Throwback Thursday to NCAA Tournament Photos

Sample size of the photos I shot in the first and second rounds from Indianapolis.

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An open letter to Coach John Calipari

Dear Coach John Calipari,DSC_1224

I know you don’t need another guy in the media (or loser blogger) telling you what to do. You’re tired of it I’m sure, or have developed the ability to not give a bleeping Saul Smith about what others think of you. Probably a bit of both.
You’ve done everything reasonable Kentucky fans (I’m one of the 15 percent) could have hoped for since your hire and so much more.

There’s nothing more for you to prove at Kentucky.

Please, go to the NBA.

It’s not just the best choice for yourself; it’s the best choice for Kentucky fans. Other friends I have in Big Blue Nation were not enjoying Kentucky games this year. Despite all the winning, any tight contest for the Cats turned into agony for the Commonwealth. Making it worse, all the winning made 49 states angry at our Cats and our fans.

Losing to Wisconsin was disappointing. Perhaps even worth shedding a tear or starting small fires. Wish I was joking about that last part. The Wisconsin loss though provided Kentucky faithful something else.

Relief.

Relief that we no longer have to sit through a game as if all the furniture in our homes are made of eggshells. Relief that fans will no longer have to defend their favorite team to other fan bases who just want to see them fail. Relief that we no longer have to listen to commentators make a big deal about Kentucky struggling during the course of a game as if it were a supernatural miracle. Relief that we no longer have to hear talking heads rant about how “insert school name here” can beat the Cats. Relief from those saying “the SEC is weak” when winning on the road in any league is challenging.

Kentucky was the only team networks promoted because they knew it was the only team they knew would drum up interest. Kentucky or the field was a serious question because no one cared who the field was. Sure, there were candidates but the “who” never mattered. It was only the “when,” and the “if.”

Coach Cal, your team wasn’t a part of the college basketball season. Your team WAS the college basketball season.
It’s hard to think back to when that wasn’t the case. So I looked back at your introductory press conference you had in 2009. It was six years ago but you look over a decade younger then.

Everything you hoped to do back then you completed.

You got talent to come to Lexington.
You achieved No. 1 rankings and 1 seeds.
You took Kentucky to multiple Final Fours.
You added to the championship banners.
And of course, you proved everyone wrong. This includes skeptics like myself.

Skeptics that thought all of the tournament banners you won at Kentucky would eventually be vacated.
Skeptics that thought you would fail to coach toe-to-toe with the best in clutch situations.
Skeptics that thought you could not win a championship with the bulk of the roster being freshmen.
Skeptics that thought you could not develop players in a year.
Skeptics that thought you would fall on your face.

You proved them wrong but now there’s nothing left to do here.

This entire season was your team fighting to hang on to a title it hadn’t won yet. Everyone knew you had the best team but the best team doesn’t always win the tournament. You knew that too well with how your squad as an eight seed nearly won it all a year ago.

Losing is part of basketball, it’s part of sports. Your team though didn’t react too well to it Saturday. Players walked off the court without shaking hands and one was caught on the microphone whispering obscenities in the postgame presser.

The fact is Coach, even if Kentucky had survived Wisconsin Saturday night, most of the country would have been yelling for Duke Monday night. People would rather see Duke win if it meant our team lost. I never thought that would be possible.

Kentucky is now the black hat. It will be as long as other fan bases have Coach Cal to target. You really want another six years of that?DSC_1253

I don’t think you do. At the open practice Friday you had your team walk off the court waving to fans with 15 minutes left in the hour long session. It was bold, to say you didn’t need the 15 minutes of court time. Jim Nantz was waiting to interview you after the practice like he did with the other three Final Four coaches and I can tell he was not happy you left without saying a word. Then again, I’m assuming you don’t care and probably needed a break from the media. I’m betting you are over this crap.

You’re over with the media analyzing everything you do and with presenting yourself as an image to appeal to the media and the fans. Let’s face it, your interviews sound more like campaign ads than basketball sound bites. How long can you do that before it takes a toll?

In the NBA you’ll still have media obligations but you will not have to worry about representing an entire state. You can be yourself. Plus, people won’t accuse you of paying players. Everyone of them is supposed to be paid.

You’ve done everything you can at Kentucky, now you need to move on.

Just make sure you give us a chance to say goodbye and most importantly…

Say thank you.

What is the most important stat in NCAA tournament games?

