Tuesday, April 03, 2007

March Madness & the National Title Game: Closing Thoughts

Well, it should come as no surprise to any serious college basketball fans that the Florida Gators took home the 2007 National Championship. A lot of office pools will be checking tie-breakers as the chalk, meaning the Gators of course, stood firm.

By now, you should know the majority of their accolades: first repeat champions since Duke in 91-92, first ever starting 5 to repeat, and the first SEC team to repeat since Kentucky back at the half-century mark in the 1900s.

What you will soon know, being that I watched every second of the game so I could sound like I know what I was talking about, were some of my other tournament and NCAA-related observations. I’ll call them my 2007 NCAA Tournament Top Ten. Clich├ęd…yet simplistic enough to work.

-Picked by the majority of pundits, myself included, this Gator squad was the most talented team from start to finish this season. Sure they encountered their typical SEC-hiccups, yet the Gators always played their best game against their best opponents. While some felt the tournament selection committee rewarded them too highly, perhaps solely on the merits of being the defending champs, with the easiest region and the overall #1-seed…the Gators took out two of the best teams the nation had to offer once they left the South Regional [UCLA & Ohio State].

#2. Fab Five
-The new “Fab Five” took out the “Thad Five”, never allowing their lead to dip any closer than 6 points in the final 30+ minutes of the game. While the Buckeyes never let things get out of control,
Florida never seemed to sweat or shift into any sort of panic mode. Al Horford was a master in the blocks, Corey Brewer had an electric first-half on both sides of the ball, Taurean Green hit two daggers to restore double-digit leads as he paced the Gators throughout the second-half with steady & heady play, and Lee Humphrey excelled from behind the arc (as he always seems to do). Even the guy’s ridiculous air ball lead to a pivotal three-point play (typical, isn’t it?) As for Mr. Noah, I’ll handle him a little later. And it won’t be very kind.

#3. #1 Pick
-Anyone who doesn’t want to draft Greg Oden at #1…is a moron. I love Kevin Durant as much as anyone, but you NEVER pass up the opportunity to draft a backend center…no less one WHO WANTS TO PLAY CENTER. Tonight’s loss by the Buckeyes has ZERO to do with Greg Oden. I won’t hear any arguments about him lingering back on top-of-the-key screens either, as Buckeyes guards never fought through them enough and Thad Matta obviously had that idea planned (which is surprising with the three-point shooting prowess of the Gators). You want numbers from a freshman? 25 points [10-15 fgs], 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks. He had several ferocious dunks and several monster blocks (the block on Brewer would’ve given Gus Johnson a hernia and a heart attack). Unfortunately, while it wasn’t his intent, a lot of the blocks ended up back in Gator hands and led to eventual crippling buckets. Let’s not forget the 38+ minutes he logged either. Try that at 7-foot and nearly 270 lbs. Greg Oden will leave
Columbus with nothing to be ashamed of. I will however be calling out his teammates…next.

#4. The “Others”
-No, this isn’t Lost. Instead, it’s me calling out a few choice-Buckeyes. While I understand this team is young, several key Buckeye players were completely absent from the world’s greatest stage. Yes, the limelight often gets the best of a lot of people. Especially since your first time is typically your only time. Ask Francisco Garcia, Jeff Green, Joey Graham, and a few others what the Final Four can do to you. Jamar Butler just plain stunk up the Georgia Dome tonight. He shot 1-7 from the field, with only a late prayer going in, and was nowhere near the inside of the net on any of his deep shot attempts. His defense was consistently lagging (that’s being friendly too) and I felt Matta made a key mistake not inserting Lighty or Cook, even for a brief stint, earlier in the game. Ron Lewis penetrated well and made some nice transition dunks, but was absent the entire Final Four. He never worked off of a screen and seemed unable to square up to the hoop. I was thoroughly disappointed in the 5th-year senior’s performance these past two games. Othella Hunter could use some tip drills…but he’s young and a little soft still. While Mike Conley Jr. dodged early foul trouble, he definitely got a peak into what a point guard should be for his team from Taurean Green (as I noted in my preview, ahem). Conley Jr., whether he stays or goes, will be an incredible talent…but was clearly the second best PG on the court tonight.

