As predicted, Ohio State to square off against Florida

It turned out to be the night of disappearing stars.

First, it was Georgetown's Jeff Green forgetting to show up against Ohio State, then later it was Pac-10 player of the year Arron Afflalo getting shut down by Florida for the second consecutive year.

Both proved to be fatal to their team's chances of advancing to the championship game on Monday night.

Green absolutely was taken out of his game by the Buckeyes, who used a four-guard offense to swarm and overpower the Hoyas while center Greg Oden rode the pine with foul trouble. Afflalo finished with 17 points, but he scored the bulk of them with the game already out of reach. His team needed him, and he couldn't deliver.

Perhaps the thing that continues to surprise people is that the Buckeyes are far more than a one trick pony. So much was made by people such as myself of Oden's impact on that game, but the Buckeyes played some of their best ball while he was on the bench, as pointed out by reader drpezz. In fact, they were able to increase their lead in the first half while Oden was out of the game with two fouls.

Then, when Oden came back in with Hibbert in foul trouble, he took over, I believe scoring six consecutive points. Then when he got his fourth foul, the Buckeyes were again able to keep playing at a high level. Mike Conley Jr. is a heck of a point guard -- he dictates pace as well as just about any guard in this tournament -- and Ohio State proved it can beat a quality opponent in more than one way.

Other quick observations ...

  • I came away very impressed with Roy Hibbert. He comported himself very nicely against Oden. He's not the most athletic guy, but he uses his body pretty well to play tall. Georgetown's coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for turning that guy into the player that he is -- he's clearly been coached well.
  • The big battle between Oden and Hibbert never materialized, thanks to fouls. There was a lot of outcry on ESPN in the aftermath about letting the big guys play, but I came away with a different take: These guys need to play smarter. Both Oden and Hibbert picked up some silly fouls -- Oden's moving screen and Hibbert's chicken wing rebound come to mind -- and that changed the game more than anything. They have to know that they're big, and they have to not commit such silly fouls -- it jsut shows tremendous immaturity. I do agree with Vitale on one thing, though: I wouldn't mind seeing college basketball go to six fouls. These are kids still learning how to play the game, and it would keep silly fouls -- or questionable calls -- from changing the outcome of games.
  • How about UCLA getting outrebounded 42-25 by Florida? The Bruins' big men just couldn't physically matchup with the Gators, as I suspected. Al Horford and Joakim Noah combined for 28 rebounds all by themselves. Let me repeat that: Horford and Noah had more rebounds than the entire UCLA team! And so much for that vaunted UCLA defense. Florida shot 53 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.
  • If there was any doubt about Florida's intensity on its way to the Final Four, the Gators clearly showed they were just waiting for this stage. All those guys came back for this opportunity, and they clearly were not going to let this night pass them by. Should be interesting to see if Ohio State wilts under the championship game pressure in the face of a motivated Florida squad.
I've also thrown in a Bracket Challenge update with just the championship game to do. After that debacle of a start, I've now moved up into third place -- thank goodness, because I was sweating having to face my faithful readers with such a pitiful performance. The first annual Bracket Challenge champion will not be crowned, however, until Monday night. Ryan Sadoski's got a 21-point lead on Chris Cloke, but Cloke can overtake him if Florida wins it all. Sadoski runs away with it if Ohio State wins, and I'll vault to second. Stay tuned.

We'll have some more notes in the next day or so, including a full-blown preview of the game on Monday night. See you then.

A quick look at the Final Four

Many have called this a Final Four that could go down as one of the best in history. I don't disagree at all, and I'm unbelievably excited to catch the games tonight. Here's my quick and dirty preview of tonights two Final Four games. I'll have analysis of the games upon their completion as well.

Game One: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Georgetown

Perhaps nothing says more about how fortunate Ohio State is to be here that Vegas has installed the No. 1 seed Buckeyes as a one-point underdog to the No. 2 seed Hoyas. Many have tried to make this into a battle of Greg Oden vs. Roy Hibbert, but their impact on the game will not be felt in some kind of one-on-one matchup. Here are my three keys to the game

  1. Which big man can stay on the floor and control the defensive end? This is how Oden and Hibbert will determine the outcome of this contest. Both have been dominant on the defensive end at times, and at times, both have been ineffective because of foul trouble. Which guy can stay on the floor? Will Georgetown be stifled on all those backdoor cuts, knowing that Oden is waiting? Or will the Hoyas bait him into foul trouble, which can happen if he's just a split second too late rotating? Will Hibbert have trouble guarding Oden? The team whose center spends more time on the floor likely wins the game.
  2. Ohio State's perimeter defense against that Princeton offense of Georgetown. Ohio State has been prone to lapses in perimeter defense in this tournament -- how do you think Tennessee got that big lead? Any team that wishes to slow down Georgetown must demonstrate the appropriate amount of patience on every defensive possession, something UNC tired of. Can OSU's young guards keep the intensity for 35 seconds and avoid those deadly back-cuts?
  3. Thad Matta vs. John Thompson III. Neither of these coaches has been to a Final Four, although JTIII spent plenty of years watching his dad do it. The bright lights can cause even the best coaches to wilt -- which coach will make the critical move that either saves his team or costs it?
Prediction: Hibbert is a nice player, but Oden controls a game's tempo like no one else. He'll get more than 30 minutes tonight, snuffing out those back-cuts and allowing his guards to pressure the ball like few opponents of Georgetown can. I don't think this will be as close of a game as most do; I think Georgetown's luck has finally run out. Ohio State 65, Georgetown 58.

Game Two: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 UCLA

The much anticipated rematch of last year's championship game finally gets its chance in the nightcap. While most have portrayed it as basically the same two teams as last year, UCLA actually only returned about 50 percent of its points from last year's game with the departures of Jordan Farmar, Ryan Hollins and Cedric Bozeman. However, this might be a better UCLA team than last year, while many wonder if Florida might have taken a step back. Here are my three keys to the game:
  1. Can Florida handle UCLA's defense? Florida has not seen a team in this tournament that plays defense as hard as UCLA. In fact, this team plays harder defense than the team that looked so bad in losing to the Gators last year. The Gators have proven themselves vulnerable to stretches of sloppy play this tournament, something that absolutely will get a team into trouble against the Bruins.
  2. How will UCLA's frontcourt handle Horford and Noah? As the interior guys go, so goes Florida. Can Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute be servicable enough inside, keeping Horford and Noah from getting the offensive rebounds that so energize their team? If Horford and Noah go off, that's bad, bad news for the Bruins.
  3. Can UCLA score enough points to win? Last year, the Bruins' offensive performance was atrocious. Particularly awful was Arron Afflalo, then just a sophomore. Well, Afflalo is now the Pac-10 player of the year and is coming off the best game of his career, given the stage. As the Bruins' primary scoring option, he must come up big against the Gators for UCLA to have a shot.
Prediction: Both teams have been here before, and they know each other well after last season, so there won't be any secrets. Both have great players and great coaches. But I think Florida's interior game is just too much for the Bruins to handle. It'll be close, but Florida goes for the repeat on Monday. Florida 71, UCLA 70.

So, there you have it. I'll possibly be checking in during the games, but at least after them. Until then, happy watching! I know I'll be glued to the TV.

I know it's only Spring Training, but ...

I'll freely admit that as the Cougs swept me off my feet with their run to the NCAA Tournament, I somewhat used it as an excuse to ignore the Mariners -- both in my conciousness and here on the blog.

Like many M's fans, I'm just so sick and tired of getting my hopes up, only to have them crushed by yet another miserable existence of a season.

With basketball on hiatus until today, however, I found myself sucked in by a pair of exhibition games Thursday and Friday. I figured it was time to get myself reacquainted with the team that will be the bane of my existance from the time college basketball season wraps up on Monday until Seahawks training camp opens in August.

I did not come away encouraged.

I know it's only spring, but it's the end of spring. Batters and pitchers, theoretically, should be rounding into form. What I saw in those two games was more of the same crap I've seen for three years. The starting pitchers would pitch solidly, only to let a team off the hook and open up the floodgates with two outs. The batters would look positively lost at the plate, repeatedly chasing pitches out of the strike zone, especially with runners in scoring position. Yet, the offense would wake up midway through the game, only after falling hopelessly behind.

Let's hope some kind of switch gets flipped on Monday, but I'm not hopeful. Everyone says the offense is improved, but it looks exactly the same to me. No discipline, no clutch hitting ... same old M's.


What to expect tomorrow: Final Four coverage

With the tournament off until Saturday and baseball season not in full swing yet, it's been a little bit of a slow week on the blog.

Not to worry. The Final Four kicks into full gear tomorrow night, and HWTN will be here with you to break down all the action.

