The first shock came shortly after 3pm Pacific Sunday when the four #1 seeds were unveiled on national TV on CBS. Despite winning the Pac-10 Tournament and assuring themselves a huge lead for the #1 ranking in both final regular season polls, the Cardinal were revealed to be the third top-seed of the four. There was a reasonable case to be made for Kentucky for that top overall seed. They were the only #1-seed candidate to come out of this past weekend on a truly hot roll, winning nine straight including the always difficult SEC Tournament. Second best RPI in the country with the best winning streak of the top eight RPI teams and 14 wins against the RPI Top 50 - give the Wildcats their due.
But for Duke to take the second overall seed ahead of Stanford's third, despite the Blue Devils dropping in their last game on Sunday to then-unranked Maryland - that was a big head scratcher. For years we have been told by the NCAA Selection Committee that they value finish down the stretch, and this was the great Achilles heel for the Durham dandies. They lost four games in their last 10, which is the "down the stretch" number used by the committee. By comparison, you have to dip all the way to RPI #10 Texas to find another team with a 6-4 record in their final 10. Texas is a #3 seed, interestingly enough in Duke's bracket. What a wonderfully garnished little morsel handed to Coach K.
Duke, seemingly, no matter what happens will be the number one team in the nation," said a bewildered Josh Childress Sunday shortly after the brackets were released. "No matter what I watched or where I read, they were said to be a lock for a number one [seed]. Why?"
This is a good question, asked by a verifiable student-athlete. Stanford lost one game all year and is the only top seed to hold a perfect record this year against the RPI Top 50. Their single loss came on the road without their best frontcourt player, who returned to action for Stanford's final three games and demonstrated how much better this team is with him in the lineup. The truth is that Duke was not materially penalized for their Sunday loss, as the lazy committee overlooked that final flaw and chose to not completely reshuffle the #1 seeds. Via similar sloth, Wisconsin was left as a #6 seed despite taking the Big 10 Tournament crown less than an hour before the bracket show on CBS. The inconsistency, of course, is that Maryland was sent up like a shooting star to a #4 seed with that late result.
Find me a #4 seed with a losing conference record like Maryland's (7-9) and I'll buy you a beer.
And so the Stanford fanbase was up in arms on Selection Sunday. How can the ACC bias be so far out of whack that Duke is held above Stanford in the #1 seedings, and that East Coast conference claim five of the top 16 overall teams in the Tournament seeding?
Maybe the better question is why do we care so much? The quick retort from an incensed Cardinalmaniac™ is the vaunted S-curve. In theory, the Selection Committee ranks the teams from 1 through 65 and puts them on a curve that gives favorable matchups to the very top of the top seeds. The #1 overall seed should get the #8 overall seed as its two-seed for an Elite Eight game, while that team gets the toughest projected Sweet 16 matchup, the #9 overall team as its three-seed. If seeds all play to form, you have "softer" teams in the second weekend of the Tournament if you are a higher #1 seed.
The two-seed that Stanford got in its bracket is none other that Connecticut, the most feared team in America and a strong pick to win this entire NCAA Tournament by many pundits. UConn brings back the bulk of their weapons that unseated Stanford from the postseason last March, including All-Americans Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, plus one of the best freshmen in the nation in Charlie Villaneuva. If you believe that the above S-curve was implemented, then the Huskies are the #6 overall team in this tournament. Should Stanford and Duke have been flip-flopped in the overall seedings, then the Cardinal would have a much less fear-inspiring Mississippi State as their projected Regional Final opponent.
But recent evidence says that the #1 vs #2 matchup in the fourth round is not a highly probable event. For sure, it is not occurring as often as it used to. In the last five years (1999-2003) of the NCAA Tournament, there have been a total of just four #1 vs #2 matchups in the Elite Eight. In those five years, a total of just six #2 seeds (out of 20) played against anybody in the Regional Final.
Go back the previous five years (1994-1998) and you will find that there was seemingly less parity in college basketball. During that span there were 10 times that the Regional Finals pitted the top two seeds against each other - exactly half of the possible games. #2 seeds were a fantastic bet back then to make it to the fourth round, with 14 out of 20 of those teams making it to the final game of the second weekend.
The evidence is pretty strong that upsets are increasing in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and it is hard to remember a year of as much prolonged parity as what we saw in this 2003-04 regular season. The odds of Stanford and UConn facing off are not that high. So take a moment to untwist your undies over that possible matchup.
"A number one seed - that's great. We're pleased to be staying West and going to Seattle," comments Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery. "What a one-seed is - it's a reward for a job well done. I don't know what else we could have done. I think the kids expected to be a one-seed; they expected to be in Seatle."
