Why would I want to go round-by-round when my bracket’s basically intact?

Over the past two days, I’ve watched some 26 hours of college basketball–and loved every minute of it.  My favourite part was when CBS would run the promo for the round-by-round brackets.  When the play-by-play guy would ask “Is your bracket busted?”  I’d respond with a resounding “No!”  Fifteen of my Sweet 16 made it through to the third round, so there’s really no point in making new picks when the old ones will do just fine!

Of course, I got burned by Mercer beating Duke, along with everyone else not named Sam Mitchell.  Looks like the Duke players won’t be getting their very own Belle Knox pocket pussy–unless they pay retail.  But I’m glad I only had Duke in my Elite Eight.  Their hottest frosh (no, not Jabari Parker) had them going all the way, and not just with a mold of her vagina.  I would be feeling a bit better had I picked them to lose to Michigan in the Sweet 16, but still, I can’t really complain.

As it stands, I’m currently in third out of 27 players in my tourney pool, where the top three finishers take home some cash.  This is the same pool where I finished in the bottom five last year after picking Gonzaga to go all the way.  So perhaps some redemption is in order, although I’d probably need at least 12 teams to actually make the Sweet 16 to keep up my podium pace.  With that said, here’s who I like in today’s games:

12:15 pm: Florida over Pittsburgh – This matchup might have gotten a bit more interesting after Thursday’s results.  While Florida, the number-one overall seed, struggled slightly against Albany, Pitt put up the most dominating performance of the second round, especially considering that they were facing a higher seed (8 vs 9, but still).  That being said, I fully expect the Florida team that went 33-2 on the season to show up for this game.  I’ve got ‘em in my Elite Eight, albeit not my Final Four.

2:45 pm: Louisville over Saint Louis – Speaking of the Final Four, I’ve advanced the defending champs all the way to the title game.  Saint Louis really shouldn’t even be here, and if NC State could make a few free throws, they wouldn’t be.  The Billikens really don’t impress-a me much–although, as far as team names go, I guess they’re better than the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.  (Apparently, it’s a type of chicken.)

5:15 pm: Michigan over Texas – There were several surprisingly close 1-16 and 2-15 matchups in the this year’s tournament.  But not so for the Wolverines, who held Wofford College to just 40 points.  Texas, meanwhile, needed a buzzer beater to get past a 10-seed that I didn’t rate too highly in Arizona State.  This one shouldn’t go down to the last second.

6:10 pm: San Diego State over North Dakota State – I had actually called the 12-5 upset with North Dakota State beating Oklahoma in the first round.  But speaking of upset specials, I’ve got San Diego State over Arizona to advance to the Elite Eight.  Their overtime squeaker over New Mexico State made me a little uneasy, but it’s worth noting that the second-ranked defense in the country held its opponent to 60 points in regulation, just a shade over its season average (57 ppg allowed).  If defense wins championships, the Aztecs remain a force to be reckoned with.

7:10 pm: Syracuse over Dayton – Granted, I did not have Dayton in this game on my bracket, but after a convincing 24-point second-round win, I don’t think Syracuse is ripe for an upset–especially not with the de facto homecourt advantage in Buffalo.

7:45 pm: Wisconsin over Oregon — Yes, Oregon had a pretty impressive second round, beating BYU by 19 in a game I totally got wrong.  But Wisconsin won by 40, holding its opponent to just 13 second-half points.  If defense wins championships…hey, I’ve got the Badgers in my Final Four.

8:40 pm: Michigan State over Harvard – I also called Harvard over Cincy in another 12-5 upset, but I think the buck stops here for the Future Leaders of Tomorrow.  Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country today, and since they wouldn’t have to face Michigan or Wisconsin until the title game, I’ve got them going all the way…as do at least half the people in my pool, and probably yours, too.

9:40 pm: Villanova over Connecticut – Though they might rather have faced their Philly brethren (I had St. Joe’s beating UConn), I’m sure Villanova will settle for their former Big East rivals.  Nova is the best team that stayed in the conference now nicknamed the Catholic 10, and only had one loss to a school not named Syracuse or Creighton this season.  For what it’s worth, they beat St. Joe’s by 30 in December, but I think this one could be a little closer against Connecticut.

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And that’s why they call it… March Madness!