Check it out as Ohio State takes on Georgetown and UCLA gets its rematch with Florida.

I might even throw in some Mariners in the morning. I know it's still technically spring training, but man, they've looked awful the last two nights ...

Bennett reels in big fish of coaching awards

Just a quick note: The Associated Press named WSU basketball coach Tony Bennett its coach of the year this morning, completing Bennett's takeover of the state of Washington as he now owns one more coach of the year award than Lorenzo Romar and Mark Few combined.

Bennett can put the trophy next to the slew of others he's received from smaller publications and the Pac-10 coach of the year award. I hope he had a trophy room built into his new house.

Oh yeah, almost forgot -- he gets a $25,000 bonus for winning the award. I need to negotiate that into my next teacher contract.


The influence of blogging: You take the good with the not-so good

Friend of the blog Mike Sando -- better known to most of you as the Seahawks Insider -- and I recently were discussing how blogging has fundamentally changed the job of reporters, especially sports reporters.

It has enhanced the experience of sports fans, who often have an unquenchable thirst for information about their favorite teams. The best ones -- such as Sando's blog -- are updated frequently and include breaking news, analysis of the team and players, little nuggets that never make it into the paper, and interesting and quirky tidbits culled form surfing the Internet.

Sometimes, a reporter's effort to provide those things doesn't always pan out the way they hope.

Check out this lighthearted post by Seattle Times Mariners blogger Geoff Baker. In it, he takes a humorous look at his own failings and inaccuracies in the blog world of trying to provide more and better information.

While it's a pretty funny read, it's also a great case example of how this whole blog revolution in journalism is a work in progress, and how journalism is having to evolve with it. We already have an example of what can happen when blogs go wrong, and I think all journalists would do well to follow Sando's tack: Apply the same level of journalistic standards to your blog as you do to the things that run in your paper. Avoid large amounts of speculation, just as you would in a story for print publication.

Be first, but first be right. That way, you can never go wrong.

(By the way, Baker's blog usually is an excellent read, anyway. Check it out here.)

More details come out on Bennett's deal

I often like to pump up other blogs that routinely contain great information, and Glenn Kasses' "All Cougs, All The Time" blog certainly qualifies. In the wake of WSU's announcement that basketball coach Tony Bennett has agreed to a long-term deal to stay in Pullman, Kasses has worked his sources to come up with information you won't find anywhere else.

Among the highlights, according to Kasses:

  • Both Michigan and Iowa contacted Bennett's agent, with Michigan expressing what appeared to be high-level interest. No program requested official permission to talk with Bennett.
  • The new annual guaranteed salary will likely start between $600,000 and $700,000 -- a substantial increase from the $375,000 he was slated to make next year.
  • There will likely be an increase in the buyout amount, although it won't be in the $1 million range. (Darn.)
  • Pay raises for all of Bennett's assistants, too. (One of Bennett's priorities if he was to stay.)

And as I speculated earlier, the “charm” of Pullman played no small part in Bennett’s decision to stay:

“Bottom line here is that Bennett really does enjoy life in Pullman and some of
the perks in terms of having his family and career here where he's at least
partially outside of the fishbowl, relatively speaking. I think that can't be
underestimated as a factor in this immediate decision, though we certainly don't
know if it will continue to be so should his name remain on those hot candidates
lists in years to come.”

Meanwhile, the people who actually get paid to have opinions react to the Bennett extension:


Bennett agrees to contract extension; I'm not jumping for joy yet

Great news out of Pullman for Coug fans, as my prediction came true: Tony Bennett is not going anywhere next year, as he has agreed in principal to a contract extension with WSU.

"I knew I wanted to be back," Bennett told reporters via conference call. "For me it's about fit. This program, this job, fits me."

Terms of the contract have not been finalized, as Bennett is traveling to Atlanta for the Final Four, an annual ritual among most college coaches. According to the AP, "The contract is likely to include a variety of incentives, plus deferred compensation and a larger buyout clause, Sterk said."

I can't help but be excited, as well, by Bennett's commitment, because I believe him to be a genuine man who means what he says.

"It’s said by a lot of people that if you can have a good year, boy, this is a place where you’ve got tot take a look to go elsewhere. It’s a hard place. I don’t feel that way. I think the journey has just started. This group of young men, I want our program to know that. We don’t want to be just a flash in the pan.”
However, I will reserve jumping up and down until I know what the terms of the contract are. While I'm excited for what is obviously shaping up to be a big 2007-08, the team loses its core after the season and it could present a nice breaking point for Bennett.

I'll be a lot more excited if I find out the buyout on the contract is somewhere in the $1 million range -- a figure that won't be a deterrent to most big schools desperate for the right coach, but big enough to help the Cougs land a suitable replacement. This is a school that has always settled for the cheap choice, looking for a diamond in the rough. Rarely have they found that diamond -- although Kelvin Sampson comes to mind -- and a buyout of that magnitude could help the Cougars land another suitable coach.

Skepticism aside, though, how can you not smile today if you're a Coug fan? When a guy says that his family likes Pullman and the job "fits" him, it starts to sound like we might have not just found the diamond; we might have found the diamond mine.

Clark leaves his mark, but how will he be remembered?

Ah, gotta love college journalism.

Student journalists tend to get looked down upon by the general public because of their relative lack of experience. But a lot of times they can break stories that slip by the mainstream media because of their special relationship with the people they're covering. They are, after all, peers.

Such was the case Monday when The Daily Evergreen, the student newspaper at Washington State University, caught up with Ivory Clark.

At some point this year, Clark and coach Tony Bennett started to fail to see eye to eye, and Clark's minutes became erratic. Never was that more evident than in the NCAA Tournament, when Clark was the player of the game against Oral Roberts but registered only 15 minutes in the double overtime loss to Vanderbilt.

Now Clark is lashing out.

Among the highlights from his rambling diatribe to Daily Evergreen reporter Brandon Scheller:

  • On not playing at all in overtime against Vandy: "I mean, even if we wouldn’t have won, me being a senior on the court, I was going to give it everything I had. It was overtime, you know? Any possession could be your last. I was just gonna give it everything I had. And I felt like some of the guys on the floor weren’t giving it everything. Maybe it was because they were tired playing 50 minutes."
  • On playing sparingly on Senior Night: "I definitely thought after [the Oral Roberts game] I’d be in there at crunch time. But you know, I mean, it didn’t surprise me at all after playing only seven minutes on senior night. Nothing would surprise me after that. ... I felt very humiliated that night. My mom saved up for months to come see me on Senior Night, so to only play seven minutes was really humiliating."
  • On how he views Bennett now: "I’m still kind of bitter, I guess, about the whole situation. I don’t want to say too much into it, you know? People think very highly of Tony, but I think I was really done bad this year. ... All that coach of the year stuff, I don’t endorse that."
Bennett, to his credit, chose to take the high road: "It’s hard to make everybody happy. Ivory’s an emotional guy, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. The hardest thing as a coach is not being able to give everybody what they want. They all work hard for you, so you want to give them what they want. I just hope he doesn’t leave with a bad taste in his mouth."

It seems it's already too late for that, and it's a shame because this was such a special season for everyone involved. I can understand the frustration of wanting to be able to give everything you've got in your final college game, but there also has to be an element of humility. These are the things that need to be talked about behind closed doors, that need to be resolved between men.

All you need to do is look at the entirety of Bennett's reaction in the story to know that in no way did that happen. And that's a shame. Clark played a huge role in the season; with every fit he throws over the way he was treated this year, it becomes harder and harder to remember the game-changing blocks, steals and dunks.

Instead, fans will remember Clark as a sour-grapes individual who readily threw his team and coach under the bus -- seriously, how can anyone make the case that players didn't play hard in overtime? -- only a week after being ousted from the Tournament. Worse yet, this sort of thing does absolutely nothing for a guy whose best shot at making an NBA roster includes proving that he's a humble workhorse.

Kudos to Scheller for putting himself in position to get the big story. He proved that sometimes all you need to do is make a phone call, sit down, turn on the recorder and shut up. Other student journalists would do well to learn from Scheller that it's not cheating to use the special relationships you build with student athletes to beat your professional peers.


Could Morris be forging a slippery slope to avoid NBA Draft?

There's an interesting little story out of New York these days ... which is interesting to me because hardly anything in New York is a little story.

Yet I'm surprised this "little story" isn't getting more play from the national media.

Two weeks ago, Randolph Morris was trying to help his Kentucky Wildcats beat the Kansas Jayhawks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, he plays for the New York Knicks.

How did he avoid the NBA Draft? Well, apparently there's a little-known loophole that allows players who declared for the draft -- but were not drafted -- to essentially become free agents.

