Podcast: 2011 March Madness Preview

This morning I spent some time chatting with Aaron Torres about the 2011 NCAA Tournament that starts this week.

Some of the topics we covered include:
* Ohio State deserves to be the top seed overall but they have the toughest bracket
* I claim Washington is my sleeper team
* We debate if Duke should bring Kyrie Irving back at some point during the tournament
* I try to justify Purdue being my pick to escape from the Southeast
* Aaron soaks up the fact his alma matter, UConn, managed to get a #3 seed
* We step up and give you some great advice for your March Madness odds
* We break down why the Southeast bracket is poised to be upset city

Also, if you’re looking for a March Madness pool to join, you can join both of us in the HOOPSADDICT.com March Madness pool on Yahoo! Sports. Also, make sure you join the pool Aaron is running on his site because there is a $100 gift card to Amazon up for grabs as well as some other goodies.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

In The Scrum With Omar Samhan

When the Wizards PR staff announced that Omar Samhan would be coming out of the locker room to meet with media, my fellow colleague Mike Prada (of Bullets Forever) made a keen observation.  “This should be a fun one,” Prada said.

Prada was right, and Samhan did not disappoint.

Fresh off of his workout with the Washington Wizards, Samhan talked about how this workout was an improvement over his last one, which parts of his game need work, the importance of social media, and much much more.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

NCAA Tournament Recap

It seems like it was only yesterday that the NCAA Tournament was set to get underway, with 65 of college basketball’s best teams brimming with confidence, and hoping that they would be the last team standing in Indianapolis on April 4.

Well, after two weeks of some of the most exciting hoops action in recent memory, we’ve whittled those 65 teams down to just four, as we’re just a few days from tipping off the Final Four from Indianapolis on Saturday.

So how did we get here? Let’s take a look back at the best and brightest from this past weekend, while also looking ahead at the four teams that will be vying for this year’s National Championship.

Best Game: Xavier-Kansas State, Sweet 16, Thursday:

While the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament had more good games than you could count, the second weekend had one that stood taller than all others: Thursday night’s Sweet 16 West Regional game between Xavier and Kansas State.

For those who missed it, this game had everything this tournament is supposed to be about. Two teams doing whatever it took to win. Star players stepping up and making great plays. Buzzer beaters. Defensive stands. Great coaching. Oh, and by the way, the best announcer in the game – Gus Johnson – was courtside to call the action for us.

Most importantly, this game showed exactly what makes this tournament so great. The NCAA Tournament isn’t a best of seven, but a best of one, meaning if you lose today, you go home tomorrow. And you saw that from these two teams.

Best Team: Butler

I tweeted this on Saturday afternoon, but it’s worth repeating: If you’d given me 50-1 odds on Butler making the Final Four before this weekend started, I wouldn’t have taken it. Maybe not even 100-1, after the Bulldogs barely got by Murray State in the second round.

Well, this past weekend, Butler looked like a totally different group. They were the best team in Salt Lake City, and proved it, by beating the No. 1 seed Syracuse Orange, and followed it up with an even better win over Kansas State to gain their Final Four spot.

What was maybe most impressive was how Butler got it done. On Thursday, the Bulldogs couldn’t have thrown the ball into the ocean, as they shot just 6 for 24 from three, and didn’t look comfortable on offense all evening long. But they stepped up defensively, forced 18 turnovers, and gutted out a win.

On Saturday, it was the exact opposite. Sure their defense was good, but it was the offense that carried the team. They shot 46 percent from the field, and outrebounded the rugged K-State Wildcats 36 to 27.

Now they head back to their hometown of Indianapolis for the first Final Four in school history. We can only imagine what this team will be capable of with a home court advantage!

Best Player: Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia

Here’s the truth: If you don’t appreciate West Virginia superstar Da’Sean Butler, then you don’t appreciate the game of basketball.

The guy does everything. He scores (17.4 points a game). He rebounds (6.3 a game). He makes his foul shots (78 percent). He plays great defense. He dives on the floor for loose balls. He does everything for his team that a leader should do.