#5. Backing Down
-There are ways to effectively post-up and then back down your opponent. Want to see how to do it? Watch Larry Johnson at UNLV in the early 90s. Watch Sean May at UNC (especially that title-game performance vs.
Illinois). Watch Will Thomas, last season, at George Mason. You bring your body into your defender, absorb the pressure, wait for them to take a step back, and then lean into their body and balance your way into a 3-4 foot tip-in or jump-hook shot. Al Horford doesn’t do this. He backs you down, and I admire the physicality, and drops a shoulder deep into you. Chris Richard lowers the boom. Noah is afraid to do it when you realize you can stop him by holding your ground. Of course the refs didn’t decide this game, but after seeing plenty of highlights (and talking to Pay), the Butler game definitely showed why Horford will have to develop a new back-down method in the NBA. You can’t even do that against a bench-big in the pros.

#6. Coaching
-We don’t talk much about coaches at PHSports and I’m sticking to that…mostly. Except that Thad Matta has done a masterful job recruiting at
Ohio State and has the program a year or two away from being that consistent top-1o performer they were this year and most of last. As for Billy Donovan…stay at Florida. Kentucky is enticing, but it isn’t worth leaving what you have in Florida. Big men are easy to pluck in the Sunshine State and you have job security for life. For life. While Kentucky’s numbers and legacy are daunting, Donovan isn’t likely to depart from Gator-nation anytime soon.

#7. Joakim Noah
-#1 pick last year? A fool for not going? No. He’ll make his money and he has two national titles. Forget all the degree talk though. Please. As for Noah’s skills, I’m not sure what the hoopla was all about. He has zero offensive game, outside of tip-ins and screaming transition dunks. He rebounds pretty well, but not any better than a Paul Millsap (2006 2nd-rounder) or Dominic McGuire (2007 late-1st rounder, in my opinion). Sure, he’s got a lot of heart and loves to win…but he won’t be an NBA talent. He won’t develop an outside shot, as Horford has begun to do quite well, and lacks any physicality (there’s that word again). He cowered away from Oden and won’t bang with the big boys. It was a lot of fun blocking shots from George Mason and a softer UCLA team (don’t act like they were intensely physical last year). Ironically enough (especially with Julian Wright still sticking as a Jayhawk…for now) it seems that Noah could be drafted anywhere from #3 to #7. What can I say to that? I don’t like. A quick peak back into draft talk…my roommate calls Hansbrough the next Mark Madsen (a little ridiculous, although he has called so many people its unreal, including…pre-draft for all of themMonta Ellis, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Manu Ginobili, and Nenad Kristic– says he’s “like a Varejao, minus the hustle and lot more growl.”). I’ll say 8 and 5 for a shorter than 6-year career. Hate? SURE!

#8. One Shinning Moment
-Overall grade for the tournament: D. Hate? Nope. Name the great moments? Maynor over Duke. Lewis over Xavier. Jeff Green over Vandy.
Florida’s repeat. Georgetown’s comeback. Maybe for half of those. No true buzzer-beat, no true Cinderella, inconsistent refing, sloppy CBS coverage in-studio and behind the mic, and a real lack of superstar play. The Final Four was a relative bore with a so-so title game. They can’t all be great…but the last few years haven’t been much fun. We all love March Madness…yet it hasn’t been so maddening as of late.

#9. Top 5
Memphis selects Greg Oden. Boston picks Kevin Durant. Milwaukee selects Joakim Noah. Charlotte takes Brendan Wright. Phoenix, via Atlanta, steals Al Horford. There’s your top 5, as I see it, right now. Julian Wright can muck this up quickly.

#10. Final Thoughts
-No, I won’t be lame enough to make a 2008 prediction. I did take
Florida over OSU in the pre-season…but what does that mean anyways? {I had UCLA and UNC rounding out my useless pre-season Final Four). I had Florida as my national champ on my sheet of integrity (beating UCLA and UNC, who would’ve beaten A&M). In the end, it’s been a solid 2007 for college basketball. Conference tournaments were pretty solid, the VCU-upset was amazing for me, and Selection Sunday (despite no Cuse somehow) was a lot of drama to build up to. A lot of props needs to go to Pay for his amazing work prepping brackets, running play-by-play, and bringing home rock solid analysis. It takes a lot of hard work to make up for my ranting and rambling.

This closes out my college basketball talk for the next few months.

Nevertheless, plenty of good stuff looms: NFL Draft, NBA Playoffs, MLB kicking off, and the NBA Draft. Not to mention a certain Tradition Unlike Any Other..

Until next time…

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