Fighting to be considered Elite

And then there were 16. Must be pretty sweet to still be dancing at this point in the tournament. Each region has it’s own story. The Midwest is still Kentucky’s to lose but apparently West Virginia (who busted my bracket last week) believe that Kentucky’s perfection ends tonight when the two teams take the court. Witchita State is still alive and kicking as well. In the East, the top seeds have fallen and the remaining matchups read eight versus four and three versus seven. Upsets have riddled this side of the bracket as Virginia and Villanova fell last weekend. Out West, the bracket has avoided too many upsets, as Baylor is the sole top-four seed not to reach the Sweet 16, only to be replaced by sixth-seeded Xavier. Down South, old school powers meeting the new kids on the block. UCLA is the surprise in the regional semi-final as an eleven seed in this one. All of these storylines mean we are in for a great four days of basketball.

Midwest

#1 Kentucky vs. #5 West Virginia: West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. made it clear that he does not think much of Kentucky. He called them out for not playing hard. That sounds like something you should do after you have beaten them if you ask me. Kentucky will come into this game with even more of something to prove now than ever before. The Wildcats rank third in the country in defensive scoring and second in blocks. That will spell trouble for a Mountaineer team that already does not shoot the ball very well from the field.

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Witchita State: Many said that the Shockers would be a tough matchup for Kansas and that proved to be true as Witchita rolled through the Jayhawks. However, I think the run stops here for the Shockers. They will have their eyes set on a rematch with Kentucky after the Wildcats knocked them out of the tournament last year and ended their perfect season. I don’t think Witchita gets the chance though. The Irish are battled tested with victories in a couple of close games. Notre Dame has only dropped one game in past eleven, I think they will move on to the Elite Eight.

West

#1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina: This is a tough one to call. UNC has the talent and ability to beat anyone in the country, and I mean anyone, when they are firing on all cylinders. However, they aren’t playing at their best very often. This Tar Heel squad is often streaky and they are facing one of the most consistently dominant teams in America tonight. The Heels rank second in the country for rebounds and assists per game this year though. That is a pretty tough combination to top. If Marcus Paige is on, UNC marches on to the next round.

#2 Arizona vs. #6 Xavier: The Musketeers were fortunate to have made it this far if you ask me. With games against Ole Miss and Georgia State, Xavier has yet to play a team that is not a double-digit seed. That said, they might stand a chance in the Sweet 16, if they were playing a team other than Arizona. The Wildcats have won by fewer than 10 points just once since playing Utah back in February. That one game? It was against UCLA, another Sweet 16 team. Arizona advance.

East

#4 Louisville vs. #8 North Carolina State: Raise your hand if you picked this game to happen. I wish I could say I did. NC State really busted my bracket last week when they knocked out Villanova, whom I had in the finals. As if this game was not important enough, this is rematch between ACC teams. The Wolfpack won the first time around but with Louisville finally starting to find a bit of a rhythm offensively, the Cardinals will be the ones who get to keep dancing a little longer.

#3 Oklahoma vs. #7 Michigan State: I didn’t predict this game correctly either. I had Dayton pulling the upset of Oklahoma but the Sooners ruined my fun. However, the Spartans looked convincing in their last two wins, especially Sunday against Virginia. Travis Trice caught fire against the Cavaliers, and if he does again on Friday, that could mean lights out for Oklahoma. I’ve got Tom Izzo’s crew heading to the next round.

South

#1 Duke vs. #5 Utah: This one will be fun to watch. We get to see Jahlil Okafor and the highlight reel that is Duke’s offense pitted against a Utah squad that excels in locking down the defensive end of the floor. The Utes ranked eleventh in the country this season in points allowed per game. Moreover, Utah has seven-footer Jakob Poeltl to contend with Okafor. Watch these two freshmen battle it out in the paint should be an entertaining matchup. I still think Duke has too many offensive weapons for Utah to contain. Blue Devils slide into the Elite Eight.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 California Los Angeles: Talk about a surprise guest. There were not too many people who foresaw UCLA in the Sweet 16. The Bruins were a bubble team to begin with. Gonzaga has been good this season but this has every element of a trap game to it. I think the Bruins will come out with a chip on their shoulder and give the Zags a tough test early. If Gonzaga can weather that test than they will be fine. If they falter early, like I think they will, UCLA will continue their Cinderella run.

