THE BRACKETS - FIRST IMPRESSIONS
First off, any of you who harbored hope of a miracle NIT bid for our Bears should check the invite list. Washington
didn't get an NIT bid, so it's clear Cal was never in the mix. Aside #1: Washington was a regional cover for the frickin' SI college hoops preview - has any team received that kind of hype and failed to make the post-season? Aside #2: UW got screwed.
On to the NCAA's. Bear-less as it might be, it's still the greatest sporting event in America. We observe certain rules in rooting in March, and here they are:
* Thou shalt root for the Pac-10, excepting Stanford. I have never bought the theory that conspicuous failure is good for the conference and its teams. So I will root for five of the six teams in the Tourney to do well, and I'll even root for Stanford to get by Louisville because Rick Pitino gives me the heebies. Three or four conference teams in the Sweet 16 would be great for our rep, and perhaps give Tom Hansen a reason to wake up and renegotiate our TV deal.
* I like to pick two types of dark horses. The first is an actual long-shot (8 seed or below), and the other can be anything between a three and five seed. This year, the real dark horse is Holy Cross. Why? No reason. The legitimate dark horse? Texas A&M. Hardcore school with passionate and polite fans, and you've got to love Acie Law's game.
* I'll enter too many pools with at least three different approaches to filling out the bracket. The first is a thoughtful analysis, looking at proven Tourney factors like Adjusted Scoring Margin and previous trends (such as the frequency of 5/12 upsets, etc); the second will be a more subjective bracket that is inevitably wrong; and the third will be totally random (and will probably out-do the first two. Right now I'm in Neuheisel's pool, and that's it - anyone else want to take my money?
As for the brackets themselves, I don't think Cal hurt UCLA too badly by knocking them down to a 2 seed in the West. Kansas is the softest of the 1 seeds IMO, despite their high ranking. If UCLA were a 1 seed, who knows what kind of 2 seed would have been shipped West? Wisconsin's the only 2 seed who I think would be an easier matchup than the Jayhawks. BTW, Ben Howland spent an inordinate amount of time praising Cal and Ubaka in his interviews this afternoon - very nice pub.
Oregon seems to have a nice field in front of them; their two-seed, Wisconsin, is rather weak. Florida looms in the Elite 8, however. Vitale suggested that Arizona could knock off Florida in the 2nd round, which shows you how much Vitale has watched Arizona this year.
Ohio State has the easiest road to the Elite 8 (BYU, Tennessee/Virginia in front of them). Washington State got an awful draw, in the same side of the East bracket with Georgetown. That assumes of course they can get past Oral Roberts (who beat Kansas) in the first round. SC has a likely second round matchup with Texas, so scrap them from the Sweet 16 list. Unless, that is, they can find a way to stop Vince Young and the shotgun spread.
More on the Madness tomorrow.
An incredible first half by Oregon was too much to overcome for the Bears, whose season ends with a 81-63 loss. The Ducks are peaking at the right time, and could make a nice run in March if they continue to play sound defense and move as well as they did in the first half on offense.
As for Cal, the season ends in an odd mix of triumph and disappointment. Thursday's shocking upset of UCLA is a great memory, but it's just one memory in a season full of injuries and second-half collapses. Braun is staying, but extension or no the jury's out on his future in Berkeley. In Sandy we trust - and specifically, we trust her to recognize that this University deserves something more than it's been getting from its basketball program.
It should be an off-season full of interesting subplots - three important rehabs, the incorporation of Jamal Boykin, one seemingly obvious NBA Draft decision, and one far less-obvious commitment decision by highly-touted HS junior Drew Gordon. I'll sum it all up in a bit, after a preview of the Bear-less NCAAs. Ben is still saying the right things about the NIT, but Cal would be the first sub-.500 team in the tournament's history to receive an invite.
In the meantime, all thanks and gratitude to Ayinde Ubaka and Alex Pribble for their heart and commitment to the program. A shame they couldn't go out under better circumstances.
