Posted on: March 27, 2011 10:18 pm
Edited on: March 27, 2011 10:39 pm

East wrap-up: the best and worst of 15 games

Posted by Matt Norlander

NEWARK, N.J. — Kentucky is back in the Final Four for the first time in 13 years. With all the attention this program gets, it doesn't seem like it's been that long, but is has.

And John Calipari has done it in just his second year. Pretty incredible; this is the exact expectation Wildcats fans had for him when he took the job in 2009. Who's to say what Calipari will do next week, how long he'll stay at Kentucky and what will come with that. But at a bare minimum, the next guy who steps in already has pressure. Two years and you better be in the Final Four. That's just how Big Blue Nation works.

The Wildcats got here in many ways. Sort of crazy to think about his team nearly getting knocked out by Princeton in the first round. Brandon Knight played horribly in that game. But he uses his athleticism to get an angle, hits a leaning runner, the game-winner, and Kentucky moves on. Then the West Virginia game saw Joe Mazzulla channel Jerry West yet again for the Mountaineers, and the Wildcats were certainly sweating again. Remember: West Virginia prevented Kentucky from going to a Final Four last year. Then, wow, Kentucky made its free throws down the stretch (!) and on to the next weekend it was.

We've covered everything you need to know about that Ohio State game, but looking back, it's very possible Kentucky won't have a tougher game, a closer game, a game more defining to its character than that. Such things become true when you play, and beat, the No. 1 overall seed. And Sunday night against North Carolina, Kentucky hit its 3s (an impressive 55 percent of them) and held North Carolina from doing the same (14 percent). It was a solid regional final that wrapped up one of the best second weekends in tournament history.

Amid all this: Jorts. Josh Harrellson continues to be a story, and rightfully so. He, Brandon Knight and Calipari will be the three big stories in the upcoming week. Kentucky certainly earned this, despite having a team with less talent than last year. Always intriguing to see what the tournament spits out into its Final Four. More about the matchups than individual personnel. One lingering thought: Kentucky's fan presence in Newark wasn't overwhelming. That could speak to expectation, or it could speak to Newark. But I'm fairly certain Houston is going to become Lexington South because, while UConn will travel decently, there's no way that school, Butler's contingent and VCU's fans can match what Kentucky can and will bring.

Regional MVP: Brandon Knight. Without Harrellson, Kentucky probably doesn't get here. Without Knight, it definitely doesn't. The Wildcats' freshman point guard hit two game-winners and paced this team to this Final Four. He's a smart kid who doesn't try to live up to the spotlight he's put under. Handles success very well. Kemba Walker will receive the most attention, but Knight deserves to sit right next to him.

All-Regional team

F Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
F Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
F Josh Harrellson, Kentucky
F DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky
G Brandon Knight, Kentucky

Game to remember: Kentucky 62, Ohio State 60. Many expected this one to be good, but as most good games go, we don't expect them to be that good. The East had its share of really nice games, but with so much on the line, and with the upset factor involving the top seed, this takes the cake. Plus, Kentucky proving worthwhile by going out and winning its next game, it only adds to the wave effect of this one in the region.

Game to forget: Ohio State 98, George Mason 66. The Buckeyes never looked more impressive this season than when they opened up with an 11-2 deficit against the Patriots … then went on a 96-55 run, swiftly killing off any notions of 2006 with the eighth-seeded George Mason. At the very least, we wanted GMU to tempt us. It never did.

Biggest disappointment: Syracuse. Some argued the Orange weren’t worth their three seed, but even if that was the case, falling before getting to the Sweet 16 still seemed a letdown. Perhaps only in this universe was this possible, as Syracuse was forced to do something no other team had to prior to the 2011 NCAA tournament: play an in-conference foe in the first weekend. Boeheim's team was deserving of the second weekend.

Best individual performance in a losing effort: Hard to ignore Jared Sullinger's 21-and-16 performance in the regional semis. Again, the game was that good and that important. You may have heard what Sullinger said after the game.

