In a little over an hour, the greatest four days in sports will commence. Right now, there are 64 teams in college basketball that – rightly or wrongly – believe that they can win the six games necessary to be crowned national champions. Monday morning, there will only be 16 teams left after the frenzied weeding-out process has finished. Most people have one of the #1 seeds eventually emerging as the last team standing. This is by no means ridiculous, since Louisville, Pittsburgh, UConn, and North Carolina are each certainly capable of winning it all. Each team, however, also has an issue or two that I believe will eventually become its undoing.
The Cardinals have an enticing mix of factors working in their favor. They’re deep, balanced, and versatile. They have the apparently necessary “senior leadership” quota filled via Terrence Williams’ presence. They play exceptional defense and are hardened by the rigorous Big East schedule. Rick Pitino is an enormously successful and experienced postseason coach. Ostensibly, there is very little wrong with this mix. Then I am reminded of a text message I received from my Louisvillian friend very early in the season. It was bitingly accurate in its simplicity: “I hope we haven’t contracted Memphis Syndrome.”
“Memphis Syndrome,” in this case (are there other cases?), is synonymous with total futility at the free-throw line. As you may remember, last year’s Memphis Tigers shot 61.4% from the line, “good” for 329th in the country. In spite of this, the Tigers made it all the way to the national championship game, where this shortcoming finally did them in. All season, pundits had intelligently attached the “if they can hit their free-throws” caveat to any analysis of the Tigers’ chances. And all season, coach John Calipari had essentially said “we’ll hit them when we need them.” Well, they needed them against Kansas, and they didn’t hit them. The rest is history.
I bring this up, obviously, because I’m concerned about Louisville’s ability to convert at the free-throw line. They are not as inept as the 2008 Tigers were; the Cardinals shoot 64.3%, which ranks 302nd in the country. Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark, and Terrence Williams lead the team in free-throw attempts. They shoot 67.1%, 65.6%, and 57.3%, respectively. The rest of the gang is no great shakes either. I’m not sure why college basketball analysts aren’t hammering away at this deficiency the way they did with Memphis last year. I think some of it has to do with the seemingly perpetual quest to bring Memphis down from their lofty perch on top of Conference USA, but that’s an argument for another time. Ultimately, I believe the Cardinals will fall because of this shortcoming, although I am not rooting for it.
I can and will sum up Pitt’s issue in much fewer words than I did Louisville’s. Quite simply, the Panthers’ success is causally linked to DeJuan Blair’s ability to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. When he’s in the game, the Panthers are incredibly difficult to beat. When he’s not, they become an above-average team instead of an exceptional one. Small sample size be damned, I remain somewhat skeptical of coach Jamie Dixon’s decision-making with respect to his most important player. Like so many coaches, Dixon opts to sit his star player when foul trouble arises instead of letting him play through it because of his importance. To be fair, Dixon has done this in regular season games, when a loss doesn’t result in the end of the season. Perhaps Dixon will be more flexible in his management of Blair’s foul trouble, given the single-elimination format. In any case, I don’t think Blair can go six straight games against high-quality opponents and not run into serious foul trouble. Levance Fields’ iffy groin isn’t helping things either.
The Huskies don’t have one glaring issue, but two more moderate issues that could be disastrous if they occur simultaneously. The first and most obvious problem is the indefinite absence of guard Jerome Dyson. Perhaps Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie can continue to compensate for Dyson’s missing production, but it’s a tall order. The other and potentially exacerbating problem is center Hasheem Thabeet’s variance in performance. Thabeet is capable of both monster games and Grade-A stinkers. In looking at his game log, you also might notice that his performance tends to dip significantly when facing good teams. Of course, this can be said of virtually anyone. But UConn can ill-afford for this trend to continue, particularly with Dyson’s absence. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they face nothing but quality teams the rest of the way.
Ty Lawson’s toe. That’s it. It’s the most-watched digit in America right now, upon which the exchange of millions of dollars rests. If Lawson’s toe is truly fine, then this tournament is the Tar Heels’ to lose. North Carolina’s point guard is the most efficient offense in the country’s engine. He, not Tyler Hansbrough, is the team’s best player. He’s about as important to the Tar Heels’ success and DeJuan Blair is to Pittsburgh’s. I usually don’t put much stock in things like this, but some of the quotes seen here are pretty disconcerting. Teammate Bobby Frasor is saying “he’s not the same Ty we’ve all seen,” and Lawson himself is saying “it’s just pain when I’m cutting back and forth.” That’s cool, it’s not like there’s tons of cutting back and forth in basketball. I think you get my point. Much like the Blair situation, I don’t see Lawson physically holding up for six straight games.
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After long and serious thought (seriously), I’m picking Memphis to win the national championship. I’m not sure they’re as good as last year’s team, but that’s the whole point: I’m not sure. For each of the #1 seeds, I know of a serious danger or deficiency that could very well end their tournament experience. As for the Tigers, well, I don’t know. They spent another year absolutely annihilating everyone in their middling conference. Maybe this means they’re just picking on the little guys, or maybe it means they’re really good. Ultimately, that’s the reason I’m picking Memphis. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they might be exceptional.
Happy March Madness, everyone.