Friday, March 13, 2009

Incoherent Thoughts About Syracuse-UConn (And Hoops In General)

"I'm with u. they're one of maybe 8 schools that can do it."

That was roughly 40 hours ago.

The topic: Syracuse.

It was a text reply I sent to my buddy Cam during the first half of Syracuse's Big East tourney win over Seton Hall. (Note: Cam's message predicted Syracuse to win it all. We think alike.)

Are my words important right now? Of course not. Do you believe me? Does it matter?

I hate being too busy for this site. Syracuse defeated UConnecticut last night in what is inarguably the best non-March Madness game ever, and I'm stuck here writing how I wanted to tell everyone just how great Syracuse is (or could be). But again, it doesn't matter.

The only thing worse than dishonesty for a blogger is tardiness. Facts don't matter nearly as much as being first. This time around, I screwed up big time.


When I received the March 9, 2009 Sports Illustrated (see above), I thought three things:

1. That's an awesome cover.

2. Pitt, Memphis and Lousiville are supposedly three of the eight best teams in the country, and yet they don't have what it takes to win six consecutive games in March.

3. Wait, is Sports Illustrated stealing Grant Wahl's bit?


1. The cover is awesome.

2. I've been through this already with Pitt. Levance Fields will get swallowed whole by a better point guard (not his fault, he's just not that talented) and DeJaun Blair, while great (and he got robbed by having to share the Big East P.O.Y. award) isn't the type of player who will carry a team to six straight wins in a one-and-done format (and what if he gets in foul trouble?). Trust me, when it's all said and done, you'll see that Pitt is one of those maximun-effort, sum-is-greater-than-the-whole teams that loses in round two or three when their more-skilled opponent matches their energy and focus for forty minutes.

As for Memphis, I'm still not sure what makes them so special. Their best player is freshman point guard Tyreke Evans, and he's nowhere near as good as last year's freshman point guard, Derrick Rose. The surrounding parts? There's nothing to see here. Good but not great. I'll bet anyone any amount of cash Memphis isn't playing on the third weekend of the tournament.

It pains me to add Louisville to the list of teams I can't see winning it all. They have almost every ingredient needed to win a national title: Coaching, depth, overall athleticism, size, guard play, a talented do-everything senior who kills himself on both ends (Terrance Williams), perimeter defense (their backup guards, Preston Knowles and Andre McGee remind me of former Bearcats A.D. Jackson and Terrance Gibson) and although it's not a necessity, they also have a guy who can score -- and sometimes be a force of nature -- in the post (Samardo Samuels).

But I said almost.

Lousiville can't shoot a lick. Making matters worse, they think they can. Have you ever seen a Pitino-coached team who didn't have at least one marksman? I haven't. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but it seems like they jack up 800 3s a game, and as much as I've watched Louisville this year, I've never felt like one of them was going in. If you watch hoops, you know what I'm talking about -- you just know who's a good shooter and who isn't...or who even has the ability to get hot.

Nick Van Exel (probably not the best example for a rational argument) wasn't a great three-point shooter. But he could get piping hot for weeks at a time. Lousiville has nothing resembling a mammal like that on their roster, but they play like they do. Which is why they won't be cutting down the nets in early April.

(I swear this whole thing is about Syracuse...)

3. Grant Wahl is Sports Illustrated's best college hoops writer, and although I haven't read his online column in over two years (for no reason whatsoever), I always liked his early-winter "Magic Eight" piece, where he selects not the best eight teams in the country, but the eight teams who have the necessary ingredients to win the damn thing. Big difference. (For instance, nobody in their right mind would say Pitt isn't one of the three or four best -- much less eight -- teams in the country.) Anyway, Sports Illustrated, Wahl's employer, kind of stole his gimmick last week. And it got me to I have a chance to steal Wahl's gimmick.

I looked at that awesome cover and thought, Jesus, three of these teams aren't even good enough to play in my backyard, much less win it all. The other five, I thought, had a great shot.

