North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

March Madness, Toronto Raptor Style – Part Two

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Following up on my original post and keeping an eye on how the players I’m watching are doing. Later I collect some loose thoughts on the first weekend of March Madness action.

Duke guard Kyrie Irving ended up suiting up for the first round of the tournament, coming off the bench in both games. Of the two, his first was the more impressive: 14 points on four-of-eight shooting (including two threes and four free throws). He seems a little rusty at times (two turnovers in each game, for instance) but after such a big layoff, that shouldn’t be too surprising. But at other times, he’s sharp, like when he blew through Hampton’s defence for a layup.

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger also had a nice weekend, thanks to back to back good nights. In the round of 64 against Texas-San Antonio he scored 11 and grabbed nine rebounds; against George Mason he scored 18 on seven-of-ten shooting and had eight rebounds. In the two games thus far, he’s grabbed an impressive seven offensive rebounds, too. It’s this play that got him praise from ESPN’s Bob Knight, who said: “You let that big kid in the lane alone… he’s going to score almost every time he gets the ball.” I think you could make a good case that Sullinger is the best individual player in the tournament right now and if he keeps this level of play up, Ohio State should go deep.

However, Derrick Williams is doing something special, too. His late-game three-point play was the margin of difference for Arizona in their round of 32 win over Texas and just two days before, he had a game-saving block in the final seconds of Arizona’s win over Memphis. His stat line hasn’t been bad, either: 22 points and 10 rebounds against Memphis; 17 and nine against Texas. I’ve certainly been impressed by Williams’ play in the first two full rounds, although I’m less sure about his team – they face Duke in the Sweet 16 and I don’t know if I see it ending well – they’ve been pushed to the limit by teams not as good as the Blue Devils and I don’t know if they can keep up.

Two-seeded North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes‘ first two games have been interesting. In a round-of-64 blowout of Long Island, Barnes scored 24 and grabbed 16 boards. It wasn’t another 40-point outburst – two other Tarheels scored higher than him, too – but it’s still an impressive showing. He followed it up with a 22-point burst against Washington in a more competitive game. And it was a three of his which put UNC ahead for the final time, too. Another interesting point: Barnes has put up back-to-back 20-point games only one other time this season and hasn’t done it three times in a row. I wonder if he will when the Tarheels play Marquette on Friday.

Finally, Kemba Walker’s also having a good tournament for Connecticut. In a blowout over Bucknell he came close to a triple double, not a common feat in the NCAA, with 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. It’s worth noting the 12 assists are a season high for Walker. In his next game, he dropped 33 in a win over Cincinnati. I’m not sure which part of that game impresses me more: that he dropped 16 in the final 10 minutes of the game or that he was so deadly from the line that after the game, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said “We didn’t want to foul him,” and suggested his 14-for-14 free throw shooting was the difference in the game.

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Some other loose thoughts on the first rounds:

  • The end of the Pitt/Butler game was surreal. I don’t know if I can remember a finish that chaotic, with two fouls called basically in the final seconds of the game. I’m actually of the opinion that the ref shouldn’t ‘let them play’ or ‘swallow the whistle’ or any other of those old chestnuts. A foul is a foul is a foul, no matter the circumstances and the fouls there – especially the final one, about as obvious a foul as any – should be called. Don’t tell me the game lost drama or anything by ending with foul shooting. If you didn’t think seeing Gilbert Brown or Matt Howard go to the line with a chance to win the game was dramatic, maybe you should stick to MTV.
  • TSN and TSN2 are actually doing a good job, although there’s room to grow. When games went down to a close finish, TSN was cutting to them, but for the most part they stuck with the game they were airing. I’m perfectly okay with this and I’d even say I prefer it. I get that close games are more exciting than blowouts, but with games spread over TSN, TSN2 and usually CBS – not to mention the official online streams – it’s not hard to find a compelling game on your own. I’m not especially enamored with their original content, which seems to be mostly James Cybulski and a guest, but it’s a start – I can remember a time when SportsCentre didn’t even touch NBA ball, let alone NCAA ball, so it’s nice to see them expanding from hockey and curling. One question: where’s Dan Shulman?
  • As usual, March Madness on Demand rules. With the death of a famous online-streaming website I’m not going to name (you know the one, I’m sure), it’s gotten much harder to find stuff I can watch on my MacBook – or in many cases, at all, since I’m still using analog cable. Thankfully, CBS and the NCAA have put the games for free on their website once again, making it easy to watch whatever I want, when I want. It’s a great concept: they’re putting one of their marquee items on display for free, although there’s a ton of ads. I understand the original logic behind it, namely that CBS can only show one game at a time, but with games across four networks, I was worried the service might fade away. It hasn’t and I really appreciate it. Their original content – a different halftime show than the networks get – is cool too. A minor squabble, though: I’d like it if they added a little more content, like streams of postgame press conferences or a way to watch the final minutes of close games. As it stands, though, it’s a great product.
  • Biggest upset thus far? I think Texas. I had the Longhorns reaching the Final Four in my bracket for a bunch of reasons I can’t remember right now, namely their defence and Canadian-ness, and they got knocked out really early. I think their loss was more shocking than Pitt’s if only because Pitt was in position to win that game so much late: before they were fouled, they could have held for the last shot, they could have won after either foul shot and if the game went to OT, they’d have another shot. Texas, however, was done in by an odd five-second call (still not sure what to think about it) and a great play by a guy I like (see above). But even in their first game they seemed a little shaky; Oakland really seemed to rattle them.
  • Who do I like? I picked Ohio State to win it all and I still think they can. I wasn’t sold on Duke, but they’ve been impressive (even as they nearly melted down against Michigan). Butler and Arizona have knacks for winning close games, which seems cool but also: they play a lot of close games that could go any which way. VCU is really impressing me, too. They’re rollin’ and I’d love to see a play-in team sneak into the Final Four. Not that it will happen, but it’d be really cool if they did.
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