Morris declared for the 2005 NBA draft, but was not selected. Because he did not sign with an agent, he was allowed to return to college. However, Morris could not enter the draft again, and technically has been a free agent all season. He was expected to join the team over the weekend. And if the Knicks make the playoffs, he will be eligible to play.
Does this sound like a scam waiting to happen to anyone else? What in the world is going to stop a marginal player with a lot of potential from declaring for the draft as a freshman, assured that he won't get drafted, only to blossom in his last few seasons and able to choose from among the highest bidders in an effort to win his services? (Comforting to know that I'm not the only one who sees what this loophole could do.)

The NBA would do well to close this loophole, and keep this from happening again. Otherwise, they might have a monster on their hands.


Good riddance, Theismann; Jaworski exactly what MNF team needs

Longtime readers might remember midway through last season I lamented the new Monday Night Football team of Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theismann:

My main issue is with Theismann. His egomaniacal style fit pretty well in ESPN's old Sunday night crew with Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire, mostly because I think he viewed Maguire -- anothe former football player -- as a worthy adversary. ... Theismann seems intimidated by Kornheiser's eloquence and quick wit from time to time, and has a propensity to repeat himself over and over and over again.
My solution, way back in September?
What this crew really needs is a hardcore X's and O's guy, somebody who seems comfortable enough with himself to let Kornheiser do what he was hired to do and who doesn't seem to constantly feel the need to assert his manhood.
Apparently, ESPN agreed, removing Theismann from the team and adding Ron Jaworski, about the most harcore X and O guy the four-letter network's got. Don't believe me? Listen to Jaworski himself:
"I'm an 'Xs-and-Os' guy. I love breaking down the game. I love the strategy of the game," Jaworski said in a conference call. "That's the beauty of what I will bring to the table is that insight of 'Xs and Os.'"
Jaworski will be an excellent fit in that booth. He's got a great sense of humor, he's completely unassuming -- unlike the self-absorbed Theismann -- and he already has a strong rapport with Kornheiser, which is evident to anyone who has watched Jaworski appear on Kornheiser's regular TV gig, "Pardon The Interruption."

I think this is a team that really has some promise, and I'm excited to see what it can do.


Hoyas complete Final Four field with shocking comeback

With about eight minutes to go and North Carolina leading Georgetown by 10 in the last regional final of the day, I made the cardinal sin of the NCAA Tournament: I gave up on the game.

Apparently, so did the Tar Heels.

North Carolina has been as bipolar as any team in college basketball this season, and that was as evident as it ever has been as the Tar Heels put together one of the more spectacular collapses of this NCAA Tournament as I attempted to finish putting together my son's dresser that had been taunting me, half finished, for day.

One minute, North Carolina's up by 10, and I'm telling my wife that Georgetown has practically no chance, because rarely do teams track down the Tar Heels from behind. The next, I'm sitting on the couch, kicking myself for finally tearing myself from the TV at the most inopportune time.

It turned out to be exhibit 1a of why I picked the Tar Heels to be the first No. 1 seed upset in this Tournament.

In the best of times, they wear teams down with their superior depth and athleticism, putting away opponents with a relentless flurry of fast breaks capped by dunks and layups. It's how they built a 10-point lead over No. 2 seed Georgetown with roughly eight minutes to go in the game.

In the worst of times, they're undisciplined, giving away possessions on both offense and defense. That's how they made just two baskets over the final nine minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime in frittering away a trip to the Final Four in a most unlikely manner.

All the credit in the world goes to Georgetown for not giving up on the game. The Hoyas were not intimidated by the Tar Heels from tip to buzzer, and they've made a believer out of me. I still don't think they'll get past Ohio State, but they're a darn good team.

Other observations ...

  • In the early game, it was live by the sword, die by the sword for Oregon. Tajuan Porter lost his golden touch, and Florida's strong inside game was just too much for the undersized Ducks. Maarty Leunen is one of the most underrated big men in the Pac-10, but he was clearly overmatched against Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Frankly, it was only a matter of time before the Oregon was done in by a cold shooting performance; the Ducks should feel fortunate it didn't happen sooner.
  • For as much as everyone loves Tyler Hansbrough -- the toughness, the "Psycho T" persona, etc. -- the guy sure disappears for long stretches of games. Any player who is a true go-to guy doesn't let his team go the final 15 minutes of a game with only two buckets. There's talk about him coming out for the NBA Draft, but the guy clearly needs to stay in school and figure out a way to become a more consistent force.
On the Bracket Challenge front, Ryan Sadoski has slipped into the lead by just a mere point ahead of Chris Cloke, who had the Heels heading to the championship. I'm still looking good for third place, if Ohio State does its job.

I'll have more Final Four talk this week, and probably ease into some more baseball. See you then.

Going out to enjoy the sunshine

What an unbelievable comeback by Georgetown against North Carolina. I've got a bunch of thoughts on that, and the Ducks' loss to Florida, but I'm going for a walk right now with my wife and my boy, trying to take advantage of the sunshine.

I'll be writing later tonight. Until then, hope you're going outside, too!


Back home, 'Reign Over Me' is really good, just like UCLA

For everyone who thought that "Reign Over Me" looked like a great movie simply based on the premise (a guy loses his entire family in 9/11 and goes crazy) and the actors (Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler), you were right -- it is a great movie.

And for everyone who thought UCLA was going to come up short of another Final Four run based on its back-to-back losses to Washington and Cal ... well, you were wrong.

The Bruins are headed to their second consecutive Final Four for the first time since John Wooden patrolled the sidelines in Westwood, and they did it against the team that many thought was the best team left in the tournament based on its performance through the first three games.

Perhaps most impressive is that UCLA beat Kansas at its own game, playing better defense (holding the Jayhawks to 41.1 percent shooting) and executing better on offense (shooting 53.3 percent from the floor) than the No. 1 seed. And Arron Afflalo -- 24 points, 10-of-15 from the field -- is showing the rest of the country why he was the premier player in what is proving to be the best conference in the country.

The net result is that I'm now 2-for-2 in my Final Four picks, and I have now ascended from the basement in my own Bracket Challenge, and I'm eyeing third place. Good thing, because I was starting to look like one heck of a moron for letting my readers whip my butt!

The best I can do tomorrow is get one more team in the Final Four (Florida) as the winner of UNC/Georgetown is of little consequence to me. However, it will have a major effect on
the top of our Challenge: Chris Cloke, our leader, has UNC all the way to the championship; Ryan Sadoski, traling first by nine points, has Georgetown in winning the regional final.

Tomorrow should be fun! I'll be back with more then.

Tonight: Off to the movies

I won't be posting on the conclusion of UCLA/Kansas until much later tonight because my wife and I are heading off for a well-deserved night at the movies. Grandma's coming over to babysit as we go see "Reign Over Me," with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle.

I will be listening to the conclusion via radio, so I'll have some thoughts later.

See you then.

Oden proves to be the difference as Ohio State marches on

Greg Oden numbers don't make your eye pop. Don't get me wrong, they're respectable -- 15.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.4 blocks -- but what I'm learning with each game that I watch the Buckeyes is that you simply cannot measure Oden's impact in numbers.

I am among the legions of basketball fans that assume Oden is heading to the NBA after this year, along with Texas super-frosh Kevin Durant. I even joined in the debate of whether Oden or Durant should be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

That debate, in my mind, is absolutely over.

Yes, Durant is an unbelievable player who can take over a game on the offensive end pretty much anytime he wants. But Oden is a guy who can dominate a game without ever touching the ball.

Oden's final line from the win over Memphis: 17 points, nine rebounds, one block. Not the kind of numbers that knock you over, but that's not why he's so special.

He is just such a presence, the kind of player that anchors championship teams. On offense, teams constantly have to find him, lest he get an easy, uncontested bucket. On defense, he alters far more shots than he blocks, and there are countless others that never even get taken because his long arms lurk. Wherever he is on the floor, teams must account for him.

All you need to know was that the Buckeyes' win over Memphis was a tale of two games: the time that Oden was saddled with foul trouble and the time that Oden was on the floor. I don't have access to plus/minus stats for the game, but I'm sure it wasn't even close.

That to me, folks, is the biggest reason why Ohio State is heading to the Final Four -- and well on its way its first national championship in a long time.

Other thoughts ...