Stanford gets its wish, and should enjoy a West Coast comfort advantage in this postseason. The two through five seeds all have to travel across the country to get to Phoenix, should they advance through this weekend's first two rounds. Stanford will have flights under two hours for both Seattle and Phoenix, and no layovers.
But before we look ahead to the second weekend, where Stanford would project to play against five-seed Syracuse or four-seed Maryland, we have three teams with the Cardinal in the Seattle pod this weekend. In a juicy twist of irony, the #1 nationally ranked Stanford Cardinal face a team from the Home of the Alamo in their first of four games to reach that same destination. The University of Texas at San Antonio rolls into tomorrow's opening game at the Key Arena on a nice hot streak, winning their last seven games after an up-and-down 13-12 start to the season. Though a #16 seed has never upset a top seed in a tournament opening game, there have been scares and it would only be fitting in this year of parity for that unprecedented upset to pop.
The aptly named Roadrunners are an undersized team who play a three guard lineup including a 6'1" three-man, Justin Harbert. That is so unconventional as to make your head dizzy thinking about the matchups between Harbert and Josh Childress. The obvious thought is to post Childress up six feet from the basket, but that is not something you have seen with even a hint of regularity this year.
"We aren't going to change our stripes at this point in the season," Mike Montgomery says of the quick-turnaround nature of NCAA preparation.
Typically the Roadrunners play a frontcourt of 6'6" John Millsap and 6'7" LeRoy Hurd, who is the Southland Conference Player of the Year. But they can move Millsap to the bench and play a bigger lineup with 6'11" big man Anthony Fuqua in the middle for some size. But even their "banger" is a lean and long raw 220-pound player in his third year of play. In contrast to the big men Stanford has seen in the last 21 Pac-10 games, he does not have the low post skills and go-to tendencies you can scout. Fuqua does lead the team in offensive rebounds and blocks, but he is the most aggressive defensive player who can pick up fouls in bunches.
Barring a somewhat improbable streak of strong play from Fuqua, you can expect the Roadrunners to play small and give Stanford size advantages and four positions on the floor. The flip side is the quickness that this team can bring, with no hesitation against an up-tempo style of play. They have scored more than 80 points 12 times this year, and five times over 90 points.
When you hear about a small, quick team like this, you probably have visions of a pressing and trapping defense, but that has not been their style this year.
"They're not as quick as Washington, but they're athletic enough," Montgomery says in comparing the Roadrunners to the Huskies who supplied the lone loss for his Cardinal this year. "They have a couple zones but primarily play man, and the team moves well. They have good rotation inside and provide good backside help."
"When quickness affects us, it's if it comes at all places," the coach continues. "You make bad passes or quick shots. We ended up getting some pretty good shots against Washington - not so much off our defensive stops but on their defensive breakdowns."
Montgomery is expecting that UTSA is not going to bring a lot of quick pressure, though. They are such a small team that any breakdowns could give walk-in-the-park lay-ups to Stanford's big men in the paint. The Cardinal coaching staff in scouting this game are expecting the Roadrunners to play more zone than their average gameplan. If so, this could put a premium on slashing drives from the Stanford perimeter players through gaps in the zone. You saw Matt Lottich step that up last Saturday; Chris Hernandez has been driving the lane a lot the last few weeks; and Josh Childress is most certainly an attacking player. We just don't know how well his high dribbles can hold up when navigating maze of six-foot guards with their active hands.
On the other end of the floor, Stanford is placing serious attention toward LeRoy Hurd, the 6'7" 215-pound transfer from Miami (FL). He plays like a four-man but has tremendous offensive versatility.
"He can cause problems because he can go away from the basket but big enough to go inside," the 18-year Stanford coach explains. "If we go small [with Nick Robinson], he could post up. If we go big [with Justin Davis], they could drive on us."
Hurd averages 19.4 points per game but scored 21.1 per game in his last 16. He can step out and shoot the three-pointer (39.3%) but also drive the lane and score or draw the foul (6.8 FT attempts per game, 78.4% conversion). Hurd is also an excellent rebounder, averaging 8.2 boards per game. The concern is that he will take over the game and put UTSA on his back, which is something Mike Montgomery always looks to avoid in any opponent.
"We hate to see anybody put up big numbers against us, " the king Card offers. "He by no means is their only guy, but you never like to see any one person beat you."
That is Monty Speak, telling us that Stanford's defense will have extra attention on Hurd. The Cardinal will take their chances with smaller players of medium abiility beating them at the other spots on the floor.
Given that no #16 has ever beaten a #1 in the first round of the men's tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, we don't feel it is too out of line to give a sneak peak at future opponents. Should the Card advance to Saturday's game, they will face the winner of Alabama and Southern Illinois.