If there was one mistake I made this year with my bracket it was picking the wrong statistic to be my leading indicator for predictions. That was defense.
The result was picking Kentucky to beat Virginia in the title game. Whoops.
As you can see in the top 50 defenses, Virginia and Kentucky are at the top. While Kentucky and Wisconsin made the Final Four with elite defensesFinal Four Indy, Duke was outside the top 100 and Michigan State was outside the top 80.

Think offense is the key stat? Think again. The top 50 is a mixed bag of teams who did well in the tournament and teams who flopped like Davidson and Iowa State.

Three-point shooting? Only two teams in the top 20 of 3-point field-goal percentage even made it to the Sweet 16 in Gonzaga and Utah.

This leaves the stat coaches talk about all the time. Turnovers.

While it’s not overwhelming, the quality of teams in the top 50 is significant. Turnover margin was the key to getting West Virginia to the Sweet 16 and Georgia State’s big upset of Baylor.
Georgia State was plus 15 in turnovers in its upset of Baylor, turning over the Bears 21 times. Baylor’s rebounding and defense was not good enough to make up for it.

West Virginia was plus 5 in turnover margin against Buffalo and was plus 13 vs. Maryland. The problem for WVU is it met Kentucky in the Sweet 16; a team that also forces miscues because of its length and size. The Mountaineers were minus 3 against the Wildcats and that contributed to a 78-39 drumming.

Virginia Commonwealth is known for its pressure and forcing mistakes, but Ohio State was strong in the turnover game too. The result was the Buckeyes winning in overtime as the two squads ended with 11 turnovers each. Having the same number of turnovers as VCU is quite the accomplishment.

Wichita State shot a dreadful 15.4 % from 3 against Indiana but edged out a win thanks to plus six in turnover margin.

The Louisville Cardinals are always good in the turnover game as that’s Rick Pitino’s forte. An upset from UC-Irvine appeared likely but Louisville survived courtesy of a plus five in turnover margin. It was the only team stat the Cardinals clearly controlled. The turnover edge nearly propelled the Cardinals to the Final Four as lost to the Spartans in overtime in the East Regional Final. Louisville was just plus three in that game.

Remember the First Four? BYU came in as an offensive powerhouse and shot an insanely 15 of 29 from 3. Problem though was Ole Miss turning BYU over 15 times to its 7.

It’s also interesting that among the teams with the fewest turnovers per game you’ll find Wisconsin at No. 2. It’s an advantage that might neutralize the defense of Kentucky a tiny bit.

It’s not unanimous, but turnover margin has been a key stat throughout the tournament. Six of the Elite Eight are in the top 75 of the stat with Michigan State being the only true anomaly at No. 215.

Now I wish I could have just reworked the bracket with that in mind.

Conferences that need a strong NCAA Tournament

Those players walk over the logo the same way the NCAA walks over the conference.

Those players walk over the logo the same way the NCAA walks over the conference.

For some leagues, the NCAA Tournament is the only chance it has to build a reputation. That means the pressure is on these mid-major conferences.

5. Missouri Valley
Northern Iowa is a Final Four sleeper and Wichita State is also getting plenty of love in bracket pools. But what if they falter? Wyoming has potential to beat Northern Iowa in a classic 12/5 upset. Wichita State has traditional powers in Indiana and Kansas in the first weekend. Indiana is a top 10 3-point shooting team and can beat anyone because of that. Playing Kansas in the round of 32 is a dream for Shockers fans but with that dream comes pressure. This is a huge week for the Missouri Valley.

4. West Coast Conference
With BYU going out to Ole Miss in the first four it’s down to Gonzaga to carry the league, but the Bulldogs are use to that. The program has been criticized for not having the deep tourney runs to mirror its regular season success. The road is not easy with Davidson and Iowa State lurking, but this might be the best team Mark Few has had. It’s put up or shut up time for Gonzaga and the WCC.

3. Atlantic 10

Next from Atlantic 10 on Vimeo.

Dayton was a lightning rod for criticism for hosting a First Four game against Boise State. The fact that the committee felt the Flyers were the last team in the field screams disrespect. Especially with Davidson and VCU listed as 10 and 7 seeds.
The Atlantic 10’s “Who Wants Next Campaign” is in its second year and hopes to improve the perception of the league. The public relations firm in charge, 160over90, created the video above.

“Telling the story of the grittiness and uncompromising work ethic of the A-10, we’ve taken the ‘Next’ brand narrative to another level,” said Brendan Quinn, Creative Director at 160over90. “Highlighting the conference’s relentless commitment to advancing, this spot puts the spotlight directly on the hard work of the players. The hard work that starts in driveways, playgrounds, and gyms, and pays off in late March. The A-10 teams in the tournament are ready to make some noise. They know Next is now.”