PAC-10 SEMIS - CAL v OREGON
Who would've thunk it? Cal will now play its third game in 72 hours against the Oregon Ducks, who aren't the best opponent for a tired bunch of Bears. The Ducks are smallish and quick, and our Bears have tailed off in the second half of each of the previous two games this season. Of course, the same was true of each UCLA game, so let's not despair.
What's interesting about the Ducks is what they did defensively to Arizona yesterday. The Cats had a big size advantage up front with Radenovic and Hill, and Oregon effectively fronted the post and denied entry passes from Shakur and Williams. Radenovic took seven shots all day, making only two. Hill had better success (15/14) but he was about it for Arizona. Budinger, Williams and Shakur went a combined 11-37 from the floor as Oregon's swarming defenders contested every shot.
Arizona's an up and down team, so you could expect a collective off night. But Oregon showed something very different yesterday - they really haven't played that type of defense since early in the season (notably in a road win against a very different type of offense in Georgetown).
Cal is a different matter - tonight's game matches two of the more 3-happy teams in the conference. Cal shoots lots of threes because it's our strength - our "five" has shooting guard range on his jumper and the Bears can't score much from the post. Oregon shoots lots of threes because they shoot lots of threes. While it's true that Leunen is their only scoring big, the Ducks have lots of effective slashers and penetrators who can break down defenders and score in the lane. Too often they seem to just get lazy and settle for threes.
The key to beating Oregon is pretty simple (if difficult to pull off). Shut down dribble penetration, and hope for an off night from their shooters. Can Cal's back court pull off another terrific defensive performance? On the other end, can Ryan Anderson and Theo Robertson score inside and perhaps get Leunen into foul trouble (as he did in the win at Haas)? Those are the questions for tonight's game. If Cal answers them and somehow keeps their legs, then they can absolutely make it to their second consecutive conference final.
In light of yesterday's stunner, I won't even attempt to offer a prediction - I'll just leave you with a hearty and emphatic:
CAL "PISTOL-WHIPS" UCLA
What the hell just happened? (AP/Matt Sayles)
Not really, of course, but I just had to make light of the least accurate prediction
in a long line of really bad Tightwad Hill predictions.This game was all about Ayinde Ubaka
. 29 points, 5-6 from three, and the clutch basket down the stretch. Let's be fair - Ayinde's senior year was a mild disappointment. A bad flu bug limited his effectiveness, and he sparred (justifiably) with Braun after the horrific loss at Wazzu. This amazing performance doesn't erase the frustration of a .500 campaign, but it's the perfect capper to a distinguished career. Congratulations, Ayinde.
This game was also about Arron Afflalo taking only seven shots in 38 minutes. Even the POY can have an off day, but you have to also give some credit to the Bears for playing inspired defense. A completely different performance in terms of intensity and communication on the defensive end. And, it didn't hurt that the rebound differential was only 31-29.Bruins Nation
is taking this game as they should - as a troubling development, but hardly a sign of the apocalypse. Afflalo won't play a worse game the rest of the way out. The Bruins looked a little flat on defense, and they struggled mightily from the stripe. And Cal - despite their ups and downs this season - is one of the more talented and disciplined
8 seeds in the history of this conference's tournament. When an opponent plays badly in all phases of the game, and one of Cal's two big guns goes off, then sure, the Bears can beat lots of teams. I never thought all of those conditions would be met today, against the Pac-10 champions.
Now of course we have to deal with a question that seemed unthinkable just 12 hours ago: Can Cal win the Pac-10 tournament? The answer's still probably "no," but you've got to think our Bears have at least a puncher's chance against the Ducks. After that, who knows? I'll have something up on Oregon tomorrow - until then, drink in the most surprising Cal basketball victory in, well, ever. (Or was the Duke upset in the '94 tourney more surprising? Thoughts?)
Apologies for the lack of posts - I wish it was because I'd been enjoying myself at Staples, but alas fate conspired against me and I've been stuck here with work responsibilities in America's finest cul-de-sac.