And in this NCAA Tournament he has saved his best for his biggest games, as it was his 18 points (including 4 of 8 from three) that led West Virginia to their shocking Elite Eight victory over Kentucky. Butler was the Mountaineers emotional leader, spiritual leader, and the leader in the box score, like any great player should be.

And now, West Virginia is going to their first Final Four since 1959. Who knows where they’d be without him.

Most Surprising Player: Lance Thomas, Duke

Look, it’s easy to rip the guys on Duke. Everybody does it. They’re America’s bad guys, a team that everyone seems to enjoy watching lose.

But to give the Blue Devils a little bit of credit, on Sunday, they did everything needed to win. They made open jumpers, played great defense, and made foul shots when they mattered.

Most of all though, they proved that yes, even they, the Duke Blue Devils, can get tough when needed. And against a rugged Baylor Bears front line, Lance Thomas stood out above all others.

Looking at the stat line, Thomas’ numbers might not jump right out at you. Seven points and nine rebounds is pretty ho-hum right?

But it was Thomas who made two of the biggest plays of the game, when on back-to-back possessions he got offensive rebounds, and kicked them out to Nolan Smith for two game-clinching 3-pointers. He also played a big chunk of his minutes in the middle alone, as center Brian Zoubek was out most of the game with foul trouble.

For all the talk about Duke’s “Big Three,” Smith, Jon Scheyer, and Singler, it was Thomas who was arguably the MVP of the game on Sunday. Duke survived a miserable night shooting from Singler (0-10 from the field). But they couldn’t have survived without Thomas.

The Storylines You’ll Be Hearing About All Final Four Week:

1. The Return of Coach K to the Final Four: Coach K is one of the best ever in his chosen profession. But he hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2004, an eternity in Duke basketball circles. Well, he’s back, with what he calls the “Closest team he’s ever had.” Can he get his first championship since 2001 as well?

2. Speaking of Coaches: Brad Stevens of Butler may have the best story of any coach this weekend. After graduating from DePauw University back in 1999, Stevens went into a corporate career in marketing, before deciding after just a few months that it wasn’t for him. He ultimately latched on at Butler, where he started as an unpaid volunteer assistant, sleeping on the floors of the office, before working his way up, and getting his break as a head coach just seven years later. Now he’s in his first Final Four.

Told you he had a good story!

3. Then There’s West Virginia’s Bob Huggins: While at Cincinnati Huggins was one of college basketball’s most controversial coaches, and left the Queen City after being forced out by school president Nancy Zimpher (Read the part about her and Huggins on Wikipedia. Fascinating stuff).

Of course for all the controversy, Huggins is also one of the sport’s biggest winners, and currently ranks fourth amongst all active coaches in wins, behind only Coach K, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. And since returning to his home state, and alma mater, he has quietly turned them into a National Championship contender. Huggins has been one of the best coaches in the game for year’s, but never seems to get the credit he deserves. Well that time has finally come.

4. The Final, Final Four Coach: Is Tom Izzo the best coach in college basketball? It’s hard to argue as this will be his sixth trip to the Final Four since 1999. Six! For comparison’s sake, this will be Coach K’s fourth trip in the same amount of time, with Jim Calhoun going to three and John Calipari just one in the last 12 years.

Told you it was hard to argue.

5. Butler’s Return Home: Despite the site of this year’s Final Four being just minutes from the Butler campus, Coach Brad Stevens refused to let his players talk about the possibility of playing there all season long. Well Coach, now that your team made it all the way back to Indianapolis, is it safe to talk about yet?

6. Nolan Smith’s Emotional Road to the Final Four: ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil did an excellent job of telling Duke guard Nolan Smith’s story, in an article published on Sunday. Smith’s father- who passed away in 1996- was a key player as part of Louisville’s run to the National Championship in 1980, in a Final Four played in Indianapolis. Can Smith win a title in the same city as his father 30 years later?

To read all of Aaron’s writing, be sure to check him out at www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also for his up to the minute thoughts on the NCAA Tournament, follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres

Five Burning Questions

While most everyone is still recovering from one of the most exciting opening weekend’s in NCAA Tournament history, as hard as it is to believe, the Sweet 16 is set to tip-off again Thursday.