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Even as we approach the Sweet 16, many college athletes can be left bitter

The NCAA tournament is in full swing at the moment as the Sweet 16 will take place at the end of this week. However, it seems the NCAA is never safe from scrutiny. President Obama cast his lot into the conversation regarding the corrupt and questionable practices of college athletics’ governing body. He made a couple of different points but the one that rung out the strongest to me was his criticism of players losing scholarships due to injury. The NCAA allows programs to revoke scholarships from players who are injured or who are cut from their respective teams.

What the NCAA continually does to college athletes is something like this. And yes I am looking at you Mark Emmert:

Let’s say that you want to learn how to cook better, so you decide to take some cooking lessons. Upon signing up for the lessons, you discover that the first four months of classes are free. This is a great deal for you, probably all of the classes you might need, and looking at the price, you probably would not be able to afford the classes otherwise. So, you begin taking classes at this local cooking shop and begin learning all sorts of new skills from a chef acting as your teacher. A week or so in, you begin to make your own dishes. The chef continually tells you that you should be researching recipes and practicing on your own time, but you have a full-time job that is meant to take your priority so this is a difficult task.

About a month into your classes, you hurt yourself during one of the sessions. You cut yourself fairly deep on your hand with a knife after you slip up chopping vegetables. An honest mistake but now you cannot go to the cooking classes for the next month due to the stitches in your hand. You take time and heal properly, just as your doctor and teacher tell you, and then return to the class.

Upon your return, someone who works higher up in the corporation that runs the cooking class approaches you. He tells you that because you missed the past month of classes, you are no longer eligible for the discount and you will need to start paying to take the cooking classes now. You complain that you were injured in one of the classes and that the injury was outside of your control. The man insists that there is no other way for you to continue attending the cooking school and you must find a way to pay.

In that story, you are fundamentally wronged and loose out an opportunity to do something you really enjoy because the school turned its back on you. Everyone recognizes that what happened is morally wrong. Yet, this happens to college athletes over and over again. And the scary thing is that there is very little that the NCAA requires colleges to provide regarding healthcare. In fact, most of the healthcare services are optional for schools to provide. So not only are they at risk of losing their scholarships due to the injury, they are not guaranteed to have any medical costs covered. Schools will occasionally cover the fees of surgeries for students but they are not required to and that they are not is what is concerning.

There are many things fundamentally wrong with the NCAA. The amount of money they make while maintaining they are a non-profit is one. The fact that they are exploiting young, college students is another. But pulling away a kid’s hopes and dreams due to an injury sustained while playing for a university under the NCAA is awful. This issue falls on both the school’s and the NCAA’s shoulders to fix, as they are both equally to blame. Schools are not required to honor scholarships; that does not meant they cannot honor them. And the NCAA, does not require schools to honor scholarships, which is sickening. People can talk all they want about how college athletes should be paid (I’m not saying they should or should not) and how the NCAA is exploiting students. Above all else, the NCAA needs to begin protecting the kids who suffer serious injuries playing collegiate athletics. That has got to be the top priority. If you want to maintain that these kids are student-athletes, with the student part coming first, then do not take away their chance to be a student because they got hurt being an athlete.

Round of 32 projections

One round down and now we are on to the next. This has been one of the craziest round of 64 we have ever seen in the NCAA tournament. We had 5 games decided by one point on Thursday only to be followed up by every top seed winning except for one on Friday. Now the competition stiffens as we get some really interesting matchups in the round of 32. Here are the teams that will keeping on dancing in March Madness a little longer. All of these victories will be very sweet indeed.