Two important things have happened this week. First, Sandy Barbour made it pretty clear that we've got at least one more year of Ben (Braun) ball with her public comments in support of the coach
. As I said earlier, I think it's time for a change provided that we've got some indication that an upgrade is out there (Monty, etc) who would be willing to take the job and salary package. I trust Sandy - a very smart administrator with a good track record - to hold Ben to a high standard in '07-'08 and (in the meantime) get her ducks lined up if the team falls short of expectations. I was more than a little concerned about her statement that Ben has done a great coaching job this year - I don't see it, and I'm interested to know where our readers come down on this specific point.
Secondly, Ryan Anderson went off last night and led Cal's domination of the truly hapless Beavers. Speaking of coaching changes, what the hell is Jay John doing with that program? For those, like me, who grew up in a conference dominated by UCLA and OSU, it's almost sad to see what Beaver basketball has become.
But back to Ryan. It's great to see a freshman in his 30th game this season have that kind of performance. No tired legs for RA, who seemed to be sending a message to conference coaches that he had as much claim on the FOY award as Budinger, Hawes and the rest of the stellar Pac-10 freshman class. We're gonna get pistol-whipped by UCLA in about an hour and a half, but Ryan's 27/14 performance gives us further reason for optimism heading into next year. DeVon makes the right decision, rehabs go well, Boykin lives up to his rep, Randle steps up - and we should have a Sweet 16-level team next year.
I hope Sandy agrees.
PAC-10 HONORS AND TOURNEY PREVIEW
So the Pac-10 handed out its hardware
today, and as expected Cal didn't get much of it. Aaron Afflalo is a deserving choice as POY and we are very hopeful that the Bears will see the last of him on Thursday. Chase Budinger beat out Ryan Anderson and the rest of a decorated freshman class to win FOY honors, and the hated Tony Bennett is the pick as COY.
Interestingly, Budinger did not receive enough votes to merit Honorable Mention all-Pac 10 honors, but Anderson and fellow freshman Spencer Hawes did. Strange. I still suppose Budinger is a good choice, given how Ryan's game tailed badly toward the end of the season. Ayinde Ubaka was also named HM.
The all-conference team is as follows: Afflalo, Collison, Marcus Williams, Aaron Brooks, Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Nick Young, Lawrence Hill and Jon Brockman. Not much to quibble with there, though I'm surprised that Ivan Radenovic didn't make the first team. One thing that bugs me about the all-conference team is that positions don't matter; the group above has only one 4/5 player (Brockman). Of course, three centers made the All-Pac 10 offensive line last season, so it's a problem in both major sports.
Now on to the Staples Center. After years of mediocrity, the Pac-10 is finally a true power conference, and this week's conference tournament is occasion to celebrate this resurgence. Despite the recent feckless play of our Bears, I'd encourage all of you within shouting distance of downtown LA to pick up a ticket for Thursday's action - it should be great entertainment. As always, there are a few subplots to enliven the festivities, and we try to summarize them here in a handy guide to the mini-madness at Staples.Subplot #1:
Does Stanford need a win to get in? The Cardinal were as high as a #5 seed just a short while ago, and they've got that lustrous home win over UCLA on the resume, but the second half of the season has been a bit of a nightmare: they've lost five of their last eight. Lunardi has them as a #10 seed
, and doesn't list them in his "last four in" section (currently populated by Illinois, Purdue, Old Dominion and Missouri State). But if a few conference tournaments go sideways, then it's easy to see Stanford on the outside looking in next Sunday. They draw USC on Thursday, and they've matched up pretty well with the Trojans this year.Subplot #2:
Can Washington make a big run? Assuming the Dawgs get past ASU in the play-in round, they would draw Wazzu in the second round. The Cougs look suddenly mortal, and Washington is coming off its best defensive performance of the season in the upset of UCLA. It's not unreasonable to think that UW could find themselves in a rematch with UCLA in the finals (though it is unreasonable to think they could beat the Bruins twice in one week). Would a 21-13 mark get them in? Probably not, but it would make for great theater.Subplot #3:
If Cal loses to OSU on Wednesday - a distinct possibility - will Ben get the axe? You know my view on the subject
, and a loss to the lowly Beavers would only strengthen the case for dismissal - injuries or no. Is Sandy looking for a reason to make the change? I'm not even going to speculate about an NIT bid, since Cal would need to beat UCLA in the second round and I don't see how that can happen. Washington looks to be the only NIT bid from the conference.Subplot #4:
How bad will Arizona look? Well, they'll be wearing these duds on Thursday:
That's right. Skin tight tops and, um, bloomers. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. I presume you don't need to know that Nike is behind this, so I'll skip that bit.