As you get ready for another exhilarating weekend of basketball action, here are the five most burning questions heading into this weekend’s games:

1. Is Northern Iowa The New Favorite In The Midwest?

It’s funny, but just a few short weeks ago we were calling the Midwest the “Bracket of Death,” as Kansas, Ohio State and Georgetown seemed set to duke it out in St. Louis for the right to get to the Final Four. Only here we are ready to tip-off, and Kansas and Georgetown will be watching the action from the comfort of their couches, just like you and I will be.

With those two college basketball super powers out of the equation, has a new one emerged? Is Northern Iowa now the team to beat in this region?

Think about it. Michigan State is without their best player, guard Kalin Lucas (Although we should all know by now to never, ever, doubt a Tom Izzo coached team). Ohio State has hardly been impressive over their last half dozen games. Tennessee will be the underdog in their game. So why not Northern Iowa?

Remember also, that the Panthers rank in the top 10 in college basketball in free throw percentage, fewest turnovers and fewest points allowed. It’s simple math really, if you do all those things well, you’re going to be in every game you play.

So could this team be another George Mason from 2006? Maybe, but if so, it’d be in Final Four acumen only. This Northern Iowa team is already better than that one was, regardless of what happens going forward.

2. Will Cornell Be Able To Keep Up With Kentucky?

For all the talk about Northern Iowa last weekend, Cornell was just as impressive, if not more so. But when they line up against Kentucky on Thursday night, it will be an entirely new ball-game.

We all know what the Wildcats have: Size, strength, agility and athleticism, amongst a bounty of other skills. They’ve got the highest paid (and arguably) best coach in the game. Basically, they’re a professional team taking the court in a college uniform. And they’re nothing like Cornell has seen all year.

Sure the Big Red played at Kansas earlier this season, and even nearly pulled off the upset. But remember, there’s a big difference between a mid-week game in December, and a Sweet 16 matchup in March. There is no way Kentucky will be overlooking their Ivy League counterparts, and Cornell definitely won’t be creeping up on anyone this weekend.

Remember though, this game will be played in Syracuse, just a mere few miles from the Cornell campus. Meaning, that if the Big Red can keep this game close, they’ll have 40,000 people cheering for them all game long.

But will it be enough against the tournament’s best remaining team?

3. Can St. Mary’s Center Omar Samhan Keep Up His Heroics?

Amongst a bunch of already great stories, Samhan is the talk of this tournament. Not only is he a heck of a player on the court, but he’s lively, interesting and gregarious off it. And he’s been a hit.

But the Baylor frontcourt he’ll be going up against Friday is no joke. Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and the suddenly red-hot Josh Lomers provide the size, skill and depth that the Gaels have yet to see so far. Udoh in specific is a feared shot blocker, averaging almost four a game.

It’s a little unrealistic to expect Samhan to score 30 points against Baylor like he did against Villanova. But the Gaels will need at least 20 to keep up.

Is their biggest man, up for his biggest challenge of the season?

4. Staying in the South

Can Duke Exorcise Their Tournament Demons? They’re the team that everyone loves to hate. They’re the Duke Blue Devils.

But for all that animosity, Duke really hasn’t been all that good in recent tournaments. This is the first year they’ve been a No. 1 seed since 2006, and haven’t been to a Final Four since 2004. In between they’ve had tournament disappointments scattered all over their resume. Could this be the year things change?

It won’t be easy, as on Friday, they’ll go up against a feisty Purdue team that might have lost its best player, but hasn’t lost its fight to compete. They’ve won two close games already and won’t be afraid of Coach K’s boys. Should Duke win, they’ll get either Baylor or St. Mary’s.

The path for Duke won’t be easy, but this is the best Blue Devils team we’ve seen in half a decade.

Coach K and his boys are running out of excuses.

5. Can Syracuse Stay Hot?

With all the chatter about all the teams listed above, our old friends from Syracuse got a bit lost in the shuffle. Not only did they beat an underrated Vermont team in their opener, but were fantastic against a Gonzaga crew that was ranked in the top 25 for virtually the entire season. It’s hard to imagine this team performing any better than they did in their 87-65 win over the ‘Zags on Sunday. They did it all: Played great defense, made the extra pass and hit their open jumpers. Wes Johnson even added 31 points and 14 rebounds just for good measure.

