Iron Maiden asked Can I Play With Madness?

Starting this week the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

March Madness turns up a notch this week, Championship Week to be specific.

Championship Week, a warmup for college hoops fanatics, is the time for all good teams(and bad ones too) to take aim at an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. No sleepless nights knowing the fate of your season is in the hands of some suits in a room parsing over “analytics”. You win. You’re in.

The greatest thing about this week is everyone believes they can punch a ticket to the Big Dance.

 

One of the uncanny things that happens on a yearly basis is the top seeds in some of these smaller conferences gag and cough up their automatic bid by being upset by a lower seeded team. This, for some, ends what was a tremendous season. For others it places them firmly on the bubble, hoping the committee gives a nod to the “little guy” for a change.

Northern Iowa is one such team this year. The Panthers won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season crown, but was summarily dismissed by eighth seed Drake in the first round of the conference tournament. Now the Panthers must wait, with all fingers and toes crossed, that they can still sneak a bid to the Big Dance.

This is just the beginning of Championship Week. There will be more Northern Iowas out there. No doubt some bid stealers will pop up, putting some of the big boys who thought they were firmly in the tournament a week ago firmly on that precarious bubble. This is when you start searching for Cinderella. She’s lurking out there, perhaps in one of the smaller conferences. A team that may have looked dead in the water a couple of weeks ago, but their mojo emerges during Championship Week.

The excitement got underway this past weekend and will take us straight up to Selection Sunday. Here’s a look around the country at some things to look for during Championship Week.

ACC

  • Favorite: Duke. It’s always Duke.
  • Who needs it: NC State probably needs to win two games to secure a bid.
  • Who I wouldn’t want to play: Clemson. The Tigers beat Duke, Louisville, and Florida State this year. They are capable.
  • Player to watch: Jordan Nwora. Louisville’s star has disappeared in some games this year. When he is firing on all cylinders the Cardinals go to a new level.
  • Who will win: Louisville. The Cards will beat Virginia and then pay back Florida State to win it.However, they must keep this guy away. Bill Murray’s son is a Louisville assistant coach and they haven’t won this year with him in attendance. So, no assistance from Bill and the Cards will be good.

SEC

  • Favorite: Kentucky. Having Ashton Hagans back will help.
  • Who needs it: Mississippi St needs to get to championship game and Arkansas, with 11 conference losses, probably needs to win the tournament.
  • Who I wouldn’t want to play: This was a really subpar year for this conference, but if I had one team to avoid it would be Texas A&M. Buzz Williams has the Aggies trending up, and he knows how to dance in March.
  • Player to watch: Skylar Mays of LSU has the ability to put a team on his back.
  • Who will win: Kentucky. The Cats are head and shoulders better than everyone else in the SEC.

Big East

  • Favorite: Take your pick. I’m not sure anyone comes in as the “favorite”. I picked Creighton out of my hat.
  • Who Needs It: I think the top 7 are in, but a win against Villanova in the quarterfinals would make Xavier feel less bubbly.
  • Who I wouldn’t want to play: Providence. The Friars literally have flames coming off of them.
  • Player to watch: Myles Powell. He’s a senior and will want to leave his mark in The Garden.
  • Who will win: This has the making of a great conference tournament.
    Despite the last week, I think Seton Hall will run the table in New York.

Big 12

  • Favorite: Kansas. Of course.
  • Who needs it: After a horrific performance Saturday against Oklahoma State, Texas could use a first round win over Texas Tech to make Selection Sunday a little less nerve wracking.
  • Who I wouldn’t want to play: Texas Tech. They are defending national runner up and have the best coach in the league. They’ve been close in so many games.
  • Player to watch: Devon Dotson is probably player of the year, but also keep an eye on Kristian Doolittle of Oklahoma who has quietly been nearly as impactful.
  • Who will win: Baylor. The Bears have been wobbly of late, but will flex their muscles in Kansas City.

PAC 12

  • Favorite: Oregon. The Ducks haven’t quite been as sharp lately, but the rest of the conference has hit the skids.
  • Who needs it: After Stanford’s lost weekend in the Beaver state, they could probably use a win in the tournament. Arizona State could calm coach Bobby Hurley by winning a game or two.   Or not.
  • Who I wouldn’t want to play: Washington and Oregon State. Washington has three NBA players on their roster, and took all season to finally look good. This past weekend in Arizona they looked very good. Oregon State has a veteran team who had high expectations this year. They will play like it because they have to.
  • Player to watch: Onyeka Okongwu of USC may be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft because he can do things like this.
  • Who will win: Oregon. Nothing would surprise me here. Stanford, USC, Colorado, UCLA and even Washington are possibilities.