  • Sometimes lost in the shuffle of the attention showered on Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr. is just how awesome Ron Lewis has been in this Tournament. He averaged 24.7 points in the final three games of the regional, and he has been in the middle of every big moment for the Buckeyes, including hitting that huge 3-pointer against Xavier. The guy is tough and smart, and if I had a vote for the regional MVP, it would go to Lewis.
  • Really surprising to me that Memphis allowed itself to consistently get beaten off the dribble by Ohio State. The Tigers had proven themselves to be a pretty good defensive team, but the Buckeyes really exposed them by going to the line 41 times.
  • Want more evidence of Oden's impact? Powerful Memphis forward Joey Dorsey -- who reminds me of a poor-man's Dwight Howard -- was an absolute non-factor in the game, finishing with zero points and three rebounds in 19 foul-plagued minutes. Though never much of an offensive factor this year, he's been a rebounding machine. Not so much against the Buckeyes.
  • Checking in on the Kansas/UCLA game at half, I like what UCLA is doing. It seemed the Bruins had a bit of difficulty through the first 10 minutes meeting Kansas' intensity, but they soon woke up. They closed out the half on a 12-2 run, thanks to a terrific play by Arron Afflalo at the buzzer. I'm not sure I've ever seen Afflalo give up the ball in a situation like that, and Kansas didn't look like it had, either. As the Jayhawks got sucked in, Afflalo calmly found Josh Shipp in the corner, and Shipp calmly drained the 3. That's the UCLA team I saw for most of the year.

Change in plans: I'll be home, after all

Softball's loss is your gain today, as the wonderful Western Washington rain has sent me back indoors, relegated to watching the NCAA Tournament regional finals from the comfort of my couch.

Can you detect the sadness in my voice?

What that means for you, my faithful reader, is that I'll be posting throughout the two regional finals as they unfold with the thoughtful analysis you've come to expect. In the meantime, check out the post that immediately follows on Mariners' 2006 first round draft choice, Brandon Morrow, who's pushing hard for a roster spot coming out of spring training.

Want to know why I love college basketball? Check out that D-II finish

I know I'm a hoops junkie, so I might be sounding like a bit of a geek here, but did anyone else watch that Division II championship on CBS? Holy cow -- that is, without a doubt, one of the best finishes to a basketball game I have ever seen.

Defending Division II champ Winona State had won 57 straight games, and had a seven-point lead over Barton -- winners of 20 straight -- with 30 seconds to go. The Warriors had built lead after lead, only to watch Barton come back again and again. Only this time, it looked like Barton had run out of gas, repeatedly missing shots in the last four minutes.

Check out this sequence of events, all in the last 30 seconds:

  • Barton's best player, Anthony Atkinson, gets a quick layup to cut the deficit to five.
  • Winona's free throw shooter misses his free throw, Barton rebounds.
  • Atkinson hits a little floater in the lane to cut the lead to three.
  • Barton steals the inbounds pass and feeds the ball to Atkinson.
  • Atkinson hits an acrobatic layup and is fouled, sending him to the free throw line with a chance to tie.
  • Atkinson -- who, by the way, hit a free throw with 1.5 seconds left to win the semifinal game -- misses the game-tying free throw. Winona State rebounds.
  • The Winona State player makes one of two shots.
  • Atkinson scores again, with about 10 seconds left, to tie the game.
  • Winona State inbounds quickly, trying to push the ball without using a timeout. Only, Barton steals the ball!
  • The Barton player feeds it to -- guess who? -- Atkinson, who streaks to the basket and lays it in as time expires to win the game. I kid you not: The guy released the ball with 0.1 seconds left on the clock!
If that game is not on SportsCenter, something is seriously wrong. Whatever you do, make sure you check out the highlights of that last minute. It is the most unbelievable finish I think I've ever seen. I really can't think of another one.

The best part? No time outs in that last flurry of action. Just letting the kids play. How cool.

Morrow pushing hard for spot on M's opening day roster

When the Mariners failed to draft local phenom Tim Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 draft with the No. 5 pick, there was righteous indignation among Seattle fans, who wondered how a team who was floundering so bad could miss out on the public relations coup that would come from drafting the local University of Washington hero.

Surprisingly, the Mariners front office -- so inept over the past few years -- might have actually known more than their fans.

The guy they actually drafted, Brandon Morrow, has been virtually unhittable this spring. The Mariners' brass insisted last year they would bring the 22-year-old righty slowly, but he might be forcing manager Mike Hargrove's hand -- especially with closer J.J. Putz hampered by elbow troubles.

Morrow's line so far this spring: 7.1 innings, two hits, four baserunners ... zero runs. While managers and fans alike have to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to spring stats, Morrow's shown an upper-90s fastball combined with a devastating splitter -- the kind of stuff that could can get hitters out at any level.

The Mariners still plan to eventually make him a starter, but they're talking at this point about making him a set-up man, given the spring troubles of veterans George Sherril and Arthur Rhodes.

But if they don't put this guy on their major league roster -- and there's evidence to suggest they might continue their "bring pitchers along slowly" philosophy -- they're nuts. This isn't an 18-year-old kid fresh out of high school. This is a guy who pitched 100 innings last year between California in the Pac-10 and Class A ball.

You've got to at least see what a guy like this can do. Anyone remember a guy by the name of Jonathan Papelbon? Let's give him a shot. After all, what's the worst that can happen? He gets lit up and goes down to AAA to sort things out. But at least you know what you've got.


Wrapping up Friday night: UNC, Oregon finish off Elite Eight;
Plus: What to expect tomorrow

I'm heading to bed, so I'm not going to write a whole bunch. Just a couple of quick thoughts on the two late games:

  • Is there anyone in the country that can play with North Carolina when the Tar Heels are on fire like they were for about a 10-minute stretch against USC? The Trojans completely outplayed UNC for 3/4 of that game, and all of their effort was completely erased in one spectacular burst. When Jim Nantz described it as "turning on the afterburners," that's about as apt a description as I can think of. The problem? UNC's effort still comes and goes. They seem to rely on wearing teams down with their superior depth. Makes me wonder if they can do the same thing against a team with comparable talent and depth, such as Florida. That said, it was downright scary how slow the Tar Heels made USC look during that burst.
  • Oregon's offense is what gets all the attention, but what really is driving this run by the Ducks is their defense, which really is remarkable considering how horrible that part of their game was midway through the season. Since the end of the regular season, Oregon has only allowed an opponent to shoot better than 42 percent once -- Miami of Ohio. This from a team that couldn't stop anyone for periods this season. They'll need all of that newfound defensive intensity to have any kind of shot against Florida.
That's it for tonight. I've posted the latest Bracket Challenge standings. UNC and Georgetown winning really hurt my chances to make some hay, although I've still got three of four Final Four teams alive.

As for tomorrow, I'll be away from an Internet connection all day, although I will be near a TV. So be looking for more analysis as we head into the Final Four -- my favorite three sports game sof the year!

I hate you, Vanderbilt

It's bad enough that Vanderbilt sent my Cougs packing in the second round of the Tournament. But to choke away a huge chance knock off Georgetown and get me back in every bracket pool that I'm in because of poor shooting and poor defense?

That hacks me off.

Much was made of Jeff Green's effort in the immediate aftermath of his game-winning shot against the Commodores -- Billy Packer was absolutely gushing -- and I'm not going to take anything away from Green, who made an acrobatic shot.

But putting the fact that Green obviously traveled aside -- and it was EXTREMELY obvious -- the more glaring breakdown happened on the defensive double team that was supposed to keep Green from getting a clean look at the hoop.

When you see the replay on SportsCenter tonight look for this: Shan Foster was the primary defender on Green, and he poked the ball away with about eight seconds to go. Instead of maintaining his defensive posture, help defender Ross Neltner hesitated for just a split second, trying to decide whether to go for the loose ball. It put him ever so slightly out of position (as you see from the photo above) and gave Green just the crack he needed to get the shot off with a look at the basket that I think -- when you look at it from the camera under the basket -- was better than most people realize.

And don't get me started on how a team facing WSU can shoot 50 percent in a half from the field and 3-point range, then go ice cold against a Georgetown team that played down the stretch without Roy Hibbert!

Ugh. I'm so irritated right now.

Other thoughts ...

You know, Joakim Noah gets all the pub when it comes to Florida thanks to his performance in last year's Tournament, his famous father, the hair, the chest pounding, etc. But if I'm a team at the top of next year's NBA Draft, there's no way I take Noah before I take his teammate Al Horford. That guy is an absolute beast -- his coach's word, not mine. He is agile, strong and has a nice face-up game when he needs it. He reminds me a lot of Elton Brand, except taller, which makes him a better defender. Did you see that block he had of that driving Butler player (sorry, can't remember his name) at the end of the game? Unbelievably athletic. That guy is going to be a freak in the NBA. For all the talk about Noah's motor, it was Horford's return from an ankle injury that really got Florday going this year.

By the way, how cool did Florda look in that game? Every time I looked up, I kept wondering how Butler was so close. Yet I never felt like Florida was going to lose. They just have that championship feel going. It's going to take a very special effort from a talented team to dethrone the Gators.
That's about it for now. I'll be back later tonight to break down the state of the Bracket Challenge, as well as offer observations on the late games.