But now, as they get ready to take on Butler in the West Regional in Salt Lake City, a new question has emerged. When, if ever, will the Orange get back Arinze Onuaku? Coach Jim Boeheim announced at a Wednesday press conference he wouldn’t be playing Thursday, and his status for Saturday has to be highly questionable at this point.

It’s important to note that the Orange should be able to get by Butler without Onuaku. But they won’t be hoisting a championship trophy without him.

To read all of Aaron’s work, including his detailed predictions of this weekend’s Sweet 16 games, please visit him at www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his thoughts on all things sports, including on this weekend’s NCAA Tournament action, be sure to follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres

While most everyone is still recovering from one of the most exciting opening weekend’s in NCAA Tournament history, as hard as it is to believe, the Sweet 16 is set to tip-off again Thursday.

As you get ready for another exhilarating weekend of basketball action, here are the five most burning questions heading into this weekend’s games:

NCAA Tournament: Round Two Recap

After an exciting opening round of the NCAA Tournament, it seemed all but impossible that the excitement could be topped when Round 2 tipped off on Saturday. Only it was was.

Here are the bet and brightest, that the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament had to offer.

Best Game: Northern Iowa-Kansas

No if’s, and’s or but’s about it, this one was the best game of the weekend by far.

Northern Iowa and Kansas had everything you could ever want from an NCAA Tournament game: A small school going up against one of college basketball’s established powers; As much excitement and tension as any game in recent memory (was anyone on the edge of their seat for just about the last 10 minutes of this game? Because I sure was); A great comeback from a championship caliber team; And ultimately the most shocking result of this young tournament.

But here’s the question: How big of an upset was this really? Remember, Northern Iowa returned five starters off a team that played in the NCAA Tournament last year, narrowly losing to Purdue in the First Round. They had the No. 2 scoring defense in college basketball this year, allowing only 54 points a game. And they went 28-4 during the regular season, and won their final three games before the tournament by at least 15 points.

This one may have an upset to you and me (and made us rip up our brackets in the process). Just don’t tell the kids from Northern Iowa this one was an upset. They won’t believe it.

Best Team Performance of the Weekend: Cornell

We touched on this one a little in the First Round recap, but it’s worth repeating. The Big Red were nothing short of phenomenal this weekend, blitzing two teams that’d been ranked in the top 25 all year. And like Northern Iowa, watching them play, it was the Big Red, not their opponents who seemed to think that they were the favorites.

With two wins under their belts, Cornell goes to Syracuse this weekend to take on Kentucky, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.

Has there ever been a matchup between two teams that are so seemingly different?

Best Individual Performance: Omar Samhan, St. Mary’s

Samhan was nothing short of spectacular against Villanova on Saturday, scoring 32 points and grabbing seven rebounds, just two days after toasting Richmond for 27 and 11. Not bad for a guy that few had heard of just a week ago.

In the process, Samhan displayed every trait that NBA General Manager’s drool over when evaluating big men: Quick feet, soft hands, a softer touch around the hoop, and the ability to pass out of the low post.

With St. Mary’s heading to Houston to take on Baylor this weekend, Samhan has at least one more game before his college career is over. But he’s also got the beginnings of what looks to be a bright professional future as well.

Best Coaching Performance: John Calipari, Kentucky

Whether you love or hate Calipari (and outside of Kentucky those feelings are definitely mixed), no coach out there knows how to get players to perform this time of year quite like he does. I guess it makes sense that 2010 marks the fifth straight year a Calipari coached team has reached the Sweet 16, with his clubs reaching the Elite Eight or beyond in 2006, 2007 and 2008 as well.

And after two wins by a combined 59 points over the weekend, Calipari’s ‘Cats are just starting to roll.

After their victory Saturday, Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio had this to say about Coach Calipari’s crew: “I’ve been in the ACC for 10 years. That’s (Kentucky) as good a basketball team as we played against in the 10 years I’ve been here.