Big Ten

  • Favorite: Michigan State, as usual. They looked down and almost out in mid-February. They haven’t lost since.
  • Who needs it: Purdue. I’ve been saying it here for awhile, and ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi stated this weekend a new category should be added to team’s resumes: TML(too many losses). Purdue has to win the tournament. Indiana could make their Selection Sunday easier with at least one win, although Archie Miller clearly thinks they are in. He appears to not be a fan of bracketology.

If we are talking Sesame Street then this must be Miller.

  • Who would I not want to play: Minnesota. They have been so close all year, and they have a stud in Daniel Oturu. The law of averages says they will finally win one of those close ones.
  • Player to watch: Cassius Winston. If he is controlling games, look out for the Spartans come Big Dance time.
  • Who will win: Michigan State. Izzo. March. Enough said.

So Championship Week is upon us, and as always will provide great moments. Guys you never heard of will shine. Cinderella’s will emerge. Bid stealers will torture the teams on the bubble, making their week tense and their prospects tenuous.

Championship Week is an appetizer, but eat up. You can’t overeat on March Madness. It’s a buffet, so sample a little of everything.

Two Cent Takes

~Of the five teams that have already put on their dancing shoes, Utah State is the one to keep a close eye on. They have two legitimate scorers in Neemias Queta and Sam Merrill. Queta would be at home in the Redwood Forest considering his build. He’s a handful in the paint. Merrill is a flat out assassin, as proven by his cold blooded three to beat San Diego State and win the conference championship. They were my preseason Cinderella, and that won’t change now. I’d hate to see them opposite of my favorite team in the bracket.

~Liberty has 30 wins and won a game in the tournament last year. They will probably be seeded too low, which will make them dangerous to a high seed. What I really want to know is whether these Flames fans are dressed as Jerry Falwell or the Liberty Biberty commercial guy.

~You want a guy to watch, and a team for that fact, tune in to the Atlantic 10 tournament and check out Dayton. The Flyers may earn a one seed with a tournament championship, and they may also have the player of the year in Obi Toppin. Just check out these dazzlers from Saturday’s game.

Yes, you really saw that last one. He really did that. In a game. Unreal.

~Duquesne is a great story in the Atlantic 10 as well. Keith Dambrot has brought a bullish attitude to “The Hill”. Duquesne is one of the toughest places to win in the Atlantic 10, and winning 20 games this season has Dambrot’s Dukes doing just that.

~Another PA team from the mountains of central Pennsylvania, truly in the middle of nowhere, is Saint Francis. They go to Robert Morris tomorrow night for a chance to punch their ticket. Most likely a 16 seed, it is truly amazing to see what State College alum Robbie Krimmel has been able to do in Loretto.

~The rest of the Southern Conference is doing their best to make sure the Buccaneers of East Tennessee State gets their bid without sweating out an at large bid. The 2, 3, 4 seeds all lost in the first round. ETSU is doing their part by blowing people out.

~Stay up late tonight and watch the West Coast Conference semifinals. Gonzaga tangles with San Francisco and St. Mary’s tussles with BYU. San Francisco needs to win out, but the other three teams are solid NCAA Tournament teams. Everyone knows the top seeded Bulldogs of Gonzaga, and St. Mary’s has made its runs the last decade, too. The team to watch here is BYU. The Cougars can really fill it up. Yoeli Childs leads the way, averaging 22 points per game. He gets a lot of help from Jake Toolson and TJ Haws. Of the top eight in their rotation, nobody shoots under 35% from the three point line. The Zags could win it all this year, but I would want to avoid playing BYU.

~The Ivy League is bringing all the big boys to their four team tournament; Yale, Penn, Harvard, and Princeton. There are some good players in this league, and Yale has three of them. Paul Atkinson, Azar Swain, and Jordan Bruner can score with the best of them. Look for Bruner in a uniform near you next year, as the Ivy League doesn’t allow post grads to participate in sports.

~The American Athletic tourney will be very important. Houston, according to most bracket predictors, is in the Big Dance. Most bracketologists have Cincinnati and Wichita State right smack on the bubble. By week’s end, someone is going to be disappointed.

~The lead up to Championship Week brings fans senior nights from all over the country. Amid the smiles, hugs, and tears were some great moments.

First to Louisville where Keith Oddo, a fifth year senior walk on who paid his own way just to play at Louisville, did this. The reaction from his teammates tell you what they think of him.