What to expect tonight, plus a little Mariners

Once again, I will be planted in front of the TV to watch eight teams battle it out for the right to go on to the Elite Eight.

Of particular interest to me is USC/North Carolina, which I think has the potential to be the game of the night. North Carolina has not seen a team that plays as good of defense as the Trojans, and with the Tar Heels' relative inexperience, one has to wonder if they have the composure to hang with such a tough-minded team.

I'm also interested to see if UNLV's defense can do anything with the high-powered Ducks, or if the Ducks will finally just hand one over with a cold shooting night. Don't forget, this game takes place in a cavernous dome -- the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis -- and that's been known to be death to teams that rely on shooting in the Tournament.

Lastly, a little bit of bonus material as I slowly try to transition into baseball season. (I fully realize the NBA will keep going into June, but I don't really care ...)

Here is the Mariners' opening day lineup, as reported by The News Tribune reporter Larry LaRue on his Mariners Insider blog. Does it strike fear in you?

  1. Ichiro Suzuki, RF
  2. Adrian Beltre, 3B
  3. Jose Vidro, DH
  4. Raul Ibanez, LF
  5. Richie Sexson, 1B
  6. Jose Guillen, RF
  7. Kenji Johjima, C
  8. Jose Lopez, 2B
  9. Yuniesky Betancourt, SS

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez


Unbelievable comeback by Ohio State ... wish I coulda seen it

As Vanderbilt wrapped up its double-overtime win against the Cougs, I was fairly certain that would go down as the game of the tournament.

Turns out I was wrong.

What a comeback by the Buckeyes. Never mind the fact that I was relegated to watching the deficit shrink incrementally via the scoreboard in the corner of the screen. I found myself paying less attention to UCLA and more attention to that scoreboard.

I did get to see the last four minutes, and they were spectacular. Ohio State looks like it might be a team of destiny. Absolutely nothing rattles these Buckeyes, although that could be looked at one of two ways -- either they're unflappable, or they're flirting with disaster and it's going to blow up in their faces before the championship.

I think it's the former. They beat a motivated Tennessee team bent on revenge without a great game from Greg Oden, and they're only getting stronger every time they have to figure out another way to win a game.

Meanwhile, UCLA looked very workmanlike against Pitt. That game never felt in doubt, and UCLA/Kansas ought to be a heck of a treat. I can't wait to watch that on Saturday. Two teams to play defense, each with superb athletes? It could be one for the ages, if you like that kind of hard-nosed basketball.

Oh, and as for the Bracket Challenge? Everyone had UCLA and Ohio State winning -- except for Oldham, who had Virginia beating the Buckeyes -- so just add eight points to their score from earlier tonight.

Hear that sound? That's the sound of me cruising out of the basement!

Well, at least my bracket isn't as screwed as some peoples' -- at least pending the Tennessee/Ohio State game.

Although I had Texas A&M advancing one more round, the Aggies' loss screwed a lot of other people a lot worse that it did me. For example, both Dan Oldham and JoJo Roberts had Texas A&M going to the Final Four -- or beyond -- and I can look forward to passing them soon.

The race to win my Bracket Challenge is shaping up nicely as a three-horse race between Chris Cloke, Ryan Sadoski and Mike Larson. Although Cloke holds a five-point advantage over Sadoski, all three can still come out on top as all three have different champs. The standings you see above are with the last two games of the night still to play.

(Incidentally, I've officially got no chance to win, since my three Final Four teams left mirror three of Sadoski's Final Four, and we've got the same chance. So, I'll officially concede that Ryan is smarter than I am. Congrats Sado!)

I do have Ohio State winning it all, so unless the Buckeyes can figure out a way to quit turning the ball over, missing free throws, missing shots, and giving up layups, I'll probably be right back where I was a week ago. Oh well -- such is the tournament. That's what I get for counting on some upsets in a tournament where there haven't been any ...

Other observations from tonight:

  • Didn't get to watch a lot of the Texas A&M/Memphis game, but one thing I did some away impressed by was Memphis' toughness. I think most people assumed the Tigers would wilt in this tournament after beating up on the cupcakes of C-USA -- I know I did -- but they proved worthy of everything the Aggies threw at them. I wasn't sure they could win a close game, but they did it, and impressively at that. No miracle heroics from Acie Law ...
  • Did get to watch a bunch of the Kansas/SIU game. The most impressive thing to me? The Salukis' swarming defense. That reminds me of what the Cougars will be like once they get some better athletes in the program. Don't get me wrong, I love Weaver, Low, Cowgill, etc., but those guys do it mostly on guts and guile. SIU's got some guys who really get after you. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a team that plays defense just as hard, but has elite athletes. They never really stood a chance against the Jayhawks, who look more and more impressive each time out.

What to expect today/tonight

The NCAA Tournament returns tonight with the regional semifinals, and I'll be back at my familiar station, keister positioned squarely in front of my television. I'll give some of the same analysis I had last week as I watch the games unfold.

Looking forward to seeing you then.


Mariners new attitude towards Hernandez reflects their desperation

Contrary to the way it might appear on this blog, I do realize that there are other sports besides college basketball.

I suppose I might be more fired up to write about the Sonics or Mariners if they both hadn't been among the worst franchises in their respective leagues over the past few years.

I did, however, run across an interesting preview of the Mariners on CBS.Sportsline.com that centered around pitching phenom Felix Hernandez. You'll remember that the Mariners have coddled King Felix at every step of his ascention through the team's farm system, reticent to push him too hard, lest they do something to harm that $200 million arm.

Apparently, they are now ready to take the chains off:

"He's chomping at the bit, and he kind of has a right to," Bavasi continues. "He's done everything we've asked him to. He's never pitched winter ball, and that pisses him off. He threw plenty of games last year where he was free and easy, walking off the mound saying, 'Man, I can finish this game.'

"He's trying to become a man, and we're not letting him. It's time to let him."

It all sounds very noble, but the cynical journalist in me has to believe that their motives can't possibly be as pure as they sound. They were killing themselves last year to ensure he didn't throw more than 200 innings combined between spring training and the regular season, and now they're talking about letting him pitch 225-230 innings, just because he's in shape and he wants to?

Let's remember: This is a regime where the GM and manager are squarely on the hotseat. Forgive me if I'm tempted to wonder why the sudden change of heart.

If the Mariners don't show improvement this season, and they ruin Hernandez's arm in the process, why do they care? They won't be around to deal with the consequences anyway. But we, the fans, will once again be left to ponder what might have been with this team that used to be the face of a model organization.

Instead, it's become the team that killed the Golden Goose.

Everyone's got advice for Tony Bennett

It seems everyone has an opinion on what WSU basketball coach Tony Bennett should do with his newfound fame as the next big thing.

WSU fans, perennially paranoid, fear the worst: That Bennett will bolt after just his one successful season for the greener -- and by greener, we mean greener with dollar bills -- pastures of Minnesota or Michigan or wherever. After all, that's been the track record of every successful coach that's come through Pullman (Marv Harshman, George Raveling, Dennis Erickson and Kelvin Sampson, to name a few).

Of course, the fans want him to stay. Some industrious individuals even started a fundraising campaign to help the athletic department give Bennett a raise on his paltry (by NCAA standards) $350,000 annual contract.

And, just as predictably, there’s no shortage of advice in the professional media. Today alone there were three columns in Seattle-area papers ranging from speculation on what Bennett would do (Dave Boling, The News Tribune) to outright advice (Ted Miller, The Seattle P-I) to a mixture of the two (Steve Kelley, The Seattle Times).

My line of reasoning on the subject closely mirrors that of Bud Withers -- who, as the Cougars’ beat writer for The Seattle Times, is as familiar with the program as anyone outside Pullman.

Bennett is too solid, too old-school, too steeped in Midwestern values -- too principled -- to cut and run after one season.

Remember that story of how his father Dick gathered high-school recruits -- Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, Daven Harmeling -- around the foundation of his home under construction in September 2003 and asked them to come and be the foundation of a program then in ashes?

Are you going to go to those kids now and say, gee, thanks for coming, fellas, but you're going to have a new coach for your senior year?

I’ll take Withers even one step further. While I don’t pretend to know Bennett personally, I do know what I’ve read about him and heard about him from people who do know him. I know he is a principled man who once moved with his wife to New Zealand to start a church. I know part of the reason he has been successful is because he’s always been humble, honest and forthright with his players.

Not that those values go hand in hand with a permanent stay in Pullman. But they suggest that Tony Bennett may not necessarily be just another “grass is greener” kind of guy.