Oh man, I don’t think I’ve seen such an exciting first (real) day of NCAA tournament play.  I mean, we had four overtime games and two buzzer beaters yesterday, practically packing a whole tourney’s worth of excitement into Thursday!  And hey, I gotta say, my bracket did pretty well in the midst of all of it…

Granted, I lost two teams (Saint Joe’s, NC State) in OT, and another one (Ohio St) in the dying seconds of regulation, but I didn’t have any of them advancing past the next round, anyways. Were it not for picking BYU over Oregon, I could say I was thisclose to a perfect bracket after Day One.  But hey, I didn’t have BYU going past the third round either, so my entire Sweet 16 bracket is still intact.  I don’t think I’ve ever had all 16 teams make it past the first, erm, second round, but I’ve got at least eight of them still alive, with many more to come.  Every game tomorrow means something to me now, but of course, none are more meaningful than Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State this afternoon.

I gotta say, I’ve never been less confident in a Zags first-round matchup, not since I jumped on the bandwagon during their magical run in ’99.  Gonzaga has made the tourney every year since then, and they’ve only lost in the round of 64 trice.   These first-round losses were symbolic of the end of two eras.  In ’02, after their entire roster from that magical ’99 season had moved on, they lost a close contest to Wyoming, of all teams.  Then in ’07 and ’08, aka Year One and Year Two AM (After Morrison), they fell to Indiana and Davidson, respectively.  I’m pretty sure I had Gonzaga in my Sweet 16 both of those years; I know the Davidson loss was especially costly for my bracket.

But this season, I haven’t advanced the Zags past the third round, where they’d almost certainly meet top-seeded Arizona.  In fact, I’m probably in the minority (outside of the Pacific Northwest) who’s even picking them to beat State.  I mean, I’ve seen some brackets that had the Cowboys going all the way to the Elite Eight–which means yes, they would even beat Arizona.  While I beg to differ, this is still a very good team, ranked ninth in the country as recently as Jan 18, before a late losing streak dropped them out of the Top 25.  Three of those losses came with star guard Marcus Smart suspended for shoving a Texas Tech fan–for whom I certainly have no sympathy.

But you know what?  Even with Smart on the court–and scoring 23 points, no less–Gonzaga edged OK State, in Stillwater, on New Year’s Eve…2012.  Of course, like I said the other day, Gonzaga isn’t quite the same team as last year.  You might even call it the end of an era, although the Kelly Olynyk era lasted just one magical season.  But it helps that we’ve seen this team before, even if Gonzaga’s current starting frontcourt was coming off the bench in that one.  I still think this team could repeat the feat–but hey, there’s a reason I’m not picking them to move past the third round, and it’s not just because Arizona is awesome.

Here’s who else I like in today’s games:

12:15 pm: Duke over Mercer – Obvious win is obvious.  Mercer hasn’t even made the tourney since 1985, when they had some kid named Sam Mitchell manning the paint.  I half-expect him to call for the upset during the TSN broadcast today, which might make him the only person in North America picking Mercer over Duke.

12:40 pm: Nebraska over Baylor — On the other hand, I’m the one calling for the upset here.  Nebraska actually knocked off both Michigan State and Wisconsin this season, two teams I’ve got in my Final Four.  Baylor’s biggest wins were against Kentucky and Oklahoma State teams that subsequently fell off the map, and an Oklahoma squad that’s already out of the tourney.  Plus, I’m pretty sure the entire state of Nebraska would go nuts over a Nebraksa-Creighton matchup in the Round of 32.  Better start stalk, erm, stocking up on corn…

1:40 pm: New Mexico over Stanford – Quick, name me one player from the current Stanford squad.  Unless you’re an alum, you probably can’t do it.  And while I’m not intimately familiar with New Mexico’s team, either, I’m assuming the Mountain West champs are ranked 17th for a reason–in which case, a seven-seed might actually be a little low.

2:10 pm: Arizona over Weber State – Can you imagine how many brackets would be busted if Arizona actually lost this game?  Then again, can you imagine Arizona actually losing this game?  Me neither.

2:45 pm: Tennessee over UMass – I know I had originally slotted Iowa into the Midwest 11 seed, but that doesn’t change my hate-on for the A10.  Saint Joe’s is already gone, Saint Louis ought to have lost to a 12 seed, and both finished higher than UMass in the conference.  But hey, I guess they could always pull a Dayton…

3:10 pm: Creighton over Louisiana-Lafayette – The only thing the Ragin’ Cajuns have got going for them is arguably the most awesome logo in the tourney.  Sure, they scored a lotta points in the Sun Belt against a buncha schools I’ve never heard of, but they lost to Baylor by 19 and Louisville by a whopping 39 points.  I think the Blue Jays are OK here.

4:10 pm: Kansas over Eastern Kentucky — Put it this way: there are two great basketball schools in the state of Kentucky, and Eastern Kentucky isn’t one of them.  Also, their logo looks like Colonel Sanders.  Which reminds me, I still need to try that Big Boss sandwich…

4:40 pm: Gonzaga over Oklahoma State – Hey, at least I won’t be distracted by the Kansas-EKU game.  GO ZAGS!!!

6:55 pm: Memphis over George Washington – How did the A10 get six bids again? George Washington did defeat Creighton in December, but they lost to Dayton, UMass, Saint Louis and twice to VCU.  And, despite the committee’s lack of love for the AAC, Memphis actually knocked off Louisville twice.  This game might not be as close as their records suggest.

7:10 pm: Wichita State over Cal Poly — Yeah, Wichita State didn’t face a lotta tough competition this season, but I’m pretty sure there are 3-4 teams in the MVC that could kick the shit outta Cal Poly.

7:20 pm: North Carolina over Providence – Although they might not be in the mix this year, UNC is still just two years removed from two straight Elite Eight appearances.  I’m pretty sure Providence still longs for the days of Rick Pitino–this is the first time they’ve even made the tourney in 10 years, and they haven’t won a tournament game since ’97.

7:27 pm: VCU over Stephen F. Austin – VCU is the only A10 team, and the only five-seed, I’ve picked to advance in my bracket this year.  If you want a true conference of nobodies, check out the Southland.  Stephen F. Austin’s perfect conference record looks less impressive when you can’t even name any of the schools they were up against.

9:25 pm: Virginia over Coastal Carolina – I couldn’t even tell you which conference Coastal Carolina plays in.

9:40 pm: Kentucky over Kansas State – There are a few people out there picking Kentucky to beat Wichita State in third round.  I’m not one of those people, but I do think they’ll knock off this lesser Kansas school in the round of 64.

9:50 pm: Iowa State over North Carolina Central – Geez, how many basketball schools are there in North Carolina, anyways?

9:57 pm: UCLA over Tulsa – I just found out that Conference USA has 16 schools now.  And yet ,Tulsa’s the only one that made the tourney.  They lost by 10 to Creighton and 23 to Wichita State, and also to 10 other teams not worth mentioning.  I think UCLA is safe in this one.

The first day of spring can only mean one thing… March Madness, baby!

OK, so maybe it’s not so sunny and bright out right now, but with 12 straight hours of basketball today, who needs to go outside?  Therapeutic Thursday, the opening day of the tourney, sees my two title-game teams in action, and as for upsets, I’m taking all the 12s in the 12-5 matchups today.  I dunno guy, but I’ve kinda got a thing for the number 12. ;)

Anyways, here’s who I’ve got in my bracket today:

12:15 pm: Ohio State over Dayton – Speaking of upsets, I know that Dayton is a popular pick here.  Hey, they did beat Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational, but their only other ranked opponents were Baylor and Saint Louis–and I’ve got both of them losing in this round, too.  Somehow, the A-10 sent six teams to the tourney this year, and Dayton, well, they finished sixth in the conference.  Gimme the Big 10 over the A10 any day!

12:40 pm: Wisconsin over American – American University?  Is that even a thing?  Let’s see, located in Washington D.C., student body of 13-thousand…and, not surprisingly, they play in the Patriot League.  Alas, these Tea Party favourites have about as much clout as Ted Cruz–they’re 316th in the nation in scoring, averaging just under 64 points per game.  Wisconsin, on the other hand, is home to Paul Ryan.  Checkmate!

1:40 pm: Pittsburgh over Colorado – These 8-9 matchups can always go either way–and getting them right can sometimes be the difference in your bracket–especially if one of them goes to the Final Four.  Of course, I didn’t even sniff the Top 10 in my tourney pool last year, thanks to Wichita State…  That said, I picked Pitt in this one, but I don’t expect them to upset Florida in the second, erm, third round.