The Crimson Tide will elicit all sorts of Mike Price and "Roll Tide" jokes, should the Card matchup with them Saturday, but this athletic SEC team will not be afraid of their top-ranked opponents. After all, Stanford has fallen twice in the second round in the three previous years that they have been #1 seeds. The Tide will also exude confidence in their athleticism, which will be hailed by media talking heads as the recipe for a ripe Stanford upset.
But Alabama is woefully thin inside, starting a three-forward lineup that has a 6'7" sophomore as their five-man. Their tallest starter is 6'11" but weighs just two bucks. They love to shoot the three-pointer, and how the longball falls is as good an indicator as any for their chances in a game. Their outside attempts and percentages are pretty comparable to an Arizona, as a reference point.
Kennedy Winston is the big man on campus in Tuscaloosa, and his name rings a bell for Cardinalmaniacs™ from the 2002 recruiting class. He originally signed with Cal, and would have been a monster for them these past two years, but the 2001-02 Mr. Basketball in the Yellowhammer State wiggled his way out of his Letter of Intent after he got cold feet. The bumbling Bears could have dearly used this do-everything wing. He can fill up a stat sheet with scoring inside and outside, as well as tough defense and clutch rebounding. Should he battle with Josh Childress on Saturday, it could be a highly acclaimed NBA preview. Scouts would be all over that matchup.
But history has taught us that nine-seeds actually hold a slight advantage over eight-seeds in that first round game, so you should watchout for the Salukis of Southern Illinois as a possible opponent for Saturday. They are famous for winning 17 straight games from January 7 through the end of February before dropping a 16-point loss at Northern Iowa. Like Stanford, that loss in their final Missouri Valley Conference game spoiled a dream perfect season in the conference. Unlike Stanford, SIU laid an egg in their conference postseason tournament, bowing out in the semifinals to Southwest Missouri State. Were it not for these late losses, the Salukis would be enjoying a higher seed. That either makes them a dangerous team, punished for their recent hiccup, or it underscores a skid they have hit.
While Hurd is the head honcho for USTA and Winston wows you for 'Bama, 6'3" shooting guard Darren Brooks truly is everything for this Saluki squad. He is just one of four players in Division I who lead their team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Brooks also tops his team in steals. He is the only player on the Southern Illinois squad to score in double figures, at 16.2 points per game, though the remainder of this team is pretty balanced. They play a legit nine-man rotation that has averaged better than 13 minutes per game in conference action.
While Alabama and USTA can shoot the rock from outside, SIU is a horrible three-point shooting team. This is the game where you could see Stanford zone it up and really dare the Salukis to beat them from outside. Look for Montgomery to switch up defenses at timeouts and beffudle the MVC challenger.
Should Stanford push through these first two rounds and make it to Phoenix for the Regionals, you would most likely anticipate Maryland or Syracuse, who happen to be the last two National Champions. They also happen to be led by two of my least favorite coaches in college basketball. But if you want to exact a measure of punishment, there is no more pleasant whipping boy I can envision than Jim Boeheim. It is absolutely revolting that this smarmy little crome-domed troll won a NC last year. It also turns our collective Cardinal stomach when he takes his little jabs at Stanford - as if some redheaded stepchild program in the national basketball picture.
As much as I loathe Boeheim, he has a team that would matchup interestingly with Stanford. Gerry McNamara can shoot toe-to-toe with Matt Lottich, though the Syracuse guard is now playing the point for the Orangemen. And for the record, he's the kid who actually won the championship game last year, despite all the Carmello Anthony hype about that 2003 title. Cuse also has all-world Hakim Warrick at the four spot, who plays Josh Childress minutes but with even bigger stats. He has a slight build like Childress but does his work inside like a Justin Davis. They also bring a true seven-footer to the table, which for once puts Stanford at a size advantage in the low post.
Maryland to me is a paper tiger. They saw their RPI shoot up as they played more and more ACC teams, even as they lost. The Terps never won an ACC road game against an NCAA Tournament team until March. Then they won six straight over two weeks, turning themselves somehow from a bubble team into a four-seed. Huh?
Guard John Gilchrist became a household name with the win over duke in the ACC Tournament final, but they have two players I like better. SF Nik Caner-Medley has athleticism and explosiveness that compares favorably with Matt Haryasz, if you can believe it. He is inconsistent, but can really shine when he is on. C Jamar Smith is a bigtime defensive presence on the boards and blocking shots, though can be offensively disappointing. This team loves to run and they can board like crazy.
In other assorted bracket ruminations:
- As soon as the brackets were released, everyone was talking about the possible Duke-Arizona matchup in the second round. Typically a Final Four battle, this unprecedented #1 vs #9 game would have every eye in the nation glued. I don't honestly know how to handicap the Seton Hall-Arizona game necessary to setup the Saturday spectacular, but I do not believe for a second that the Wildcats could take that game. Though blessed with tremendous athletes at all five starting positions, Zona's play the last several weeks has been worse than awful. They have lost almost all semblance of offense, and play almost completely independent of each other on the floor. Duke's defense could suffocate the Cats unless three-point shooting boosts their patented scoring runs to keep them alive. More likely, though, I think Arizona dies a gory death in this one. It could be bad enough to prompt a Lute Olson retirement...
- I like Pittsburgh's early road in the East Rutherford bracket. Wisconsin may have been underseeded after winning the Big 10 Tournament and in a sense is a "dangerous" six-seed, but I can't allow myself to give any respect to anybody in the Big 10 right now. Michigan State is the only team with talent from that conference, and they still are a Jekyll and Hyde team. Pitt versus Oklahoma State in the Sweet Sixteen would be an outstanding game to watch with their style of play. Bring the paramedics... and body bags.
- Speaking of Michigan State, it's pretty hard to pass up Nevada in that #10 vs #7 upset. Trent Johnson has had a career year, and we remember how he excelled as a bench coach at Stanford with Mike Montgomery. If the Wolfpack pull off that win, look for Johnson's star to rise even further for various coaching vacancies.
- In that same St. Louis bracket, it is tough to not put Gonzaga and Georgia Tech against each other in the Sweet Sixteen. The Jackets are a very trendy pick all of a sudden, after they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and ended a gargantuan 41-game home winning streak for Duke. But people forget how uneven this team played for most of the last two months. Tech matched a win each week with a loss for a long stretch, until they upset the Blue Devils in Durham. They have fantastic athletes and one of the best scorers/shooters in America in B.J. Elder. The Jackets have the best bench highlight film guy in the nation in Isma'il Muhammad, but they are soft inside and can be pretty bad offensively at times. This is a team that employs the old Kentucky strategy of mass substitutions for fresh legs and hellacious defensive intensity. A balanced team can beat that, and I think Gonzaga is one of the most balanced offenses in the nation. Their frontcourt could destroy Tech in the paint, and Blake Stepp is a nice veteran to run the offense against an intimidating GT defense.
- If they can both get this far, pray for a St. Joseph's vs. Wake Forest matchup in the third round. Jameer Nelson appears to have run away with the title of the nation's top point guard, but Chris Paul is eye-popping. Though just a freshman, Paul is seasoned after the ACC crucible and is ready for an NCAA run. I have to believe for Wake to make a serious run in this tournament, though, junior Vytas Danelius has to get his head right and play big. He has been missing in action too many times, and lets failures or fouls rattle him too much.
- I honestly may have been more impressed with Washington in their Pac-10 Tournament title game loss to Stanford then in their win a week earlier. The Cardinal's defense was suffocating, but I honestly don't think many (if any) teams in the country can defend quite as well as this Stanford team - when they are tuned in. The Huskies have a lot of playmakers but need their three-point shots to go down. Critical element in the scouting report: get all over Tre Simmons when he drains a three-point basket. He likes to run those off in bunches, and his teammates recognize when he has the hot hand. Just ask Stanford, who never recovered from his quick nine points outside the arc.
- Naming these four brackets for the regional host cities is as dumb an idea as I can remember from the NCAA. And that says a lot for an organization famous for its head-scratching policies. How the heck do you say "the East Rutherford region" with a straight face? The pundits at ESPN have had plenty of fun taking swipes at this new nomenclature, but the NCAA needs to get embarrassed by their official broadcast partner, CBS. Somebody pay off Jim Nantz to poke fun here and there.
- Speaking of CBS guys poking fun, Billy Packer almost finally endeared himself to me (I said "almost") by his attacks on St. Joe's of late. I admit I actually looked a little fondly upon the Hawks after the huge scare they put in Stanford three years ago in San Diego, when Jameer Nelson was a freshman with already-evident star quality. But Phil Martelli has handled winning this year worse than probably any coach I can remember in college basketball. He is defensive and insecure, and he comes off like a jerk more often than he realizes. Yes, he can be refreshing for how he speaks his mind, but lobbying for your team's respect throughout the season is a big turn-off. And his sound bites after some of their close wins are not the least bit genuine. I don't think I'm alone in rooting for St. Joe's to go down, precisely because of Martelli's manic-depressive behavior. Oh, and they are a bunch of chuckers who toss up an endless stream of three-point shots. It just doesn't feel like basketball when you see it. Live by the three, die...
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