Some coaches revel in always being the hot commodity; they love the attention that moving on to a new place automatically brings – guys like Larry Brown and Rick Pitino come to mind. They are egomaniacs who thrive off of being wanted.

Then there are certain people who understand the value of being appreciated where they are, content with what they have. I believe Bennett is one of them. It’s something that Mike Price failed to grasp when he left WSU after his second Rose Bowl appearance, only to be ambushed in Alabama by a bunch of good ‘ol boys who would rather die than have a Yankee carpetbagger run their beloved program.

Price could have been the king of Pullman, the kind of guy they name stadiums and streets after when they retire. Instead, he’s rehabilitating his image at a WAC school in El Paso, Texas, as the butt of stripper jokes.

Not to say that anything like that would happen to Bennett. But when he does decide to leave Pullman, it won’t simply be because some big school with seemingly endless resources wines and dines him before lavishing him with an eight-figure contract. It’ll be for the same reason you and I change jobs: Because the time is right to move on, to take on a new challenge.

That time isn’t here yet.

He loses only one senior from the team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and gains three players who are believed to be able to make an immediate impact: two recruits reported to be the as talented as any to come on campus in years, and guard Thomas Abercrombie, a physical specimen so prized the staff guarded his redshirt like it was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He’s even secured a verbal commitment from a 14-year-old phenom in Eastern Washington -- lofty territory previously reserved for Gonzaga.

The point is, Bennett’s got a good thing going. And he knows it.

While WSU has traditionally been the doormat of the Pac-10, it’s still the Pac-10. It never will be North Carolina, Duke or UCLA, but if Mark Few can manufacture a nationally known program in Spokane, you better believe Bennett can do the same in Pullman. Remember, this isn’t football, where weather and stadium size play a major factor in filling a 85-man roster; this is basketball, where quality 12-man rosters aren’t as difficult to assemble.

And while a coach never knows when his shooting star is going to flicker and fade – hence the reason so many jump ship so quickly in an effort to strike while the iron is hot – he also never truly knows if the situation he runs to is going to be better than the one he’s already in. Many are ready and willing to take that chance, figuring the security of the money will outweigh any potential pitfalls.

Bennett doesn't strike me as the kind of guy consumed by money. He'll want his deal to be fair, but who wouldn't? WSU owes him that much for the exposure and revenue he's generated for the university, and Athletics Director Jim Sterk is smart enough to give it to him.

Bennett is the kind of guy to embrace a certain quality of life. He already is beloved in Pullman, and I believe he genuinely likes it there. He’s got a new house, which he opens up to Campus Crusade for Christ meetings. He’s got a lot invested in the program – it’s not like his dad was the only one doing the building those first rocky years – and I believe he wants to see it through until it truly is time for a change.

Thankfully for Cougar fans, the time for change hasn’t come. When it does, it'll be at a time that's right for everyone.


Wrapping up the second round of the Tournament

After looking shaky in the first round, the Pac-10 seems to be comporting itself well as the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament wraps up.

It appears the conference will advance three teams to the Sweet Sixteen -- assuming USC's big lead against Texas holds up -- and was one shot and a double overtime away from putting a fourth team in. Barring a comeback by Kentucky against Kansas, the only other conference with three is the SEC.

As for the vaunted ACC, with its seven bids? Just one team -- No. 1 seed North Carolina -- into the second weekend. And the Big Ten, with its six bids? Also just one team -- No. 1 seed Ohio State.

Other observations:

  • I mentioned on Friday that if Texas could survive the first weekend, it would be dangerous. Ain't gonna happen. The Longhorns look flat gassed against a USC team that quite frankly seems like it could have the makings of a Final Four run. Of all the Pac-10 teams left in the Tournament, USC is the team I'd want to play the least. They are explosive offensively from so many positions and play suffocating defense. I cannot wait to watch them play the Tar Heels next weekend.
  • As I watched Oregon's Aaron Brooks slice and dice Winthrop, I'm left to wonder: How different might the result of the Cougars game have been if they had a playmaker along the lines of Brooks or USC's Nick Young? I know that would change the dynamic of that team, but after watching the way Derrick Byars took over for Vandy, I can't help but think what a difference it might have made to have someone who can create his own shot whenever his team needs. However, this realization leaves me that much more in awe of what that team accomplished ...
  • I went bold in picking Nevada to beat Memphis, who I thought was a bit overrated. And while I've pretty much looked silly in all of my upset picks -- more on that later -- I maintain that the Tigers are ripe for the picking. Nevada missed a lot of easy shots down the stretch -- gong four-plus minutes without a point in one late period -- and Memphis made free throws like it hasn't all year. (The Tigers shot about 67 percent for the entire season, yet made 76 percent against the Wolf Pack.) Don't let the final margin fool you -- this was a two-point game with four minutes to go.
  • What a great college career Nevada's Nick Fazekas had. I remember watching him as a freshman in the NCAA Tournament against Gonzaga and wondering, "How is this skinny kid taking over this game?" I wondered who he was, where he came from, and if what I was seeing was a fluke, as the Wolf Pack shocked the Bulldogs at KeyArena. Four years, 2,400 points and a few added pounds later, Fazekas proved to be no fluke, and is on his way to the NBA.
  • I'll admit I knew very little about UNLV. I wish I had known more -- they beat Wisconsin at their own game and simply made more plays down the stretch.
  • Oregon is going to be as tough as anyone to oust from this Tournament if they shoot 47 percent from 3-point range again.
That'll do it for today. I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts looking toward next weekend, and maybe even a few more thoughts on the Cougs. I hope you had fun with me this weekend -- I know I had a heck of a lot of fun writing and watching basketball.

See you tomorrow.

Home from church -- keeping an eye on UO/Winthrop, Purdue/Florida

I'm now settled in front of the TV, and I'll be keeping tabs on the two games mentioned above. I didn't get to see much of Virginia/Tennessee, but I'll admit that I thought Tennessee was pretty vulnerable coming into this tournament. From what I saw, the Vols looked awful tough today.

For those keeping track, the SEC's already got two teams in the Sweet Sixteen, with a chance to get another two in today.

Here's the latest Bracket Challenge standings. I'll have a full breakdown on each person's chances of winning tomorrow, but I'll post the updated standings as much as I can. Yes, that's me bringing up the distant rear. But I've still got all Final Fours alive, so I've got a chance ...


Thanks, Cougs, for one heck of a season

In a season of overachievements -- in this magical season where the improbable continued to happen time and time again -- the Cougars came up one overachievement short on Saturday when Vanderbilt eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament.

Faced with chance after chance to win the game, all of the various role players who had stepped up repeatedly during the season couldn’t find one more miracle buried somewhere deep within.

Daven Harmeling? Missed a wide-open 3 at the end of regulation.

Taylor Rochestie? One-for-7 from the field, five turnovers. Game-winning shot blocked at the end of the first overtime. Go-ahead 3-pointer off the mark at the end of the second overtime.

Even Mr. Dependable, All-Pac-10 guard Kyle Weaver, wasn’t immune. At one point in the second overtime, he committed turnovers on two consecutive possessions before an ill-fated post-up resulted in a wild bank shot that never caught rim.

We had become so accustomed to expecting the improbable, that when the probable happened – when this collection of mostly mid-major talents with high-major hearts failed to deliver in the clutch – we could hardly believe our eyes.

But it is, indeed, over. And there will be no shortage of second-guessing on the part of Coug fans who have been along for this ride since it started taking off in December.

But you won’t find that here.

See, I’m the guy who refused to get depressed when the Seahawks got screwed out of the Super Bowl, instead choosing to focus on just how much fun I had on the ride. And that’s what I’ll remember about this season.

I’ll remember making the trek to Pullman for the first time in years to watch the Cougs play Washington. I’ll remember how Beasley Coliseum, packed to the rafters, rocked like it hasn’t in more than a decade as Weaver dropped a perfect pass to Ivory Clark for a thunderous dunk that signified a seismic shift in basketball bragging rights, if only for a season.

I’ll remember clicking refresh on my browser in an effort to get one of the few hundred tickets the Huskies made available to the public online for the rematch in Seattle a few weeks later. I’ll remember the euphoria of securing three seats to that game – a Cougar game! I’ll remember hearing scalpers offer me hundreds of dollars for my tickets – again, I remind you, to a Cougar game.

And I’ll remember being heartbroken, as this magical season that went way too fast slipped away.

“There are a lot of good things to take from this season,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “But I’m hurting right now; it stings. I can tell you for sure I won’t be looking at the tape of this game tonight. It was a turnaround year, though, and that was our goal at the beginning of the season. After the game in the locker room, I told the kids, ‘As much as this hurts, gentlemen, I’m proud of what we accomplished this season.’ ”

And I’m proud of how this team, so disciplined and workmanlike in its underdog approach – never taking its success for granted – represented everything that’s great about Washington State University, the school that I love, sometimes for better or worse.