Midwest:

#1 Kentucky vs. #8 Cincinnati: The Wildcats entered the tournament undefeated. I don’t know if they will finish the same way but they will finish the weekend unblemished.

#4 Maryland vs. #5 West Virginia: Both of these teams avoided being upset in the round of 64. The Terps will advance for a Sweet 16 date with Kentucky.

#3 Notre Dame vs. #6 Butler: The Irish looked a little shaky against Northeastern. I expect them to look a lot more polished in a win over the Bulldogs.

#2 Kansas vs. #7 Wichita State: This is a matchup the Jayhawks were hoping to avoid. Wichita is a matchup nightmare and will down their instate rivals.

West

#1 Wisconsin vs. #8 Oregon: The Ducks made it all the way to the PAC 12 final. Their run in this tournament ends here though with a loss to the Badgers.

#4 North Carolina vs. #5 Arkansas: Neither one of these teams looked too pretty winning last round. UNC’s athleticism and speed will be too much Arkansas though.

#6 Xavier vs. #14 Georgia State: Georgia State shocked Baylor in a game I thought they had no chance in. They might just do it again but I am picking the favored Musketeers.

#2 Arizona vs. #10 Ohio State: The Buckeyes looking convincing against VCU. But D’Angelo Russell is only a one man army and Arizona has a superb starting five.

East

#1 Villanova vs. #8 North Carolina State: Villanova took care of business last round. I think they will do it again against the upset-minded Wolfpack.

#4 Louisville vs. #5 Northern Iowa: Northern Iowa looked convincing in their win over Wyoming. Louisville barely hung to beat UC Irvine. UNI is playing better and will get to keep playing.

#3 Oklahoma vs. #11 Dayton: After two wins in a row, the Flyers are picking up some momentum. Oklahoma is overseeded and Dayton will show us why.

#2 Virginia vs. #7 Michigan State: The Cavaliers looked poised for a Final Four appearance last season but fell to the Spartans. Tom Izzo’s team ruins their dreams a second year running.

South

#1 Duke vs. #8 San Diego State: Duke dominated every aspect of their first game and showed why they are a number one seed.

#4 Georgetown vs. #5 Utah: This is a tough one to call but the Utes have the potential to catch fire on offense. Their shooting could be too much for the Hoyas.

#11 California Los Angeles vs. #14 Alabama Birmingham: Two of the biggest upsets from Thursday meet in the round of 32. UCLA will continue their Cinderella dream.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #7 Iowa: Gonzaga scares me a little bit due to their losses this year. However, I think the Zags make it through to the Sweet 16.

By Sunday night, the round of 32 will be in the books and we will be gearing up for a crazy Sweet 16. Look for more predictions next week when more tournament games are set to be played. I might have had a rough round of 64 projecting winners, but I have a good feeling about this one (said every fan ever).

The Madness Marches on

It is finally here. We waited through the long, cold winter (especially here in Syracuse, New York) for spring to finally arrive and the NCAA tournament to begin. While it might not feel anything like spring here for me, what with the snow that has fallen each of the last two days, March Madness is finally upon us. There is nothing quite like it in sports, which makes it that much more exciting. The round 64 is almost here with just two more play in games occurring tonight before the second round is all set. For all of you making last minute changes to your brackets, here are my picks for the first round of this crazy tournament.

Midwest:

#1 Kentucky vs. #16 Hampton: The Wildcats are undefeated and their season won’t end against Hampton.

#8 Cincinnati vs. #9 Perdue: Cincinnati is always known for its shutdown defense. That will carry them to the round of 32 for a matchup with Kentucky.

#4 Maryland vs. #13 Valparaiso: Maryland has been scary good at times this season and are probably underseeded at four. They will move onto the next round.

#5 West Virginia vs. #12 Buffalo: This Western New York team coached by Bobby Hurley is a talented group. They will be one of a couple #12 seed to move on.