Well that’s certainly not the kind of praise you hear from the opposition very often. But then again, when your John Calipari at this time of the year, you’re probably used to it.

Worst Coaching Performance: Jay Wright, Villanova

Look its hard not to love what Jay Wright has done during his time at Villanova, as no one does more with less than he does.

But Wright just didn’t have his best showing Saturday against St. Mary’s. And truthfully, anyone who saw the Wildcats opener against Robert Morris knows that Villanova could have (and maybe should have) lost that game too.

But here’s the bigger question about Villanova’s stink bomb Saturday afternoon: How did Scottie Reynolds (84 percent foul shooter) and Corey Fisher (77 percent foul shooter), only combine to shoot five free throws the entire game. Even more embarrassingly, why did they continue to shoot from the perimeter, as the two went just 5 for 24 from the field?

I have a feeling those are questions that Wright will be asking himself for a very, very long time.

Five More Teams That Are Rolling Into The Sweet 16:

Syracuse: Arinze who? The Orange made HSBC Arena in Buffalo their personal boxing ring, as they beat both Vermont and Gonzaga to a pulp, on their way to the Sweet 16. Imagine what they’ll be like when they do get Arinze Onuaku- their starting center- back in the lineup this weekend? Can someone say, Final Four?

Kansas State: Another set of Wildcats (is every team nicknamed the Wildcats in this tournament?) got physical with BYU and put them away late, thanks in a big way to Jacob Pullen’s 34 points. This season marks Kansas State’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since all the way back in 1988, a year when several of their current players weren’t even born.

Washington: Finally (finally!) the Huskies look like the team that everyone had in their preseason top 15. The truth is, if Washington keeps playing the way they have in their opening two rounds, West Virginia could be their latest upset victim this weekend.

Tennessee: All hail Bruce Pearl. It seems like every time we begin to doubt the Tennessee coach, he comes up even bigger and better than we could have ever imagined. Forget the Volunteers victories over Kansas and Kentucky this season, Tennessee had their biggest win Saturday, when they advanced to their third Sweet 16 in four years. Who says Tennessee is just a “football school?”

Baylor: Remember everyone’s favorite dark horse team to make it to the Final Four? Well amidst all the chaos on Saturday, the Bears quietly advanced to their first Sweet 16 in school history. Is their first ever Elite Eight in the immediate future too?

Five More Players Who Deserve Some Praise:

Wes Johnson, Syracuse: Yes, he was the Big East Player of the Year, but Johnson saved his best performance of 2010 for Sunday’s victory over Gonzaga, when he scored 31 points and added 14 rebounds. Johnson was already considered an elite NBA prospect, but now that pro stock seems to be going through the roof.

Korie Lucious, Michigan State: Who needs Kalin Lucas, when you’ve got Korie Lucious? The low scoring sophomore hit the biggest shot of his Michigan State career Sunday, a game-winning, 3-pointer at the buzzer to propel the Spartans to a victory over Maryland. With Lucas expected to be out this weekend and beyond, this might not be the last time we hear Lucious’ name.

Chris Kramer, Purdue: Apparently Kramer got quite offended about being labeled a defensive player. The 6’3 senior scored 17 points in Purdue’s overtime victory over Texas A&M Sunday, extending his career in West Lafayette at least one game. Purdue will face off with Duke this weekend.

Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky: Don’t sleep on Kentucky’s other…other…freshman. The Wildcats fourth leading scorer on the season has never played better than he did this weekend, when he scored 29 points in the Wildcats opener, followed by a 13 point, five assist performance Saturday.

Ronald Nored, Butler: For all the talk about Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, it was Nored who came through the biggest for the Bulldogs in their Second Round victory over Murray State. He scored 15 points and had six assists, not to mention a three point play in the final seconds, which sealed the victory.

Finally…

Check back to HoopsAddict.com on Wednesday, as we reveal the Five Biggest Questions Heading into the Sweet 16.

To read all of Aaron’s additional work, make sure to stop by his site, www.aarontorres-sports.com. Also, for his opinions on all things sports, follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres