Blogging Through the NCAA Tournament (Day Three)

Blogging Through the NCAA Tournament (Day Three)
Mar 21, 2009, 02:14 am
2:00 AM The first round is behind us, and with it a slew of upsets. Before we have a chance to catch our breath, we have another fascinating bunch of games ahead of us in the second round, where virtually every contest presents an intriguing matchup with NBA draft implications.

all times EST
#6 UCLA vs #3 Villanova, 1:05 pm, Philadelphia
#10 Maryland vs #2 Memphis, 3:20 pm, Kansas City
#9 Texas A&M vs #1 Connecticut, 3:35 pm, Philadelphia
#5 Purdue vs #4 Washington, 5:40 pm, Portland
#8 LSU vs #1 North Carolina, 5:45 pm, Greensboro
#10 Michigan vs #2 Oklahoma, 5:50 pm, Kansas City
#12 Western Kentucky vs #4 Gonzaga, 8:10 pm, Portland
#7 Texas vs #2 Duke, 8:15 pm, Greensboro

Many questions will be answered tomorrow, including:

-Can Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison “upset” a tough Villanova team on, essentially their home floor, with a hostile Philadelphia crowd behind them?
-Can Greivis Vasquez find a way to minimize mistakes and make good decisions against the toughest defense in college basketball?
-Can Hasheem Thabeet find a way to dominate inside against a strong front-court that shut down BYU on Thursday?
-Can Marcus Thornton and Tasmin Mitchell find a way to keep LSU competitive against the up-tempo Tar Heels?
-Will Ty Lawson play against LSU, and will he be effective?
-Can John Beilein and Deshawn Sims find a way to slow down Blake Griffin inside the paint and in transition?
-Who will get the best of the matchup of big-time scoring shooting guards—Manny Harris or Willie Warren?
-Can Western Kentucky take the heat from an incredibly deep and talented Gonzaga squad playing close to home?
-Can Kyle Singler find a way to keep Damion James off the glass, and will Gerald Henderson break out against A.J. Abrams?

1:40 PM Morning Links

• Barring national title, Willie Warren will return to Oklahoma

"I'm going to be back unless we win the championship," Warren said. "I don't really pay attention to any projections or anything like that. I thought Marcus Williams [from Connecticut] should have been a lottery pick a few years ago, but he went 22nd to the Nets. So you never know how to take those projections. I mean, it'd be great to hear my name called, but I want to come back."

This confirms what we’ve been hearing for quite some time, from virtually everyone we’ve spoken to in the know. Apparently Warren’s mother, a driving force (in more ways than one) in his recruitment process according to college coaches who went after him, is very much in favor of this move. The precedent is certainly there, as Blake Griffin did the same exact thing last year, and as the article mentions, Oklahoma will be restocking in a major way with McDonald’s All-Americans Tommy Mason-Griffin and “Tiny” Keith Gallon, who play the point guard and center positions respectively. At the 3 and 4 spots Oklahoma returns Tony Crocker and Juan Pattillo, seniors next year.

Excuse us for being a bit skeptical, as we’ve seen these type of situations play out year after year, with the likes of Chris Paul, Julian Wright and dozens of other underclassmen every spring. But if Warren wants to go back to school, then more power to him, as he clearly has things he can work on.

• Wake: Built to last, or 1-year wonder?

This article was actually written before Wake lost to Cleveland State last night, but it gives us some very good insight into the pressure Jeff Teague, Al-Farouq Aminu and James Johnson will be under to return for another season. Wake Forest’s head coach Dino Gaudio was quoted in the article saying The good thing about it, when I talked to our players, they all said, to a man, 'Coach, I know I need another year,'" Gaudio said. "If it's Jeff or it's Farouq, throughout the year, I had a couple of messages from NBA guys. ... They called and said, 'This kid needs to get stronger,' 'This kid needs to shoot the ball better.'

This is a message that Gaudio himself relayed to us a few weeks ago in a phone call, where he questioned how high his three underclassmen were ranked on our mock draft, and wondered whether we disagreed with the notion that “they aren’t ready to play in the NBA.” Gaudio’s viewpoint on this matter is hardly a secret, as he was already openly discussing Aminu’s poor 3-point percentages and Teague’s shoddy playmaking ability with the media when we saw Wake Forest play BYU in Provo back in December. His premise is correct—all three players have a great deal of things to work on—but the fact of the matter is that the same thing can be said about virtually every player drafted in the lottery over the past 5 years. These days, the question is not, “is he ready to play in the NBA,” but rather: “is he ready to get drafted extremely high and paid a ton of money by the NBA?” To that, the answer is a resounding yes on all three accounts in regards to this stud underclassmen, even after their terrible loss last night.

• Vasquez digging his own grave

Right before Maryland faces arguably the best defense they’ve played all season, their star combo guard Greivis Vasquez has a few choice words for Memphis players.

"If they (Memphis) played in the ACC, they'd have a losing record in the league."
"Their conference is pretty much questionable. They don't have tough games. But I still believe they're good."
"So (today's) going to be a day for them to prove themselves."
"I thought they won a lot of games just because the other teams were scared, because it's Memphis, because they went to the Final Four. We're not being scared."

Vasquez’s comments are comparably idiotic to Joey Dorsey’s famous “David vs. Goliath” quotes right before being destroyed by Greg Oden in the Elite Eight a few years back. We’ll wait for the outcome to see if Vasquez can back up his big mouth, but it’s not very hard to figure out why he’s even pissed off his own student section.

• Evan Turner returning, B.J. Mullens undecided

Kudos to Adam Jardy of, for not being afraid to ask the tough questions after Ohio State’s double-overtime loss to Siena. B.J. Mullens appears to be undecided for now on whether or not to declare for the draft, stating “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet…I’m going to do what’s best for me and what’s best for my family.”

Quite predictably, Thad Matta has already started lobbying for his return: “I think that he’s got a lot of room to grow. We talk to the guys every day and I think that it’s a situation where I hope he comes back, but by the same token I think he’s got to do what’s best for him. I think that if he comes back and makes the commitment to the work to get better – he knows there’s a payday, but coming back for a year could be about an $8 million difference.”

Interesting to see that Matta already has the exact math down pat, considering that no NBA team has any idea who is drafting where and which players will be in the draft. For the record, we actually agree that Mullens should return, but you would think that Matta would be better off doing some research over the next few weeks and coming to a more educated conclusion, at least to pretend like he’s an objective source of information. He tells Jardy that “we always do what’s best for our guys.” There is certainly an argument to be made that Mullens could bomb next season Loren Woods style, or get injured like Chris Marcus and lose a lot of money in the process.

Rob Oller, from the Columbus Dispatch thinks Mullens is gone:

Me: "Do you think you're ready right now to play in the NBA?"
Him: "I think I am, but we'll find out."

Mullens also tells Oller that he likely would have declared for the draft last year if it weren’t for the NBA age-limit, and that would have been a mistake. “The great thing is they made the rule where you've got to go to college for one year (before entering the NBA draft), because people wake up when they go to college and find that out. I found out," he said. "I probably would have made a wrong decision, and it shows me I was not ready (for the NBA) at that time."

The most surprising thing to come out of this column is that Mullens actually thinks he’s ready to play in the NBA now, after such an underwhelming freshman season.

Jardy also managed to get a fairly solid commitment out of Evan Turner that he’ll be back next season. “My plan is to have a good offseason, gain 10 pounds, come back and win a Big Ten championship, a Big Ten tournament championship and an NCAA championship,” he said. “My teammates and I didn’t want to come here and just do four years for no reason. We wanted to come here and leave a legacy of winning. That’s why you play the game.”

• Patrick Christopher Testing the Waters

As Christopher says, there is basically no reason for a junior not to test the waters and see what kind of feedback he can get. The problem is that the vehicle for gaining information has been seriously hampered by the elimination of five on five games at the NBA pre-draft camp, as well as the fact that many teams will be looking to cut costs this spring by reducing the amount of private workouts they conduct. That means that players like Christopher, and Jonathan Tavernari will have to get feedback elsewhere.

1:42 Yes, we promised an in-depth look at the play of Evan Turner, Chris Wright, Jeff Teague and everyone else we missed out on yesterday. We also realize that we need to save something to write about for Monday and Tuesday, and want to do a more comprehensive job breaking down the film than time allows at the moment, so look for a NCAA Tournament Performers article on the play of those top prospects and others who stepped up or were eliminated.

For now, we’re going to turn our attention to the UCLA-Villanova game.

2:52UCLA got absolutely smacked by Villanova in the first half—being very lucky to escape only down 13 points.

There were a number of reasons for that:

-Villanova’s frontcourt completely dominated—to the tune of 25 points. They outrebounded UCLA as a team 18-9, being especially physical on the offensive glass, where they were able to get plenty of production from second chance opportunities. Villanova flat-out outhustled UCLA in all aspects of the game, looking much tougher as a team.

-UCLA was uncharacteristically nervous in the first half—taking plenty of bad shots (particularly Aboya, Dragovic and Shipp) and being unable to break down Villanova’s tough half-court defense. Darren Collison was called for one traveling violation and another double-dribble, in what otherwise was a semi-decent showing on his part. It was really noticeable how much UCLA is missing a strong shot-creator—Darren Collison is not that type of point guard, Josh Shipp is too slow to get by anyone, and Jrue Holiday wasn’t much of a factor in their offense in the first half besides making some nice post-entry passes, which got him 4 assists. Shipp had 13 points, mostly thanks to his smart off the ball movement.

-UCLA’s defense looked exceptionally poor, and Villanova’s game-plan was clearly to go after their weakest links. Jay Wright showed some NBA head-coaching credentials by quickly recognizing mismatch opportunities on the floor as soon as they occurred, attacking the likes of Josh Shipp, Nikola Dragovic, Drew Gordon, James Keefe and Alfred Aboya off the dribble with excellent isolation plays in the half-court. Aboya was saddled with 3 fouls in 9 minutes, while Gordon picked up two quickies in 3 minutes.

-Villanova was outstanding in transition, especially Corey Fisher, who made some big shots and showed good decision making skills.

Back after the second half…

3:47 The Bruins were unable to play any better in the second half, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that Villanova is just a better, tougher team than this year’s UCLA squad. Villanova continued to pummel UCLA in transition and on the offensive glass, with pretty much everyone on their roster turning in a solid all-around performance.

One clear standout was Dante Cunningham, who was limited somewhat by foul trouble in the first half, but ended up having an impressive showing (18 points, 10 rebounds, 7/11 FG), very much emblematic of the excellent senior season he’s had thus far. He was all over the floor today, coming up with a number of blocks, steals, offensive rebounds and solid finishes around the rim. Perhaps more importantly, he looked very focused and aggressive, playing a notably more physical brand of basketball than we may have given him credit for in the past. One game doesn’t make or break a player’s draft stock, but the added attention he’ll get here, and from his Sweet 16 performance, surely won’t hurt him.

UCLA has to come away a little disappointed by the way their backcourt performed. Darren Collison, often criticized for his inability to step up in the big game, didn’t do a great deal to change that label. He finished with 1 assist compared to 5 turnovers, missing 3 free throws on the day (he came in shooting 92% from the line) and being unable to be the difference maker that UCLA needed in the half-court to break down Villanova’s extremely physical and stingy defense. He looked reluctant to step up and take shots when UCLA’s offense bogged down, struggling to finish strong around the basket in two separate transition situations –a problem he’s had throughout his career, and one that is unlikely to go away at the NBA level. There’s a good chance that the bruised tailbone Collison suffered in the first week of March has been holding him back recently, and looking at his senior season as a whole, there is no question that he had an outstanding year. It’s hard not to wonder whether the lesser load he’ll be forced to shoulder offensively in the NBA as a role-playing distributing/shot-making/defensive oriented point guard may benefit him, as he’s been asked to shoulder a bit more of the scoring load this season at UCLA than he looks comfortable handling.

UCLA’s other backcourt starter, Jrue Holiday, was unable to build on the strong showing he had against VCU on Thursday, having a particularly awful second half. He finished the game 1/6 from the field and 1/3 from the line, with 6 assists and 4 turnovers. His shot-selection and decision making skills looked very questionable, as he forced the issue on a couple of bad 3-point attempts, and also committed some bone-headed turnovers. It’s pretty evident that Holiday isn’t quite as good right now as some people (ourselves included) had him pegged going into the season, as he’s not at anywhere near the level of other fab-freshmen we’ve become accustomed to over the past few seasons. Combine that with the fact that Holiday isn’t all that naturally gifted from a physical standpoint—being an average athlete by NBA standards—and it’s safe to say that he would be well served returning for another year of college basketball. Holiday’s point guard skills, perimeter shooting ability and decision making need a lot of polish, and since he won’t be deemed to have quite as much upside as other combo guards in this draft (such as Jeff Teague for example) he’s no lock to be drafted in the lottery, or maybe even the top 20? That’s not just a gut reaction based on one poor game today—he’s been very disappointing for the last six weeks now, as a few NBA people have pointed that out to us.

We’re moving on to the Maryland-Memphis game, also known as put-up or shut-up time for Greivis Vasquez.

4:53 The Memphis-Maryland game has quickly developed into a blowout, as at half-time Memphis has already put up 53 points and has climbed ahead by 20. Maryland’s decision to press and zone (which both worked so well for Cal-State Northridge) has completely backfired, as Memphis has broken through the middle on numerous occasions and created countless easy scoring opportunities which they’ve had no problem converting. Memphis has made an amazing 8-11 3-pointers today, which has busted up Maryland’s zone completely and made this game a non-contest. Defensively, Memphis has been phenomenal as usual, closing down the paint entirely and harassing Maryland’s players into incredibly tough shots, which they’ve been unable to convert, particularly from the perimeter. Their help defense is nothing short of fantastic, with their amazing combination of length, athleticism and tenacity. Antonio Anderson looks to be taking great pride in shutting down big-mouth Greivis Vasquez, holding him to 6 points on 3-8 shooting with just 1 assist and 2 turnovers. He’s just not athletic enough to keep up with the Memphis players on either end of the court, let alone be able to talk smack about the ACC’s (3 of 7 as a conference in the tournament thus far) athleticism before the game. Anderson has looked excellent as a distributor as well, already posting 7 assists in the first half, executing Memphis’ half-court offense efficiently and showing very nice court vision in the process.

Tyreke Evans has been the star for Memphis thus far, scoring 13 points in the first 3:19 of the game and finishing the half with 15 points. He’s looked like a freight train in transition, powering his way into the lane time after time and also making a couple of pull-up jumpers (one of which was a 3) early on to help ease Memphis’ stagnant half-court offense. As a distributor he’s been mostly a mixed bag—he had a couple of nice finds and generally hasn’t looked selfish, but his decision making has looked questionable and it’s cost his team in the form of four first half turnovers.

5:32 Memphis didn’t have any problem finishing off Maryland, much to the delight of their fans. The final score was 89-70, but most of the second half felt like garbage time. Greivis Vasquez went on a temporary scoring barrage to start off the half, scoring 10 points in just 2 ½ minutes, and finishing with 18 points (8-16 FG, 4 assists, 3 turnovers) but will go home with his tail in between his legs after the disparaging remarks he made about Memphis, which undoubtedly provided plenty of bulletin board material for Coach Calipari. We can’t wait to hear what he has to say in the press conference after this game. Memphis had four players with 16 points or more, starting with Evans and his 20 (and 4 assists/5 turnovers), to go along with Dozier and Mack with 17 and Taggart with 16. Antonio Anderson finished with 11 assists and just 2 turnovers. They move on to Glendale to play the winner of Marquette/Missouri.

We would go back and watch the UConn/Texas A&M game, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear like that was much of a contest. The score is 72-52 with about 10 minutes to go, and UConn was up by 18 at the half. So much for drama today—that makes three blowouts in three games. The box-score indicates that Hasheem Thabeet wasn’t much of a factor, as he has just 6 points, 1 rebound, 3 fouls and no blocks in 13 minutes. We just saw him getting schooled badly in the post on one possession by Chinemelu Elonu, DeJuan Blair style. UConn didn’t seem to miss him that much, as they got 24 points and 7 assists out of A.J. Price and 17 points, 6 rebounds out of Jeff Adrien.

8:22 North Carolina survived a good challenge from LSU, going neck and neck for the first 32 minutes, even trailing by as many as five points with 12 minutes to go, but eventually turned on the defensive intensity and exposed LSU’s lack of playmaking.