Most memorable moments:

  • Diebler hitting the 3 to tie the game at 60, then Knight coming down and hitting the game-winning shot in Aaron Craft’s eye. Best part? There were no timeouts to stagnate play.  
  • The bad backcourt-violation call on Scoop Jardine that helped end Syracuse’s season in the third round against Marquette.
  • Knight having a miserable game against Princeton ... then hitting the game-winning shot.
  • North Carolina getting pushed to its brink against a Washington team that nearly gave us an upset many pegged from the get-go.
  • Venoy Overton's dumb shots.
  • John Henson's dumb reactions to dumb shots.
  • Buzz Williams' ramblings in press conferences.
  • Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Liggins absolutely jawing with each other. It got really volatile, and it was fantastic theater.
  • It's easy to forget this (so why is it here, in a way, I know), but George Mason beat Villanova in the first game on the opening Thursday of the tournament. GMU won, 61-57, and jump-started an amazing opening afternoon of basketball.
  • Sullinger declaring he'll be back next season.

Team to watch out for next year: Ohio State. Jared Sullinger and William Buford have vowed to return. After some initial skepticism, more and more people are beginning to believe both. The Buckeyes can’t improve their seed — like, at all; remember, they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament — but could be as close to this good next year, should the two stick to their word and return.

Photo: US Presswire

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Posted on: March 21, 2011 12:43 am
Edited on: March 21, 2011 1:57 am

East Regional preview: Ohio State looms large

Posted by Matt Norlander

Oh, we were so close to a 1-2-3-4 regional semifinal in Newark. But Marquette pulled out a win against Syracuse thanks, in part, to one of a handful of blown calls this weekend, and so we’ve got three sexy temptresses and an ugly stepsister. Hey, I love Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles, but they’re clearly out of place in Newark. No game will get more run and buzz than Ohio State-Kentucky, and rightfully so. It’ll be the nation’s favorite for the national championship playing against the team with the nation’s most rabid fanbase. It’s a Final Four-worthy game, but mis-seeding leads us here. Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg will be the ones on the call for these games. The games will be played Friday and Sunday.

Three storylines dominating Newark

1. Ohio State has looked better than anyone else. Will it continue to bulldoze en route to a championship?
2. Will UNC continue to ascend thanks to the play of Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall?
3. North Carolina and Marquette playing in the tournament for the first time since the 1977 national championship.

How They Get to Houston

No. 1 Ohio State: The Buckeyes get out of this region if they stare ahead and keep on doing what they’ve been doing. Don’t deviate from your habits, and you’ll be just fine, Bucks. David Lighty’s incredible shooting has been a huge boost, but that’s just one of the pieces falling into place to get Ohio State its second national championship in school history. I like how many are now seeing what I’ve been saying since mid-January: Ohio State is a great basketball team. Parity abounds? To an extent, but the ‘Eyes rise above. It’s going to take a national championship for that to be nearly universally recognized, but Thad Matta’s team hasn’t done anything to prove me wrong so far.

No. 2 North Carolina: Get big play from Harrison Barnes and hope Kendall Marshall continues to dish out assists in the double-digits. It needs to force the tempo and hope it can out-run teams and kill them on the secondary break. I know, what else is new. John Henson needs to avoid goaltending, too. John Henson needs to avoid dumb plays, period. He’s too good and long to be giving teams chances late.

No. 4 Kentucky: If Brandon Knight continues to play like he wants to make the most money possible in the NBA, then Kentucky will stand a chance. Knight kept UK in the game against West Virginia when Joe Mazzulla was channeling Jerry West and putting Wildcats fans into cold sweats. When Knight’s on, Terrence Jones improves. The problem is, this team’s young — a trait John Calipari’s teams will forever embody — and so it needs to grow up fast. Calipari’s a great coach, but his teams can act dumb on the regular, holding them from their potential. That can’t happen if UK wants to get by Ohio State/North Carolina.

No. 11 Marquette: Get a lot of luck and prevent all the above teams from running. Marquette doesn’t know how to win pretty, and it loses close as often as it wins. In fact, if you look around at the other regions, you could make the argument that no team faces a tougher road to reach Houston than this one, a Big East member.