Next up is Snacks. Thomas Lee, aka Snacks, is the team manager for Jackson State. They decided he should suit up for his senior night. Then this happened. The announcer is as fired up as Snacks.

In one of the more heart warming senior night moments I can remember we head to Vermont. Josh Speidel was a highly recruited basket ball player committed to play at Vermont. Then he was badly hurt in a car accident his senior year in high school. He was lucky to survive, and certainly his basketball career was over. On senior night he got to enjoy his moment.

Finally, as an avid Duke hater, it’s tough to give them credit. They deserve credit for this moment Saturday night on their senior night.

Sports are great!

A Penny For My Final Thought…

I owe Penn State basketball fans an apology. Perhaps Patrick Chambers owes them a bigger apology. A few weeks ago I stated right here in this column that the Nittany Lions were one of the teams that could win six games, the number required to win a championship. From that point forward, Penn State has lost five of six including an embarrassing season ending loss to 8-22 Northwestern. The only victory was a last second home win over Rutgers.

You see, I fell for the fool’s gold. Heck, I even complimented some of what Patrick Chambers was doing. I still think some of what he has done this year is good.

Limiting Mike Watkins and using John Harrar has mostly been beneficial. Plus, I don’t lay that on his lap that Watkins’ issues seem to make him disinterested at times. I think the offense has more motion to it this year than in the past when they would throw it in to Stevens and stand around waiting for him to do something.

Unfortunately that’s where it ends, and it took this losing streak for me to see that in the big picture of things, nothing much has changed. Chambers has never been able to get his teams to play complete games. Even when they were winning, I pointed out that one of their flaws was closing out games. Games that should have been won easily were being made far too interesting. That has gotten worse.

In this six game stretch:

  • Had slim leads with around 10 minutes to play against Illinois and Indiana. Both games resulted in relatively close losses.
  • Had a 21 point lead at home against Rutgers with a minute to go in the first half. They were very fortunate to win a one point nail biter.
  • Had a 19 point lead with under four minutes in the first half against Michigan State. Still led by 15 at halftime. Lost the lead by the 14:30 mark of second half. To be exact, it took them exactly 9 minutes and 59 seconds to go from up 19 to down 2.
  • Led by three after first possession of second half at 7-22 Northwestern, and were still tied at the 15:05 mark. Went -11 for the remainder of the game…at 7-22(now 8-22) Northwestern.

Chambers was mic’d up a few games ago, and you got a real sense of his coaching technique. He seems to be more about cheerleading and motivating players than actual coaching. There are few adjustments made throughout games. Things just unravel and he stands, arms folded, looking…well, like this.

Here is a text I got from my friend Scott, who is a Penn State alum, that sums up Chambers as a coach very well. It also gives you an idea of the fans discontent right now.

“Coaches jobs are to make adjustments to continually improve and negate other teams’ strengths. Apparently everyone else in the Big 10 follows this but Pat. He is overmatched, overwhelmed, and without a clue what to do. In fact he doesn’t even seem to have a sense of urgency to right the ship. Amazing.”

Chambers has missed out on the NCAA Tournament for eight years. He will break that streak this year, but will that be enough to deem this season a success. I think that isn’t decided yet. One and done in both the Big Ten tourney and the NCAA Tournament would put them at 21-12. I would hardly consider that a success after the start the Nittany Lions had to the season. Let’s remember they reached top ten status only a month ago. Make it to the Sweet 16 and then the season would easily be considered a success.

Chambers loses his center and his top scorer in Watkins and Stevens. He brings back some solid, if not spectacular, players. Chambers has four three star recruits coming next year, so most likely they won’t be impact players. In other words, Chambers is in the process of blowing what probably is his best chance.

In my opinion, Chambers already got more time than he deserved. Penn State is limping to the end of this season, and if they fizzle out in both tournaments they are right back to where things were. This doesn’t seem like the start of a great run. It seems more like the ruination of your one big chance.

If the university cared as much about basketball as they do their non revenue sports like wrestling, volleyball, and hockey, then maybe things would be in a different place with the basketball program. Chambers is probably fortunate the university and student body is apathetic. The true hoops fans have long since been at the end of their collective rope with him.

My friend Scott also sent me his new hashtag, #firepat. If Chambers blows this chance at a big postseason run, he may not be able to stop the fans from storming the court, and not in a celebration kind of way.

Judging from how the university has handled Chambers so far, a tournament appearance will likely get him a five year contract extension. #firepat…not a chance.

Just my two cents…