Ty Lawson was the story in this game, looking very ineffective in the first half, and even being forced to head to the bench briefly after reaggravating his toe injury. He hit a couple of big shots in the second half and rekindled Carolina’s trademark fast-break, bullying his way down the lane and finishing incredibly strong around the basket—which is what he’s best known for. Lawson didn’t look anywhere near as quick as he usually does, but he regardless managed to emerge as the catalyst in his team’s victory. He posted 6 assists compared with 0 turnovers, and wasn’t lit up on the defensive end as much as he usually is either. NBA teams will surely take note of the way he performed playing through pain.

Wayne Ellington also had a spectacular outing, continuing the excellent play of the past month and a half with another strong showing. He scored 23 points on 9-16 shooting (3-6 3P) and also contributed with 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. He hit a wide array of pull-up 3’s and mid-range jumpers, showing an incredibly high skill-level and aggressiveness that we hadn’t always seen from him. He’s become much more than just a spot-up shooter these days, improving his ability to create his own shot noticeably, and also showing better intensity on the defensive end. Although he still tends to shy away from contact and rarely visits the free throw line, Ellington is definitely helping his cause with the very productive weekend he had in Greensboro.

LSU managed to stay in the game largely thanks to the production of Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton, who combined to score 43 of their 70 points. Mitchell was big in the first 25 minutes of the game, compiling 16 of his 18 points, while Thornton came around late, scoring 18 points in the second half to finish with 25 on the night. Just like in the game against Butler, Thornton again showed the ability to score in many different ways against North Carolina, be it making shots from the perimeter (5-11 3P), putting the ball on the floor and going to the basket, using his strong body to post up inside, or by crashing the offensive glass. Nothing he did here was all that different from what he’s been doing all season long for LSU, but the stage he competed on and the team he did it against will likely force some NBA decision makers who were not as familiar with him to take another look at the season he had. He definitely helped himself this weekend.

We’re going to take a quick look at the big game Blake Griffin had for Oklahoma in their win over Michigan, and then move onto Texas vs. Duke.

10:15 Blake Griffin had a dominant performance against a very weak Michigan frontcourt, pummeling the Wolverines for 33 points and 17 rebounds on 14-20 shooting from the field, to go along with 3 assists and 3 turnovers. Oklahoma’s game-plan was pretty obvious right from the opening tip: get the ball to the best player in the country on every possession if possible. Griffin was more than willing to comply, establishing deep position in the paint at will and doing a great job using his strength and athleticism to finish strong around the rim. Michigan doubled him pretty much all game long immediately on the catch, and Griffin did a nice job finding the open man or just finishing over the top of the defense regardless. He showed some nice passing ability on a couple of possessions, demonstrating a solid basketball IQ. He also ran the floor in transition in typical fashion, and came up with a few terrific highlight reel plays throughout the night.

Griffin was a man possessed on the offensive glass, being just too big and strong for Michigan to effectively box out, as much as they tried to be physical with him. Griffin received his fair share of abuse as usual inside, he was somehow cut on the elbow in the first half, which he was forced to cover up with a sleeve, and then received a shot to the nose not too long after, which didn’t seem to faze him either. He just stuffed a swab of cotton up his nostril and kept playing. Just another night at the office for Blake Griffin.

The two biggest weaknesses he showed are both well known and well scouted issues. He hit just 5-10 free throws (one of which he banked in) and didn’t step out to guard Michigan’s big men shooters on a few opportunities, which they punished him for. Michigan decided to foul him intentionally late in the game, and Griffin responded by splitting his free throws—something we’ll have to keep an eye on in the coming rounds.

It was encouraging to see the unselfishness that Oklahoma showed in this game, as they had a clear game-plan and stuck with it all night long, save for a four or five minute stretch midway through the second half where they lost their focus a bit. Despite the close score, they were in control of this game all evening long. If their role-players continue to be good soldiers and they step up the intensity on the defensive end, they’ll be a tough out for any team.

Willie Warren was one of the players that needed to sacrifice somewhat in favor of getting the big man the ball, but he ended up having a very good regardless, with 16 points, 4 assists and 1 turnover on 5-10 shooting. He stayed under control, made three of seven 3-point attempts, created his own shot on a few opportunities, and generally executed in the half-court, not looking like a freshman at all. He did miss a few open looks that he normally would make, and was a step slow defensively at times, but it’s tough to nitpick too much.

Oklahoma now moves on to face the winner of Arizona State and Syracuse.

And we're moving on to watch Duke and Texas, which we'll recap tomorrow.

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