Of course I’ll be tempted to look forward to next year, given that only Clark graduates, and reinforcements are on the way. But for the moment, I’m going to focus on how much joy this team brought me this year.

“After that game, our guys understand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” Bennett said. “In time, it will hurt less. … It stings right now, but what an experience this tournament has been. It was special to taste this (the NCAAs) and experience it. The experience is golden.”

Thank you to Tony and the rest of the Cougs for a golden experience I won’t ever forget.

We asked for it, and we got it -- wild day takes it out of me;
Plus: What to expect tomorrow

So much for complaining about the uneventfulness of the first two days of the NCAA Tournament. The Big Dance never fails to deliver -- sometimes it just takes some time.

After a day in which three of the eight games went into overtime, the madness is back, thanks in no small part to the Cougs epic double overtime thriller with Vanderbilt. Even with the excitement, there were no major surprises in any of the outcomes, even though Virginia Commonwealth tried to become George Mason part two.

In fact, despite all the excitement, the higher seed actually won six of the eight games, with No. 5 seed Butler posting the only other upset, if you can call their win over No. 4 seed Maryland such a thing.

So I look forward to tomorrow -- thanks in no small part to my cathartic commentary above -- ready for another crazy day of basketball. I'll be back with more analysis tomorrow, but it won't be until later in the afternoon, as I'll be at church in the morning.

See you then.

Cougs ousted by Vandy; my heart actually still works

I'm spent. I'll be back later when I'm actually able to post some coherent thoughts.

The one thing that will stick with me, despite this unbelievable year, is that in the end a team that was so unbelievably poised and composed all year long absolutely lost its poise and composure in the last 2:30 of that second overtime. Turnovers, bad shots, poor decisions -- the works.

All the credit in the world to Vanderbilt. The first half showed why they lost to some awful teams. The second half showed why they beat Florida. That's a pretty darn good team.

Halftime breakdown: Cougars having their way with Vandy

I gotta say, that first half hardly could have gone better for the Cougs. Let's revisit my keys to the game and see how they're shaping up so far:

  1. Cougs’ perimeter defense against Vandy’s 3-point shooting: As we suspected, all those wide-open looks at the basket from long range that Vandy got against GW are nowhere to be found against the Cougars. The Commodores have gotten exactly one clean look from 3, and that represents their only make from beyond the arc. Holding the Commodores to 1-for-8 from 3-point range is a major reason the Cougars lead at the half.
  2. Tempo, tempo, tempo: Holding a team that scores 76 points per game to just 25 points at halftime is a major victory. The Cougars have absolutely imposed their will on Vanderbilt, completely controlling the pace and rendering the Commodores a half-court offensive team.
  3. 25-plus minutes for Aron Baynes: At halftime, Baynes has 13 minutes. So far, so good, as the big Aussie has helped the Cougars control the paint. Although they trail the Commodores in rebounding, 13-11, that's mostly due to the long rebounds caused by Vandy's missed jump shots. Baynes has four points on just two shots, but he's completely played iwthin himself.
So, how will the second half shake out? Well, I think it either will get very tight in a hurry, or it will become a blowout in WSU's favor. Why? Look for Vandy to try and get some better shots much earlier in its offense. They'll realize that they just can't win a half-court game, and that they're going to have to push the tempo and take the first decent look they get. If those shots fall, this game gets interesting. If they don't, the Cougs run away with it.

Early thoughts on the Cougars

Some early observations from the WSU/Vandy game:

  • About 12 minutes in and I'm wondering: Where the heck are all those 3s? Vandy's taken just six so far, and made none.
  • The Cougs are winning the battle of wills at the moment, as the game is being played at a pace to their liking. Aron Baynes has been very effective so far, drawing fouls inside and getting some rebounds on the defensive end. They'll need more of that from him.
  • I'm a little irritated that the Cougs are being a bit careless with the ball (already six turnovers), and that they're giving up offensive rebounds, but they're doing a nice job defensively so far. It's been four minutes since Vandy scored.
  • The refs need to swallow their whistles a bit. Lots of ticky-tack stuff being called so far, and I don't get the sense that either one of these teams wants to play that kind of game. Both are OK with a physical game.
  • Welcome back Daven Harmeling! Hit another couple of those, would ya?

The Madness has finallly begun as Ohio State hangs on

It happens every year. It happened to Florida last year against Georgetown and it happened to North Carolina the year before that against Villanova.

Has it now happened to Ohio State?

Teams rarely cruise to the Final Four without having to overcome some sort of close call against a lower seed, and that even goes for No. 1 seeds. The Buckeyes had what they hope will be their close call against Xavier this morning in probably the best game of this tournament so far, given that many -- including myself -- have the Buckeyes penciled in for a trip to Atlanta.

Everything was working against Ohio State today. The campuses of Xavier and OSU are separated by about 100 miles, yet they hadn't played since 1984 -- purely by Ohio State's choice. The Musketeers came out with a chip on their shoulders and never let up on the intensity. They hit some timely 3s to reach a 59-50 lead with about five minutes to go.

Yet the Buckeyes refused to wilt. The chipped their way back to put themselves in position to hit the game-tying 3 -- with a little help from Xavier with a missed free throw -- with next-to-no time left. Even with Greg Oden on the bench with five fouls, the Buckeyes calmly dominated overtime, making it clear to the Musketeers that they had missed their only shot to beat Ohio State.

I'm more confident than ever that Ohio State is headed to the Final Four.

Other thoughts from this morning:

  • As if you needed me to tell you this, Butler is pretty good. I think Maryland was a very underrated team heading into the tournament, and the Bulldogs calmly handled everything the Terps threw at them. They remind me a lot of the Cougars -- smart and scrappy. Watching them play Florida in the Sweet Sixteen should be a real treat.

What to expect today

Welcome back for Day 3 of the NCAA Tournament! I'll be parked in front of the TV again all day today, breaking down what I see. Among the things you can expect today:

  • WSU/Vandy game preview, already live on the site following this post.
  • Ongoing analysis of the games as they unfold.
  • A full WSU/Vandy breakdown following the conclusion of the game.
  • And, of course, continually updated Bracket Challenge standings -- just because I like to torture myself.
I hope you enjoy what you find today. Feel free to leave feedback on the posts with your own observations.

BIG GAME PREVIEW: Cougs face toughest matchup yet

Welcome to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a place many Cougar fans wondered if they’d ever see their team in their lifetime. How do the Cougs stack up with Vandy?

No. 3 Washington State (26-7, 13-5 Pac-10) vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt (21-11, 10-6 SEC East)

Line: Cougars by 1.5.

TV: 2:40 p.m. PDT, CBS (Ch. 7/107 in Seattle area).

Radio: 850-AM (WSU broadcast, Tacoma area)

Media releases (all in PDF): WSU gameday release, Vanderbilt gameday release, NCAA pregame notes and quotes

How the Cougars got here: After being a trendy pick to get upset in the first round by No. 14 seed Oral Roberts, WSU did little to dispel that notion in the first half of its opener, falling behind the Golden Eagles thanks to a large dose of really cold shooting. All of that changed in a five-second span at the end of the first half when Kyle Weaver followed a Taylor Rochestie layup with a steal and dunk to close the gap to two points heading into the locker room.

It was all Cougars from there, as they outscored Oral Roberts 44-26 in the second half behind efficient offense and suffocating defense. The turnaround was keyed by forward Ivory Clark, who finished with 19 points – including 8-of-8 shooting from the free throw line – and five blocks.

How the Commodores got here: Is there an NCAA Tournament team that has been harder to figure this year than Vandy? Yes, the Commodores had six wins against ranked opponents – including No. 1 Florida in mid-February – but they also lost to such luminary programs as Furman, Appalachian State, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State. They lost twice in a row to No. 12 seed Arkansas to end the season, but then beat No. 11 seed George Washington by 33 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Go figure.

In that game against the Colonials, the Commodores shot the lights out to put GW away nice and early. They hit 10 of their first 12 3-pointers and the rout was on. Interestingly, SEC player of the year Derrick Byars didn’t even have that great of a game. The explosive guard did finish with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists, but most of that came in the second half when the game was already out of reach.

