Monday, February 05, 2007

NCAA Hoops: Rivalry Week!

And so begins the final push for the NCAA tournament. You've got contentious conference play for the next couple of weeks with the various Conference tournaments starting up shortly thereafter. It is perfect timing, as the NFL came to its rather thud-like ending on Sunday.

Let's review some key games from tonight (with one eye drawn to the Duke vs NC game upcoming this week).

The marquee match-up of tonight was probably Texas vs. Texas Tech. Again, I find the headline writer over at CBS Sportsline to have made an odd choice in words (how does a team get "outduel[ed]" by 18 points? Admittedly, this game was close at times, but not for the final 8 minutes or so. Nothing against Dick Vitale (OK, I have lots against Vitale, but I'm putting that aside at this moment) but I seriously doubt Alando Tucker "would vote Kevin Durant player of the year, baby!". Especially, aside from an impressive run to open the second half, he was clearly straining to find himself in the game. 28 points sounds impressive, but 9 of 23 shooting definitely does not. He took quite a few bad shots--certainly he knows he's Texas' best chance to win every game he's in, but he simply forced too many of those shots. And I say that as someone who said a week or two ago that Kevin Durant is clearly the best freshman in the NCAA this year. I love the guy's game. Texas A&M makes a lot of people not look particularly settled in offense, or even downright terrible. Durant didn't look downright terrible by any stretch. His first half was good, and the first 6 minutes of the second half were incredible. But no one becomes Player of the Year going 9 of 23 from the field, 6 of 10 from the free throw line.

The other game that would have been a marquee match-up, just last year, was Syracuse and Connecticut. This year, both teams are working just to make the Big East tournament, never mind the NCAA. Connecticut lost a ton of guys last year (5 players drafted in two rounds? Jesus!) and Syracuse has yet to truly recover from the loss of Carmelo Anthony (or was it finally, somehow, graduating Gerry McNamara that led to their struggles this year?)

Regardless, Connecticut won in what had to be considered a must-win for them, 67-60. Jimmy Calhoun's 500th victory for UConn, which is nice for him. UConn had a nice, balanced attack against Syracuse, but the game was sloppy and full of fouls, real and imagined. Both of teams have some work to do (they are a combined 1 game under .500 in Big East play) if they want a real postseason. Feels weird to write that about either team, much less both of them. If I had to pick one to make some noise towards the end of the year, I suppose I go with UConn. I hope my doubt is shining adequately through here.

I'd like to highlight a couple of teams that have a much better chance of making the Big Dance.

The mighty Catamounts of Vermont came back from a huge deficit to Boston University to win 72-63, and to go to 9-1 in the little heralded America East conference. Vermont has quietly built a pretty decent program. They could pose match-up problems for teams that don't have a dominant big man (something that Vermont is lacking as well).

The Northern Iowa Panthers have been a favorite of mine for the past few years, and last year was the break out season for the Missouri Valley Conference in general. It seems possible that the MVC could send 5 teams to the NCAA tournament, but Northern Iowa didn't do themselves any favors tonight, losing to near bottom of conference dwellers, Indiana State, 59-46. To be fair, aside from the teams at the very top of this conference, Creighton and Southern Illinois, the conference is just beating the crap out of each other. Consider: The once nationally ranked Shockers of Wichita State aren't even in the Top half of the conference. At the same time, they are only 2 games out of 3rd place.

Coming tomorrow: more Rivalry week, including Michigan at Ohio State, LSU at Tennessee, and UVA at Maryland.

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