Next may also be next year instead. VCU and Davidson will have a tough time getting to the Sweet 16 with Arizona and Gonzaga in the way. Dayton, the team who carried the A-10 in the tourney last year, may be the league’s best bet for a deep run yet again.

2. Mountain West

The Mountain West was trashed in an article on Grantland as a league to avoid in making picks.

“Until they can prove there’s any substance behind the hype, avoid MWC teams. This year, that means San Diego State (again), Boise State (somehow playing on the road against Dayton in the First Four), and Wyoming (playing a superior version of itself in Northern Iowa).”

That’s harsh, and it’s also all the ammunition the MWC needs to know this is a big tournament for its reputation. With Boise State losing to Dayton, the pressure is even higher on the remaining teams.

1. American Athletic Conference
The AAC had two bubble teams miss the field in Temple and Tulsa with the conference champion listed at a 6 seed. This is after the year UConn won the title. Damage control falls to Cincinnati and SMU in the tournament. Both teams are in tough positions for a round of 32 matchup in Kentucky and Iowa State. While proving the committee wrong is important, I doubt the AAC will be able to make much noise this time around.

Listening to Larry Brown and his disappointment about Temple and Tulsa shows just how real the situation is for the AAC.

My 2015 March Madness Picks

Last year’s bracket did fine considering it was a crazy year. Picking Mercer to beat Duke was enough credibility for me to roll my bracket on the internet again.

I have Kentucky winning it all and that sounds boring I know. The Wildcats are just that good. Sure, Kentucky will be tested (I have them playing Wisconsin in the semifinals and Virginia in the title game), but they should pass those tests. This Kentucky team is obviously superior to the team that scrapped past Wisconsin a year ago and came up short in the title game with UConn.

Virginia was the team I struggled with the most as I don’t know how healthy it will be. I just think the Cavaliers have gone too far to have another season end before the Final Four, though Michigan State and even Belmont could give them problems.

To the picks.

Midwest

My Midwest is crazy outside of Kentucky rolling through. Valpo is a solid team as I have it moving on to the Sweet 16. The Crusaders can defend and shoot 3s and that is a lethal combo. Texas is another surprise team here as the Longhorns are among the leaders in blocks in rebounds. When you look at their losses you see that most came to good Big 12 teams on the road and at Kentucky. Wichita State is the next hidden gem in the region as the Shockers have been waiting for a shot at Kansas for a long time. No way they let this slip.

In contrast the West is more predictable.

West

The East is about Virginia staying healthy. I added some upsets from the winner of Boise State/Dayton and Louisville having another deep run.

East

The South can be anyone but I like Utah as it is one of the few squads who can defend and score. This is also Gonzaga’s best chance at a deep tournament run. For a good upset, I’m going with Eastern Washington to shoot the 3 over a bigger Georgetown team.

South

1st round NCAA tourney games to love and hate

The first round is all about upsets and mid-majors getting their chance. Sometimes the committee enables the upsets and other times they deny them. Here are some examples.

Love: 13 Seed Eastern Washington vs. 4 Seed Georgetown
Georgetown is becoming the punching bag for Cinderella teams in the past few years (VCU and Florida Gulf Coast) and Eastern Washington gets crack at extending the streak. The team strength of the Hoyas is protecting the rim but the Eagles are a top 10 3-point shooting team and can circumvent the size of the Hoyas. That makes this interesting and a must watch as the opportunity for the upset or a close game is there.

Hate: 12 Seed Wyoming vs. 5 Seed Northern Iowa
See the problem here? Both these mid-majors could top a power conference team but have been denied that opportunity with this pairing. I love Northern Iowa but it would not benefit the exposure and prestige of the program by beating Wyoming. Wish this game was against a Texas or an Indiana team so that the nation would respect UNI more for after a win.

Love: 15 Seed Belmont vs. 2 Seed Virginia
Virginia is one of the best defensive college basketball teams you’ll ever see, but tiny Belmont of the Ohio Valley Conference can score, score, score. Belmont is a top 50 offense and 3-point shooting team. If the Bruins heat up from the field, this little 15 vs. 2 bracket buster could become a very real.

