyline this season.

Of course, the one shining spot in all of college hoops has been the new-look Big East, nearly living up to all the hype (Here’s looking at you, Louisville). Georgetown has given Duke its sole loss, and while WVU is in a bit of a funk, I doubt there are many teams that want to play them in the tournament. Villanova is to this year what Illinois and St. Joes were to 2005 and 2004 – guard-driven teams built for a deep tournament run and entertaining games. Steve Novak and Chris Quinn would be huge stars on bigger stages, while Seton Hall is blowing out one of the top ACC teams, NC State, by twenty points in Raleigh.

When looking at teams capable of winning the title, its either a very short list or a very long list, depending on how high you’re willing to get your hopes up for some teams. How much faith do you really want to put in Gonzaga and Memphis? They have gaudy records and NBA draft picks, but Memphis has done nothing in the tournament under Calipari and looks primed to take Cincinnati’s place as the C-USA number one seed that gets knocked out early. To put Gonzaga’s recent struggles into perspective, A) Notre Dame was in the Sweet Sixteen more recently than the Bulldogs and B) Last time they were playing in the second weekend, Penn State was playing as well. I love Adam Morrison just as much as you do and think Memphis is just loaded, but their weak conferences might soften them up too much for the tests of later March.

Any of the Big Ten teams could catch fire, but they’ve all been inconsistent enough that picking them to go deep in your bracket will be a dice roll. You know one of them will be there, because a Big Ten team always is, but the trick is finding which one. The team that appeared to be clicking the most, Michigan State, just lost Matt Trannon to a broken jaw and apparently has passed the “Big Ten It” crown onto the Buckeyes. Dill says that Duke is a “slam dunk” to win the tournament, but they’ll need their freshman point guard to keep a steady hand while Sean Dockery steps forward as a third scoring option, because the focus of teams will be on Redick and Shelden Williams. Duke has had a lot of trouble with more athletic teams like Memphis and Georgetown, and no matter of blowing out crappy ACC teams can change that.

My favorite dark horse? Not any of the tougher little conference teams – the Northern Iowas and George Washingtons – but Ol’ Rocky Top. Bruce Pearl’s Wisconsin-Milwaukee team might have made the Final Four last year if they didn’t run into the team with the best guards in the tournament, Illinois, and now he’s turning the pressure up on SEC teams. When Rocky Top loses, they lose big, but their draw is particularly important, as they’re not going to frazzle Villanova, but they could go deep.

But the only conference that has the chance to dominate come March is the Big East. The games they’ve been involved in night after night combined with the talent up and down most of their rosters, you have to give them the edge. Connecticut is an NBA team, with only a conspicuous lack of intensity at times holding them down, but the return of Marcus Williams seems have finally begun fueling them. Villanova will have to shoot a high percentage from the Sweet Sixteen and beyond, but with those guards and sturdy play from Will Sheridan, they are last year’s Illinois team which made the championship game before bowing out to North Carolina, who resembles this year’s Husky team.

I don’t ever want to give Pitt too much credit until they start playing anybody non-conference, but they don’t have a bad loss on their record, and this is Carl Krauser’s final season and Aaron Gray has turned into some sort of monster. West Virginia has the experience, and despite some setbacks recently (Seton Hall, Syracuse), any team that features Mike Gansey has to be feared come single-elimination. Nobody really knows anything about Marquette, although they seem to have recovered nicely from the early season losses to Winthrop and Nebraska. Georgetown has the athletes to run with anybody, as we saw in the Duke game, and would be a terrifying 8 or 7 seed for some of the top teams to see. Syracuse looked really good Monday night against the Mountaineers, but I think that’s the best they can play, and they’ve been woeful over the eleven months or so in big games.

And of course, they’re my favorite, hometown X-Factor…

…or as Pocz and I call them, “Thirteen Wins To The Championship”.

Despite amassing only thirteen wins this season, I feel like the Irish would be more than capable of making a run come March – that is, of course, if they can make the NCAA Tournament. Which would, of course, require them making the Big East tournament in order to earn the automatic bid its winner receives. The last three games are nearly required wins, with a tough game against Marquette at home Saturday followed by games at the Dunkin Donuts Center and closing at home against DePaul, a team that has beaten us the last two years. That would get us into the Big East tournament, with every team in it fully capable of losing to the Irish. Every one of the Big East teams I mentioned having a shot at winning the championship – UConn, Nova, Pitt, WVU, Georgetown – have been taken to the edge by Notre Dame. Granted, after a certain amount of time, you have to win games in order to actually feel good, but dammit, we’re close.

We’ve got the senior point guard, along with another dead-eye shooter that can get hot. Cornett and Francis are basically useless offensively, but they rebound and play defense. Russell Carter is the athletic, slashing combo guard that all tournament teams seem to need – Fred Jones, anyone? – and Luke Zeller and Rob Kurz, while not contributing a whole lot most nights, can step back behind the three and cause mismatches with the opposition’s big men. Throw in Kyle McAlarney as a perfectly capable back-up point guard, and another three point threat, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster for some unsuspecting tournament favorite.

Of course, we have to get there first, which will require getting rid of the stall offense at the end of games and keeping things moving towards the basket, but it’s possible. It’s not going to be easy, and it probably won’t happen, but this year’s Irish team has the capability, if nothing else, to make some noise in March, and that’s more than we could say for the Chris Thomas-led team of last season. And if we’re the underdog in every game, that just means more opportunities to wear the pimp black jerseys, which have brought us a little bit of luck in the two games we wore them.

In two weeks, I’ll be home, settling in for the conference tournaments, Selection Sunday and the first two rounds of the NCAA. In less time than that, the Irish will have decided their Big East tournament fate (How sad is that? Poor coaching, bad luck or both?), and will have either begun their run to the Big East’s automatic berth or started making their NIT reservations.

Selection Sunday is in seventeen days, and I’m ready for the stretch run. More importantly, are you?

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