Let's take a look:

North Carolina: The best team. You're likely winner. I'll be rooting against them.

Oklahoma: Not-so-long-shot prediction: Blake Griffin finishes his NBA career as one of the eight best power forwards of all time. The last time I was positive a big man was going to carry his team to the Final Four was early-March, year 2000. His name was Kenyon Martin. (Doctor, I'll inject myself...)

Duke: Maybe the second best team in the country. Can't beat Carolina. The good news: Won't have to face them until the Final Four.

UConnecticut: Having Jerome Dyson around puts them at 1B to Carolina's 1A. Without him, they still have to be considered one of the favorites. (Quick thought: If I'm a Husky fan, I'm thrilled my team lost in 6OT; the last thing they need is dead legs next week.)

Michigan State: Math time...great point guard + good overall talent + Tom Izzo will never get outcoached = Sparty is plenty good enough to make a run at it.

But that's just five teams. If I want to truly rip off Grant Wahl, I need more.

First up...Syracuse.

Anticlimactic, I know, but it doesn't make it any less true.

They have a great point guard who can both score and distribute (Johnny Flynn), they have a streaky two-guard with A+ passing and finishing skills (Eric Wiggerdorf), a moneyball shooter (Andy Rautins), an athletic, muscle-bound finisher who mostly understands his limitations (Paul Harris), bangers down low who aren't stiff idiots and a coach who's coached in title games during each of the last three decades. Plus, as we officially know today, they're bloody hot with a ton of heart. But the signs have been there for a month, and I'm not really sure why everyone was sleeping on them before the UConn game. The Cuse can win six straight, but I didn't need to tell you that.

Wake Forest. There's a good chance that of the three current college hoops players who will have the best NBA careers, Wake has two of them (Teague and Aminu). The Deamon Deacs are (a.) athletic as hell, (b.) skilled and (c.) ballsy. What else do you want? They're also perimiter-oriented (a big plus) and possess the "Let's do it for our dead coach" angle, which will undoubtedly be played up by CBS come the second week of the tournament.

Anybody who watched Wake's first game against the Tar Heels knows they won't be afraid of the biggest stage.

Gonzaga. I can't help it. I'm a sucker for the Zags, it's true, but this squad is different -- I'll always love the Zags (their ten-year run is truly astonishing), but I'm not attached the way I once was. I used to root for Gonzaga because they played with huge balls. But the Pargo-Heytfelt group is soft, always has been. It's more mental than physical, but it still counts. But they're also one of the five most talented teams in college basketaball, so it's not a shocker that I'm sucked in again.

Fact: If Gonzaga plays six perfect games they can beat anyone. Anyone.

Fact: It won't happen.

So there's my eight. I've been dying to write this column for over a week, but haven't had the chance. I had a recording session scheduled today with Craig and canceled it Thursday afternoon because I wanted to write these words before Selection Sunday. Does it have the same glimmer now that Syracuse basketball is tatooed on everyone's consciousness? No. Do I want to kill myself because of it? You betcha.

Before saying goodbye, a couple things about last night's game:

1. I barely watched any of it. Last night was my first night bartending (a trainee!) and despite being surrounded by a million TVs, I only watched here or there. Focus, man. Focus.

2. But I did watch here and there, and I was desperately rooting for UConn, especially at the end of regulation. This is because I didn't want to come off like a chump when Syracuse proved their worth. All I wanted them to do was fade away, secure a five seed and rip things up in the tourney. Once it got to the third overtime I knew that was merely a pipe dream.

3. I was so mad at the outcome of the game -- and what it meant to this column -- that I still haven't watched highlights or read game accounts since returning home from work. If that ain't bitterness, I don't know what is.

That's all for now.

More March Madness thoughts (and a return of the Vickers!) to come in the next few days. I can hardly sit still or keep a though in my head.

-Brad Spieser (