Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts Heading into Final Four Weekend

It's been another incredible, and perhaps more than ever, unpredictable NCAA tournament. As we head into Final Four weekend, I'm here to share some of my thoughts of the latest edition of what I believe is the best sporting event of the year.

1. View From the Top
Being a staff member of one of the most revolutionary and popular blogs from South Euclid to Lyndhurst and everywhere in between, you get certain media privileges and perks, like attending the opening round's (okay second round technically) Friday games and seeing THE Ohio State Buckeyes lay the hammer down on a #16 seed in Cleveland. The CST media crew was in force as myself and fellow CST contributors Doug, SamVox, and Sean descended... or I should say ascended... upon the Q to observe the game from a unique perspective. And by media privileges and perks I mean paying over $100 on the internet for the two afternoon games, and by unique perspective I mean sitting top row... in the upper deck. Ah yes, it's good to be a part of CST.

The CST Media Box - Top Row at the Q - 2011 NCAA Tournament

The experience was definitely unique. Ticket packages were available for either the afternoon games or the evening games, so you get two games per ticket. After downing a couple cold ones at a nearby establishment, we made our way over to the arena. The George Mason fans were in full effect as clusters of yellow and green could be seen and heard as the close game against Villanova wound down. The best part may have been listening to CST contributor SamVox angrily chastise the fans (who he perceived as not being real Mason fans) for rooting for George Mason, inexplicably yelling "We have to play them next. I hope we don't lose to them!" We at CST love SamVox's passion, but have to wonder if he realized that we'd also have to play 'Nova if they won, so it didn't really matter who the fans rooted for. One of those teams was going to win. After the Bucks swatted away the Roadrunners from San Antonio, everyone exited the arena so that the evening games' crowd could enter. I have no idea how they got everyone out of the Q in time... but my bigger question is where did the evening crowd park considering every lot was full when I parked for the afternoon games? That will always be as big of a mystery to me as the creation of the universe.

2. The Butler Did It... Again
Is there a team with a more fitting nickname than the Butler Bulldogs? They don't have have the flash, the "athletes", the NBA-ready stars... but they have tenacity, the toughness, and the fight of a bulldog. Lead by ultra-composed 34 year old coach Brad Stevens, of who I am both fascinated and inspired by, Butler is now in their second straight Final Four after losing NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward after last year's magical run to the championship game. I know Butler is Cleveland State's rival in the Horizon league, but I can't help being a huge Butler Bulldog fan. I'm pulling for them to win it all.
No, that's not the student manager,
it's Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens

3. John Calipari Works His "Magic"
The very slick and slippery Coach "Cal"
Ohio State football coach, Jim Tressel is deservedly taking a lot of heat from the media lately for violating NCAA rules and lying about it. The guillotine may be set to fall on The Vest and while we wait to see what happens, I have to listen to the same media that has been crushing Tressel praise and fawn over John Calipari, who has won everywhere he's gone... and cheated (allegedly) everywhere too. While Calipari has not been found guilty of infractions, both the UMass and Memphis programs have been hit with sanctions following his exit. Where there's smoke there's fire.... and I have a hard time believing a basketball coach doesn't have an inkling that his star players are into something wrong.

4. OSU's Early Exit
SamVox has been known to be a Thad Matta detractor. A great recruiter, but a horrible Xs and Os guy says the CST Enigma. While I can't completely disagree, "horrible" is a strong word. I think the OSU loss to Kentucky boils down to something very simple... Kentucky made every big shot that they needed to make, and the Buckeyes were playing 2 on 5 on offense, as Buford, Lighty, and Craft were ice cold. Just between me all you CST fans - I'm developing a slight man-crush on Aaron Craft. I may have to purchase a Craft jersey as the feisty point guard may be my favorite player since Chris Jent and Jim Jackson. Anyway, back to the game... Three point sharpshooter,  Jon Diebler, who was hitting shots when had the chance, couldn't get a shot and freshman sensation Jared Sullinger had to work his ass off for every point, as the game plan seemed to be to force feed him inside until Kentucky cried uncle. I'm no coach, but I would have liked to have seen more of Dallas Lauderdale to match up physically with Josh Harrellson, who oddly reminds me of Sam the Eagle.

Kentucky's Josh Harrellson & Sam the Eagle - separated at birth?

5. Validating VCU
What's more amazing than Butler's run to it's second consecutive Final Four? How about their opponent - #11 seed VCU, a team that every single college basketball pundit said didn't deserve to even be in the tournament? VCU had to play a play-in... errrr Round 1.... game and have been rolling since. But this leads to an important question: Does the NCAA Tournament, as great as it is, truly prove who is the best team in the country? Basketball is game of runs... a team that's on a roll can beat almost any other team in any given game. Being single elimination and the randomness of seedings, the tournament oozes parity. College football's BCS Ranking System is criticized for being a terrible way to determine a champion. I for one, would rather crown a champion with a tournament, but if VCU... or Butler... or even Kentucky and Connecticut (who finished 9th in their conference) win the tournament, have we really proven that they are the best team in college basketball... or that they went on an incredible run to end the season? I'm not asking to change it... I love the tournament. I'd rather crown a champion on the field or court. But it is a thought.

6. Jim Calhoun's, uh Compliment?
Coach Calhoun opens up
Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun has been known to be crotchety at times. But listening to his post-game press conference following the Elite 8 victory, something he said struck me as odd. When asked why tournament phenom Kemba Walker should be College Basketball Player of the Year, Calhoun responded with (paraphrasing) "Because nobody has had less to work with than Kemba". I immediately did a double-take, wondering if I just heard that correctly. Way to throw the rest of the team under the bus Coach. I never heard a coach say something like that about the rest of his team when talking about the star player. How about something like "Kemba makes everyone else better"? Wow, I wonder what the other players thought when they heard that?

7. The Cavaliers Draft
Williams and Walker - The Cavs future?
I'm torn - everyone says Duke freshman Kyrie Irving is a can't miss star. Assuming he comes out, I was convinced the Cavs needed to take him. But then I saw Arizona's Derick Williams physically DOMINATE Duke. And I just wonder if the Cavs would be better off taking Williams, passing on Irving, and settling for Kemba Walker as their guard of the future with their second first round pick. Whatever the result, I don't see why people say this draft isn't going to have good players. There may not be a Carmelo or a certain local high school star, but there sure seems to be good players playing in the tournament - at least ones that would be top picks (assuming they all decide to go pro).

8. Summary and Prediction
The NCAA Tournament captivates a nation. It creates stars. It is the author of real life fairy tales. And most importantly, it signifies the end of a long winter and the beginning of spring. This year's tournament may be the most fascinating yet. Raise your hand if you had Butler vs. VCU in the Final Four. Anyone?

So who do I predict will be cutting down the nets as NCAA Champion?
My heart says Butler. My gut says UConn.

And if my prediction is as good as the rest of my bracket, then don't be surprised to see either VCU or Kentucky celebrating in the end.