#6 Butler vs. #11 Texas: I saw Butler play at the Big East tournament last week and they were overall underwhelming. Look for Texas to pull off the upset.

#3 Notre Dame vs. #14 Northeastern: The Irish were on fire in the ACC tournament. That alone will get them to the round of 32.

#7 Wichita State vs. #10 Indiana: Kansas would be much happier if the Hoosiers found a way to win but the Shockers will be dancing a little bit longer.

#2 Kansas vs. #15 New Mexico State: The Jayhawks won yet another Big 12 title and will win yet another round of 64 game.

West

#1 Wisconsin vs. #16 Coastal Carolina: No number 16 seed has ever beaten a one seed. That won’t change with the Badgers.

#8 Oregon vs. #9 Oklahoma State: These eight versus nine games are often a tossup but Oregon has some momentum with a PAC 12 finals appearances.

#4 North Carolina vs. #13 Harvard: Harvard is a solid team. UNC is better and their athleticism alone will carry them to the next round.

#5 Arkansas vs. #12 Wofford: I mention more 12 over 5 upsets…but that doesn’t happen here. The SEC runner up will move on.

#6 Xavier vs. #11 Ole Miss: The momentum the Rebels got from their First Four thriller against BYU will carry them past Xavier.

#3 Baylor vs. #14 Georgia State: Baylor is way too physical for Georgia State and will advance to play Ole Miss.

#2 Arizona vs. #15 Texas Southern: Another Wildcats will be moving on to the next round as Arizona coasts to the win.

East

#1 Villanova vs. #16 Lafayette: The East could be full of upsets. Villanova will not be one of them.

#8 North Carolina State vs. #9 Louisiana State: The Wolfpack have some marque wins this season and will squeeze by LSU.

#4 Louisville vs. UC Irvine: Some experts are picking the Cardinals to bow out in their first game. I don’t buy it.

#5 Northern Iowa vs. #12 Wyoming: UNI is probably the best mid major in the field this year and will move on to the next round.

#6 Providence vs. #11 Dayton: The Flyers will outplay the Friars as Dayton looks to spoil people’s brackets yet again.

#3 Oklahoma vs. #14 Albany: I don’t have much faith in Oklahoma, but enough to push them through for a matchup with Dayton.

#2 Virginia vs. #15 Belmont: Virginia has had some injury concerns down the stretch of the season. It won’t stop them from dispatching Belmont.

South

#1 Duke vs. #16 Robert Morris: Robert Morris would be a really fun Cinderella story but it won’t happen versus the Blue Devils.

#8 San Diego State vs. #9 St. John’s: The team that beat St. John’s in the first round of last year’s tournament won the National Championship. SDSU won’t get by the Red Storm though.

#4 Georgetown vs. #13 Eastern Washington: Georgetown has only won one tournament game since 2008. They won’t get another one here.

#5 Utah vs. #12 SF Austin: I said there was going to be another 12 over 5 upset. And here it is with SF Austin pulling off the unlikely once again.

#6 Southern Methodist vs. #11 California Los Angeles: UCLA was lucky to make the tournament. SMU is going to show everyone why the Bruins don’t really belong.

#3 Iowa State vs. # 14 Alabama Birmingham: The Cyclones are too good for the Blazers and will power on to the round of 32.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #15 North Dakota State: Many are calling this the best Gonzaga team ever. Whether or no that is true, the Zags will get by NDSU.

That is the whole round of 64 predicted for you. Check back in this weekend for projections on the next round of games. Feel free to join the Second Look Sports bracket challenge on ESPN as well. The winner will have their name announced on both the site and on social media.