Keys to the Game

  1. Cougs’ perimeter defense against Vandy’s 3-point shooting: The Cougars’ problems with teams that shoot the 3 well have been well documented. In six of their seven losses this year, WSU allowed its opponent to shoot better than 46 percent. The Cougars’ pack-it-in defense invites 3-point shots, and that’s the way Vandy wants it. The Commodores will shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot some more. Guard Dan Cage led the SEC in 3-point shooting at 46 percent. The Commodores average more than 25 3-point attempts a game, and are just about as good as anyone when they’re falling – just ask the Gators. When they’re not falling? Well … just ask Furman or Appalachian State.
  2. Tempo, tempo, tempo: This is going to sound like a broken record, but Vandy is another team that likes to push the tempo. They average better than 76 points a game, but the interesting thing is that their favorite shot out of transition is the 3-pointer. Can the Cougars find the shooters coming off a miss? They’ve struggled with that at times this year – the two losses to Oregon come to mind – and it will be absolutely key to this game. Three-point shooters just want to get their feet set, and if they can’t do it in the half-court game, they’ll look to do it transition.
  3. 25-plus minutes for Aron Baynes: Much has rightfully been made of Ivory Clark’s stellar performance against ORU. But the Cougars have been at their best down the stretch when the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Aussie is effective inside. He didn’t play much against the Golden Eagles, as 6-foot-8 Caleb Green was just too quick for him inside. WSU coach Tony Bennett will have an interesting decision when it comes to Clark and Baynes: Does he go primarily with Clark, who is the better perimeter defender? Or does he go with Baynes in an effort to control the tempo and pound the smallish Commodores inside? If Baynes gets 25-plus minutes, that likely means the game is going the way the Cougars want it.

Prediction: Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is usually all about matchups, and the Cougars could hardly have gotten a more difficult one for them in the second round of this tournament. Vandy is the Cougars’ worst nightmare: A team that shoots the 3-pointer without conscience. The question become this: Can WSU expect Vanderbilt to shoot as well as it did in its opener? Much has been made of that 10-for-12 start from long range against GW – so much that no one seems to have noticed the Commodores shot 2-for-19 after that.

It’s awfully, awfully difficult to have two consecutive hot shooting halves in the NCAA Tournament, let alone two consecutive hot shooting games. And while Vandy probably feels pretty good about its whipping of George Washington, even the Commodores would have to admit that outcome had more to do with the Colonials not even getting off the bus than it did with some sort of complete game by Vandy.

The Cougars will show up for this game, and they will bring an intensity the Commodores might not be ready for. GW committed a whopping 20 turnovers against Vandy in the opener; WSU committed only six – just one in the second half. My bet? Vandy falls in love with the 3-pointer, only this time the shots aren’t falling with such regularity, as Cougars swarm at their feet. Meanwhile, the Cougars do what they do on offense to maintain control of the game. The Commodores hit just enough 3s to keep it close, but the Cougars’ toughness wins out in the end. WSU 60, Vanderbilt 58.


Round 1 wraps up the way it began: Uneventfully

Thirty-two games in the books, and I've got to say I truly can't remember a more uneventful first two days of the NCAA Tournament. Of those 32 games, the higher seeds won 27 of them.

Yuck. Not exactly March Madness.

Let's hope this translates into some excitement over the next two days, as schools play for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Coming up tomorrow: I'll have a full preview of the WSU/Vandy matchup, as well as a breakdown of the first round of the Bracket Challenge. Needless to say, I'm not exactly looking forward to that second one ...

Tough luck for Illinois as yet another 12 seed goes down

Gotta feel for Bruce Webber and Illinois.

After leading for pretty much the entire game against Virginia Tech behind hard-nosed defense and workmanlike offense, the Illini had a chance to win the game down by one with about 20 seconds to go.

The only problem is, they never were able to get off the shot, thanks to the referees.

I don’t know what referee crew was working that game, but they should be fined or suspended for what they allowed to transpire. It’s commonplace for referees to allow an extra measure of contact in the waning moments of a contest, but the no-call in the last minute of that game was beyond egregious. If you didn’t see it, you should – the shooter got absolutely raked across the wrist bringing the ball up to shooting position, and the ball squirted straight up in the air without the ball getting near the rim.

Illinois got another chance when an overzealous Tech defender fouled on a loose ball, but, down two, the 60 percent free throw shooter was unable to even convert the front end of the one-and-one.

I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that another one of my Sweet Sixteen picks was able to survive, so I’m not sad Illinois lost. You just hate to see it happen that way.

Other thoughts from the early evening games:

  • The Pac-10 isn’t exactly doing itself any favors in this Tournament. While UCLA and WSU looked pretty impressive in their openers, Oregon looked shaky, Stanford looked horrible, and now Arizona is out after losing to Purdue in yet another inexplicably uninspired NCAA Tournament game. The Boilermakers absolutely outplayed, outworked and outhustled the Wildcats, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds and winning just about every loose ball. How a team can look so dispassionate in the NCAA Tournament is completely beyond me. The Wildcats have so much talent, yet after 30 or so games, they still couldn’t figure out how to play together. Back to the drawing board, Lute.

  • Don’t be fooled by the close margin in the Texas/New Mexico State game. Reggie Theus has assembled a pretty good collection of talent down there in Las Cruces, and showed a good ability to make nice adjustments throughout the game against the Longhorns. A prime example: When Texas had stretched its lead out to 12 midway through the second half, I turned to my wife and said, “Game over.” That’s typically when an undermanned mid-major runs out of gas. Theus put the foot to the gas, calling for a full-court press, and few 3’s later, the Aggies were right back in it. If you’re looking for a little Gonzaga-type action, NMSU might tickle your fancy for the next few years.

  • Another reason not to be fooled by the closeness of that game? Texas was playing its fourth game in eight days after playing three in three days in the Big 12 Tournament. In those three games, Texas’ big three – Durant, Augustin and Abrams – each played at least 36 minutes in each game. They all played over 40 minutes in the OT thriller against Kansas in the championship on Sunday. Don’t forget: Durant and Augustin are freshmen; Durant especially looked a bit lethargic today. If the Longhorns can survive this weekend and get a little rest next week, I think they can make the run most of us believe they’re capable of.

  • USC/Arkansas just tipped off, and six minutes in, the Trojans better figure out a way to match the Razorbacks’ intensity. Arkansas definitely doesn’t look like a team just happy to be here after its improbable SEC Tournament run. Here’s to betting if USC can withstand the early adrenaline-fueled storm, the Trojans’ talent will take over and they’ll win.

Latest Bracket Challenge standing above. Newsflash: I still suck.

Oregon hangs on -- barely

And that, my friends, is why people who've got the Ducks going past the Sweet Sixteen should be very afraid for their brackets.

I mentioned earlier that Oregon was a one-trick pony that was vulnerabe if their 3-point shots weren't falling. I stand by that analysis after Miami of Ohio -- you know, the team that needed a banked 3-pointer at the buzzer of its conference tournament just to get into the Dance -- nearly sent the Ducks home in the biggest upset of the Tournament.

Oregon shot just 29 percent from 3-point range in the unfamiliar confines of the Spokane Arena, and should feel fortunate the committee put them up to a No. 3 seed after their Pac-10 Tournament championship. Had the Ducks been a lower seed and faced a tougher team, they'd be on their way back to Eugene.

The bottom line is this: When UCLA, Washington State or USC run into rough stretches, or find themselves in close games, they can rely on their defense to help win the game. When Oregon's offense goes into hybernation, the Ducks are in trouble. They allowed the RedHawks -- not exactly known as an offensive juggernaut -- to shoot 48 percent from the field and make a late run even after Oregon held a double-digit lead late. They simply cannot get defensive stops when they need them.

I've got Oregon going to the Sweet Sixteen, but today is precisely the reason I couldn't in good concience pick them to go further. But who knows? They get hot for another couple of games, and they could make me look stupid again.

Goodness knows I've been awful good at that lately. Just look at the latest Bracket Challenge standings through 1 1/2 rounds ...

I still hate CBS, but now I hate KIRO a lot less

As those of you who were reading yesterday know, CBS and its Seattle affiliate KIRO drew my ire when the WSU/ORU game wasn't offered in HD in the Seattle area.

Well, I've got to take a step back, and give KIRO some props.

The fact that there was a separate HD feed got me thinking: There must be a separate feed on their standard definition channel, meaning there might be a chance that there are two different games on. Sure enough, there was a different game on. So I got to flip back and forth between the two.

Then I found out that KIRO has a secondary channel on Comcast digital Ch. 117. Applying the same logic, I flipped over there. Sure enough, I was watching THREE different games -- without paying an extra penny. Sorry, DirecTV suckers.

Sometimes CBS would have the same game on all three -- such as when Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was giving Wisconsin a run -- but most of the time there were three different games on. KIRO even made the Oregon game, which I'm watching as we speak, available on 117 while they showed The Price Is Right on their standard def. main channel.

I'm still a little ticked about the HD, but this makes it almost all better. Thanks, KIRO.