Hate: 8 Seed North Carolina State vs. 9 Seed LSU
Some 8/9 games are compelling but this is not one of them. LSU just lost to a 14-19 Auburn team in its first game of the SEC tournament. NC State was eviscerated by Duke in the ACC tournament in a game that was never competitive. The winner will probably get Villanova but I would rather pass on this game involving two teams combining for 23 losses on the year.

Love: 13 Seed UC Irvine vs. 4 Seed Louisville
Welcome to the block party! Both UC Irvine and Louisville are in the top 50 in blocks per game. The Anteaters have a 7’6” center in Mamadou Ndiaye and if you have a guy like that you have a chance. Louisville is a strong defensive team but UC Irvine can shoot the 3. That’s enough intrigue for me.

Hate: 7 Seed Iowa vs. 10 Seed Davidson
You have no idea how hard it was to write that. How is Davidson the underdog here? The Wildcats went 14-4 in the Atlantic 10 and was rewarded with a 10 seed? Iowa is a 7 seed despite losing to bottom of the conference Penn State team in the Big Ten tournament. The only way this game is worth watching is if Davidson takes to Iowa and blows it out to rectify the poor seeding from the committee.

Cinderellas of the 2015 NCAA Tournament

Selection Sunday is two days away and that means it’s time to see what little schools have the ability to make big waves in March Madness. These are schools from one-bid leagues or have lacked television time. Note Gonzaga, the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West and the Atlantic-10 are not on this list as they should be part of the big boys now.

If the slipper fits, you must advance to the Sweet 16.

If the slipper fits, you must advance to the Sweet 16.

North Florida: Atlantic Sun Tournament Champion
The North Florida Ospreys played most of their non-conference games on the road and lost most of those as a result but it did beat Purdue. North Florida is in the top 50 in blocks giving it some rim protection thanks to forward Demarcus Daniels. The Ospreys strength though is the 3-point line as they are in the top 50 in shooting percentage and defending the 3. Junior Beau Beech is 6’8” but has made 83 3s this year and is assisted with 80 more from guard Trent Mackey. North Florida’s 75.7 point average is in the top 25 scoring offenses in the nation. A team that can shoot the 3, defend the 3, and rim protect can definitely win a game in March.

Valparaiso: Horizon League Champion
Valparaiso with a top 55 RPI and 28-5 would have been a bubble team for an at-large but thankfully the Crusaders don’t have to worry about that with the automatic bid. Coach Bryce Drew said after his squad beat Green Bay in the tourney final that he hopes to have a better matchup this time. Two years ago, Valpo had to face Michigan State and it was not a good fit. The Crusaders may be more versatile this time as they rank in the top 50 in defense, blocks and 3-point percentage. Valpo holds opponents under 60 points a game and 6’10” senior center Vashil Fernandez averages three blocks a game. If Valpo plays a team that likes to keep the pace down, it should be able to hang around and even knock them off.

New Mexico State: WAC
The Aggies have not won the WAC tournament yet but will be a headache for a team in the first round if they do. New Mexico State tore through the WAC regular season with a 13-1 record. It’s all about defense for the Aggies as they hold opponents under 60 points per game as well. Defending the 3-point line is a big part why as teams shoot less than 30% percent from behind the arc against them. That’s just as good as Virginia and close behind Kentucky. New Mexico State doesn’t bail out offenses either as it is in the top 50 fewest fouls. Rebounding is another team strength so the only problems occur on the offensive end. If the Aggies can heat up just a little from the field it should be an interesting first round game.

BYU: WCC
The Cougars are on the bubble but they deserve to get in as they are a powder keg waiting to explode on the offensive side. BYU averages 83.6 points per game, and that’s good for No. 2 in the country behind Northwestern State. Contributing to scoring is BYU’s No. 5 ranking in free-throw percentage at 76.8%. The Cougars are also sport a plus 4.9 rebound margin giving them some support on the glass. If BYU can draw fouls, it has a chance to pull off wins in the Big Dance.

Stephen F. Austin: Southland
Stephen F. Austin is still fighting for the automatic bid in the Southland tournament so nothing is set yet. With that said the Lumberjacks are scary with a 27-4 record. A top 15 offense at 79 points per game is contributed from six players who average roughly 40 percent from 3. The big strength though is in forcing turnovers and converting them into easy baskets. The Lumberjacks are in the top 20 in turnover margin and pull off eight steals a game. If Stephen F. Austin can get in and play a team with an inexperienced back-court, the Lumberjacks could be on their way to round two and possibly the Sweet 16.

Honorable mentions: Old Dominion, UC-Irvine and Eastern Washington