Someone stop them, please. See you at Staples.
ALEX MACK AT TACKLE, AND OTHER INTERESTING ITEMS
Jay Heater's been making up for lost time
, with a flurry of posts since his return from vacation last week. With Jay's stuff, you usually have to read between the lines a little bit, so we'll provide you with some helpful interpretation.OL
What do you do with a returning all-conference center? Move him to tackle, of course. That's what Jay says Coach Mich wants to do with Alex Mack, making room for the very talented Mark Gray to crack the starting lineup. Or maybe Chris Guarnero, who Coach Mich seems to love. Elsewhere, Jay calls out De la Puente and Malele, which is probably a good idea. Favorite quote - Kevin Bemoll "has natural strength equal to Ryan O'Callaghan."
Subtext: Mich is sending a public message to Mike Tepper to get his ass in gear this spring. If he doesn't, then Mack might switch - but I wouldn't bet on it. Guarnero sounds like the real deal - why not have him and Bemoll push Malele and De la Puente for starting roles? Seems odd to have three very promising linemen in the center depth chart.DBs
According to Heater, DeCoud will stick at safety and fight it out with lots of returners for playing time. Also, Robert Peele is apparently a safety. Huh.
Subtext: Darian Hagan is really good, and so are our other guys who haven't received much attention (Amadi, Brandon Jones). I just don't see Jesse Brooks starting at corner. In any event, Cal should have good nickel and dime packages with this type of depth.LBs
Heater sees Moye and Felder fighting it out at the SLB position. If Felder doesn't win that fight as a junior, then something's wrong. Justin Moye is a fine football player, and the Bears could do much worse at Sam - but he's not the athlete that Felder is. Alex Cook merits only a single reference at the end of the entry, and Heater seems to imply that he'll be in the depth chart at Will (or weakside linebacker). Coach Thompson also said that Eddie Young is pushing to start at Sam.
Subtext: The coaches aren't going to anoint anyone before he straps it up for spring practice, which is why Cook got barely a mention. It's a deep chart full of good athletes, so Coach Thompson spreads the love around in the hopes that competition begets improvement all around.
BE MY GUEST
Not that I'm asking you to, Sandy...after all, it has been a rough season what with the injuries and all. But if you want to make the change...if a guy is out there who you think is an upgrade, well, Sandy what can I say?
Go ahead and fire Ben Braun.
It'll be hard, I know, Sandy. The coaching fraternity will close ranks, just like they did when Bob Bockrath had the guts to can Campanelli ('bout the only good thing he did, by the by). They'll cry in their coffee and Dicky V will wail at the injustice of letting a man go after his team struggled with three key injuries. They'll point to the record of achievement: 200 wins! Tournament appearances! A Sweet 16, for crying out loud! And all this at Berkeley, to boot! The best coach at Cal since Pete Newell!
Yes, yes - Ben Braun is a better basketball coach than the Dicks (Edwards and Kuchen for you youngun's), a mediocre coach with major anger management issues and a felonious punk. And he runs a clean program, and he's a good guy, to boot. We still deserve better, not that the MSM will believe it.