Comparing college big men

The NBA Draft is a long way off but there is already plenty of buzz surrounding the top pick. More specifically, many college and professional basketball fans alike want to know who is going to be the first selection in the 2015 draft. There are a couple of talented athletes expected to hear their names called early on in the draft. The talk of number one though has been mostly eaten up by Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. Both of these highly recruited freshmen are expected to make the jump to the NBA following the close of the college season. One of them could very well be hoisting a national championship trophy come April but that a discussion for another blog post. I want to compare these two centers and come to a conclusion of which one of them should be selected first.

With how well both Okafor and Towns have played, both look NBA ready. Each, in his own right, is full of potential. They have shown that they truly look like men among boys playing against other college players. Comparing these two via statistics can be a little tricky though due to the wide gap in average minutes played per night. However, I will calculate them per 36 minutes (roughly what an NBA starter plays every night) to level the playing field. It should be noted though, right away, that Towns plays on 20 minutes per game, while Okafor plays 31.

Both players have been incredibly efficient this season. Okafor has hit an unreal 66.5 percent of his shots this season while attempting 11 shots per game. Towns, despite taking 5 fewer shots per game, is only hitting 55.3 percent of his attempts so far this season. Those stats are unaffected by the amount of time players spend on the floor each night. On top of that, Okafor matches up with much better than Towns does. The Duke center has played against 7 ranked opponents, including 6 against the top 15. Towns has only played four games against ranked teams, but 3 of them were against top 6 programs. However, Towns is the far superior free throw shooter, knocking down 79 percent of his shots at the line, compared to Okafor’s 54 percent conversion rate.

Examining the per 36 minutes stats turned out to be an interesting comparison. Towns averages 16.5 points while Okafor tallies 21.3 points per 36 minutes of action. That is a pretty large gap in points per night translated to a theoretical NBA level. Granted, it is not exactly fair to assume that both players will produce at the NBA level; in terms of what they are capable of now as scorers, Okafor has a clear upper hand. Both kids are above average rebounders as well. Towns snags 11.4 boards per 36 minutes while Okafor reels in 11.2.

Defensively, Towns clearly has the edge. Okafor only averages 1.62 blocks per 36 minutes, which is a nice number. However, Towns swats roughly 4.26 shots per 36 minutes of play, blowing away Okafor’s numbers. Towns clearly has immense value as a defensive centerpiece, meanwhile Okafor has shown that he has a lot of work to do defending in the paint. That statement is almost funny when you consider that they are the same height but Okafor actually outweighs Towns by about 20 pounds.

So here is my assessment on both. Okafor is an elite offensive big man. He hits an absurd percentage of his shots and scores at a high level. He cleans up the boards well, using his frame to box out opponents for rebounds. He needs to improve defensively and his free throw shooting. He is not a liability by any means but his play as the man in the middle will need to step up at the NBA level. As for the free throw shooting, we’ve seen what teams have done with guys like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, who are notoriously poor from the line.

For Towns, there is a lot of athleticism that can be turned into offensive prowess. He has not reached the point yet where he is a top scorer. He also has proven to be a good rebounder, capable of using his size to shield the opposition from the ball. On the defensive end of the floor though, Towns is a force to be reckoned with. His skills as a rim protector make him invaluable to a lot of teams at the next level. Towns knows how to position himself to force opponents to put up difficult shots and does an excellent job of contesting them as they are released. His impressive free throw shooting also keeps him from being the same liability Okafor could be at the next level.

Who to pick? This is a tough call. Okafor is much more pro-ready. Towns is slightly more of a project, but likely has more potential. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to morph into another Kentucky product that came before him, Anthony Davis. I am not saying he will reach that level, but I do believe he has that potential. The concerns for me are the low number of minutes leaving what Towns can do in more minutes a major question mark. Okafor also has the bonus playing more games against better opponents, erasing a lot of the questions that still remain for Towns. The Duke big man has also demonstrated a type of maturity that his Kentucky counterpart has yet to unlock. Either way, I am almost certain you will be hearing one of these two names called when Adam Silver walks to the podium this June. If I had to make a pick, I am likely going with Okafor. As a GM, you cannot argue with production, and he certainly has plenty of that.