Newark's five best players

1. Jared Sullinger: No way a Naismith finalist isn’t making the top of this list. The other three guys who join him — Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Nolan Smith — populate other regions. No need to toss out stats or further emphasize the big man’s ability and impact. You know he’s that good, so let’s move on.
2. Brandon Knight: Knight’s not as flashy as John Wall was last year, but he’s better for this team
3. Kendall Marshall: Marshall is an incredible point guard. He’s got great vision and ability to put the ball wherever he wants on the floor. If he had more athleticism, it’d be scary, and he’d be above Knight. Without Marshal, UNC’s not in the Sweet 16. That simple.
4. Harrison Barnes: Barnes’ natural talent and increased aggressiveness are too much to keep him off this list. But if UNC’s to move on, Barnes will need to have a couple of signature games next weekend.
5. David Lighty: Kentucky fans may complain Terrence Jones doesn’t crack the top five, but even they can’t deny his disappearing acts that have plagued his play for the better part of the past two months. Lighty is a critical player for Ohio State. Think Ricky Moore when Connecticut won it in 1999. Lighty’s that, and more, as he’s a sneaky sniper on the offense end.

The Ohio State Buckeyes will cut down the nets (if they choose to do so; sometimes favored teams don’t want to engage in this act until the first Monday in April) because they’re the most complete and talented team. As I stated above, they’ve done nothing to sway me from shifting my seat on the bandwagon, let alone leaping off. Maybe the veteran play of Lighty, Diebler and Buford proves most vital in these two games.

Photo: AP
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Category: NCAAB
Tags: East, East Region
Posted on: March 19, 2011 1:22 am
Edited on: March 19, 2011 1:28 am

Tepid Friday makes us appreciate the good days

Posted by Matt Norlander

Not only can't they all be great, most of them are doomed not to be.

When you've got 32 games on Thursday and Friday, the odds off getting more than five or six of those to be a combination of double-digit upsets and/or last-second buzzer-beating finishes aren't high. So, after a satisfying — if also sputtering — Thursday session, Friday wasn't that great.

In fact, I'm being nice: Friday was sub-par and somewhat brutal to sit through, which I did from the comfort of my uncle's couch out here in Denver. I debated taking a jog through the Rockies just to dodge the brutal ball all over the four channels providing tournament coverage.

Overall, the odds played out like they normally do, though. We had George Mason and Villanova playing out an 8-9 game as we wish they all could be played out, and Arizona-Memphis brought us some drama and controversy. Washington, as its wont to do, made things suspect near the end of its game with No. 10 Georgia, but it did get out of Charlotte with a three-point win. The only other game worth listing under the somewhat-worthwhile category from Friday is Texas-Oakland, and even though that ended up being a four-point spread, it didn't even feel all that urgent.

Outside of that: forgettable stuff. The average difference between winner and loser on Friday: 15.4 points. Now, part of that had to do with three one seeds being involved. And if you need more evidence of how inept the opening two days were as a whole, look at this stat.

How about the Chicago pod: Notre Dame kills Akron; Purdue takes St. Peter's behind a woodshed; Florida State makes us forget Texas A&M even had a basketball team this season; and VCU — one of two true upsets, albeit boring ones, Friday — ended Georgetown's 2011 campaign the way No. 14 Ohio did to the Hoyas in 2010.

The point here isn't to lament the slow grind. It's to praise the good days and great games, however seldom they may come in March. We always want the majority of the games to keep us sweating and screaming, but it's never been that way. There's a reason why you can only pick out in your mind 25 or 30 games in tournament history.

We were so eager to make this Thurday even better than last year's first day. Do you remember how good last year's opening day was? The 2011 version couldn't touch it. And that's perfectly fine. 

Me? I'm just happy we've got two more days and 16 more chances to get to see thrilling basketball. Then a few more after that in the next, final two weekends.

Oh, and I'm also happy to report I'm leading the charge in the CBSSports.com picks department. Look at Doyel just chewing on my dust. I'll enjoy that carpet ride while I can; it's sure to end by Sunday night, good games or not.

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 18, 2011 5:33 pm
Edited on: March 18, 2011 5:42 pm

Video: The frenetic ending to George Mason-'Nova

Posted by Matt Norlander

Even if there haven't been exciting upsets early today, like what we saw yesterday (part of that is a lack of 11-6, 12-5 and 13-4 games), we've still had a couple of edge-of-your-couch endings. Afternoon, weekday tournament basketball is just the best, isn't it?

One of the big story lines heading into the weekend: George Mason is back in the second round for the first time since its Final Four run in 2006. The Patriots came from behind to take out No. 9 Villanova and win, 61-57. Exclusive CBSSports.com video below shows the final frames of the Patriots' rally, which was capped off with a Luke Hancock, go-ahead 3, then an emphatic Mike Morrison slam just before time expired.