It'll be tough, Sandy, but I'll have your back and so will lots of other Blues, both young and old. Here's why:
* You and I both know, Sandy, that the notion that Ben's record is perfectly fine at a school like Cal is nonsense. Total bullshit, in fact (not that I'd recommend you put it just that way). Look at the Top 20 this year - how many of those schools "deserve" their current ranking based on storied basketball histories? Florida? One final four appearance before Billy the Kid showed up in Gainesville. A&M? Please. Wisconsin? Wazzu? Vandy? There's no reason Cal can't be in that company on a consistent basis.
Oh, and just for reference sake, Sandy, Cal's been in the Top 25 for 11 weeks during Ben's 11 years - and seven of those weeks were in the 2002-2003 season. One Sweet 16 in 11 years? No conference championships? Only two second-place finishes? You have to ask yourself, Sandy - are you satisfied being ASU? Oregon State? Wazzu? Wait, scratch that last one. Well, those are the only Pac-10 teams during Ben's tenure who haven't had greater success than Cal on the hardwood. Oregon and USC have made Elite Eights since 1997. Washington was a #1 seed in 2005. Why them? Or, more accurately, why not us?
* Ben's not taking us to the Final Four, and you and I both know it. In fact, I've done a wee bit of research to back it up. Looked at every coach to reach a Final Four since the field expanded to 64 teams back in '85. Only one coach has ever made it to the Promised Land after spending at least 11 years with the same school and never winning a conference championship (or tournament). Betcha can guess who it is, Sandy. That's right, it's Monty. Of course, Monty had only two losing seasons in conference before the Final Four run, compared with five for Ben, but I digress. So if you think Ben Braun is really Mike Montgomery in disguise, Sandy, then go ahead and book your hotel for San Antonio next March. We'll wait and see, if you don't mind.
* Your fan base is drying up. Look, Cal ain't Notre Dame, and you gotta give the kids and alums a good reason to put down the books and come in out of the sun to watch a basketball game. Ben's as exciting as cold oatmeal, which only matters because he can't win consistently. If he did, and fans sensed that all their money and frustration might add up to a new banner or two at Haas, then they'd turn out if we played games in the forties. But you know the score, Sandy, and you know better than to trust those announced attendance figures. People have forgotten about Cal hoops. When I was there, Cal was a basketball school
- I remember camping outside of Harmon for season tickets back in the day. Now the Bears play in a bright, shiny morgue.
* It's not about this year, Sandy. It's about the entire resume. Though, if you wanted to make it about this year, you could make a decent argument. OK, so the team played hard - terrific, but isn't that what you expect at a bare minimum? The injuries were tough, sure, but most teams have at least some injuries. Besides, DeVon was healthy when we pissed a game away to San Diego
. At home
. And once the big fella went down, what exactly did Ben do to change things up? He had a couple of months to get his height-challenged guys to learn an effective zone defense - and if anything Cal looked worse in the zone at season's end than they did at the beginning. And scoring 16 points in the second half against ASU? Well, you saw it, Sandy. What did you think? And even if you do agree with Jay John and the other back-scratchers that Ben has done a terrific job this year, there's no debating the lack of energy and buzz surrounding the program.
Now here's the caveat, Sandy...I don't recommend you fire Ben just to fire him. I've seen Dick Kuchen coach, and you'll have to trust me that change for change's sake isn't what's prescribed here. Things can
get a lot worse. A lot of the apologists know this, and they use that argument to justify sticking with Ben now. But Sandy, you know that they'll use the same damn argument next year after we go 20-11 with a loaded team.
What I'm saying is don't fire Ben unless you've got someone in your hip pocket who you believe would be a better coach. Like, say, Mike Montgomery. Monty won't talk to anyone if a coach is still under contract at the school - but he's got people, and you've got people, and your people can...well, I'm not going to tell you your business, Sandy. Just take this bit of advice - if you don't have an ace in the hole - be it Monty or someone else - then you should probably let Ben come back.
And spend all of your time lining up that ace in the hole for April 2008. You're probably gonna need him.