Let me remind you: Mason was the higher-seeded team and is certainly a better one than Villanova. Villanova's season started with a 16-1 record. It ends at 21-12 and out in the first round. But no matter: the George Mason will, for a long, long time, elicit similar notions and feelings that Gonzaga and Butler do.

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Category: NCAAB
Posted on: March 16, 2011 3:22 am
Edited on: March 16, 2011 4:53 am

Clemson looks the part

Posted by Jeff Borzello

People who thought that neither Clemson nor UAB deserved to make the NCAA tournament were hoping to see a poorly played debacle of a game better suited for the NIT.

Instead, they saw one team that can potentially upset West Virginia and, well, whatever UAB was on Tuesday.

Clemson was clearly motivated by the detractors, going on an 18-2 run early in the first half to jump out to a 25-7 lead. The Tigers never looked back from there, cruising to a 70-52 win that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

UAB made six two-point shots. That’s it. The Blazers were 6-for-24 from two-point range, needing to knock down 12 3-pointers to stay within striking distance (if striking distance was four possessions or so). They turned the ball over 19 times and took just seven foul shots.

It certainly wasn’t the type of effort that would make anyone think UAB deserved a bid to the NCAA tournament.

On the other side, though, Clemson certainly proved the doubters wrong. The Tigers used pressure defense and transition baskets to get off to an early lead, and then staved off UAB runs with timely steals and points around the rim. Clemson absolutely dominated the paint, getting 43 points and 17 rebounds from the post trio of Jerai Grant, Devin Booker and Milton Jennings.

Will Clemson continue to use the extra motivation and give West Virginia a run for its money come Thursday at noon? As an aside, why is Clemson even playing at noon on Thursday? A 36-hour turnaround seems unfair.

The Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season, with competitive losses to Duke and North Carolina the only negatives since mid-February. With the way they are playing defense, they can upset West Virginia.

The Mountaineers can be prone to turnovers, and Clemson’s aggressive defense will look to exploit that weakness. West Virginia is not a good shooting team at all, and can stagnate offensively. The key for the Tigers will be their ability to box out on the defensive end. West Virginia is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and Clemson does struggles at times to rebound consistently.

West Virginia is more physical than Clemson, so the Tigers will need to use their speed and transition game to get points. If they can force turnovers and not allow too many second-chance opportunities for West Virginia, keep an eye on this game.

Win or lose, it's tough to imagine another question concerning Clemson's inclusion in the field of 68. 

As for UAB...  

Photo: US Presswire

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Posted on: March 15, 2011 5:44 pm

Ready or not, the NCAA does, truly start tonight

Posted by Matt Norlander

You may not be fully engaged or in love with the idea of a 68-team field, and it doesn't feel that formal, but like it or not, the Big Bracket gets underway tonight.

It's different from the past 10 years, when that one, random, opening-round (yes, yes, it's a play-in; we all called it a play-in, and we'll all call these play-ins) game never got a lot of traction. That was as much about it being two 16 seeds as it was the fact the game rarely was good. In fact, no game in the past eight years has been decided by less than eight points. So the apathy gets compounded.

I am not here to break down the UNC-Asheville-Arkansas-Little Rock game, nor Clemson-UAB.

I am here to say: I'm intrigued to see how tonight plays out. The teams will have the most minimal impact on the bracket, big-picture, but how does truTV handle its moment on the stage? Will people even be watching these games? Jim Nantz, Steve Kerr and Clark Kellogg get their dress rehearsal tonight for the Final Four in April. Is that enough time? We'll see.

But loads of national media have descended upon Dayton, and it may never be this way again. The at-large winners aren't a sexy group; Dayton is housing so much press because it's the first time the First Four is a ... thing.

Somewhat swiftly, the 2011 NCAA tournament does start tonight. I get the feeling nobody's ready for it. We like that slow boil throughout the week. It's what we're used to. Heck, no one's considering these games as factors in pools. Curiosity, more than thirst, is driving me and others to the TV tonight. I think I'll always consider Thursday the real gunshot-in-the-air beginning to The Dance. Won't you?

As for the predictable laments about how to see tonight's tilts, if you need to know where to find the game, Gary has a number memorized for you.

Photo: AP

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Category: NCAAB
Tags: East, Southeast
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