2:10 pm: Harvard over Cincinnati — Now here’s an upset I do like.  Every year, at least one 12 seed beats a 5, and I’m advancing three 12s in my bracket this year.  The Ivy League champs boast a stellar 26-4 record, with just one loss–to Yale!!!–in conference play.  They also played some pretty close games against tourney teams Colorado and Connecticut, which doesn’t make them any better than the 15th-ranked Bearcats on paper…but hey, they are a 12 seed. ;)

2:45 pm: Syracuse over Western Michigan — I’m pretty sure the Cuse crowd would burn down Buffalo if the Orange were to lose this game.  Then again, their opponents hail from just a couple hours outside Detroit, so maybe their fans will do the burning.  Either way, somebody better call the Buffalo Fire Department, just in case…

3:10 pm: BYU over Oregon – Remember a couple years back, when people were saying the WCC was better than the Pac-12?  Well, with no ranked teams in the conference and Gonzaga just an eight-seed, I don’t think anyone is saying that anymore.  But hey, I’ll still take the second-best team in the WCC over the third-best Pac-12 school.  Either way, the winner’s not getting past Wisconsin.

4:10 pm: Florida over Albany — Yawn.  Wake me when the Gators face Kansas in the Elite Eight…

4:40 pm: Michigan State over Delaware — Not gonna lie, I’ve got MSU as my national champs.  If they win this one by any less than 30, I might experience some discomfort.

6:55 pm: Saint Joseph’s over Connecticut – Fun Fact: ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi is both the head of communications and the colour commentary guy for Saint Joe’s.  I bet he’s taking his alma matter in this one, too!

7:10 pm: Michigan over Wofford – Wofford was another one of those schools I had to Google.  Situated in sunny Spartanburg, South Carolina, the tiny school of just 1,500 students apparently has an acceptance rate of 65 per cent.  And if their basketball team takes just about anybody, too, they’re definitely in trouble.  After all, there’s no way Michigan loses to a team from Spartanburg!

7:20 pm: NC State over Saint Louis – I might have been thinking Xavier when I first made this pick, but after winning the play-in game by 15 points, I like the Wolfpack.  Although this team was only 9-9 in conference play, their ACC schedule featured regular run-ins with Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina–teams that could blow anybody in the A10 out of the water.  The Pack actually beat Cuse and took UNC into OT, which is good enough for me.

7:27 pm: North Dakota State over Oklahoma – This might be a slightly more popular pick than Harvard over Cincy, perhaps due to the fact that the Bison have the best field-goal-shooting team in the entire country, hitting almost 51 per cent of their shots…from the floor…as a team!  Add that to a staunch defense that only gives up 65 points per game, and you’ve got a potential upset brewing over a team that’ll need to take a lot more shots–the Sooners hit just 45 per cent of theirs.

9:25 pm: Villanova over Milwaukee – Cuz all the cool kids in Milwaukee go to Marquette.  This 13-loss team from the Horizon League is every bit the 15 seed that goes home early.

9:40 pm: Texas over Arizona State – You don’t mess with Texas!  The Longhorns upset UNC in Chapel Hill this year and rolled off seven straight wins in conference play, beating Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas in the process.  I’d call that a much more impressive resume than their opponent, who’s probably only here because they beat Arizona in double-OT.

9:50 pm: Louisville over Manhattan – Don’t ask me what the committee was thinking.  Despite their 29-5 record, a top-five ranking and a conference title, the defending NCAA champs were only awarded a four-seed.  OK, so they’re not in the Big East anymore.  That being said, I’ve picked them to advance to the championship game again.  Here’s hoping I finish ahead of all the guys who go chalk in my pool!

9:57 pm: San Diego State over New Mexico State – Look out for New Mexico State centre Sim Bhullar in this one.  At 7’5″, 355, you can’t miss him!  The Aggies have four Torontonians on their team, including Bhullar’s “little” brother Tanveer, who’s a mere 7’3″, 335.  They’ve also got guys from France, Croatia and South Africa, all of whom stand at least 6’7″.  And yet, they’re only 55th in the country in rebounding!?  That’s just not gonna cut it against the second-best defense in the entire nation–San Diego State allows just 56.6 ppg.  Call me crazy, but I’ve actually got the Aztecs upsetting Arizona in my Sweet 16.  The round of 64 should be no sweat!

Oh great, they gave Gonzaga an eight-seed?

For the teams that aren’t just happy to be in the NCAA tournament, there’s nothing worse than being an eight or nine-seed.  And seeing as Gonzaga’s making its sixteenth straight March Madness appearance, just showing up isn’t their idea of a good time.  Especially not after the disappointment of last season, when I picked them to go all the way as the first one-seed in school history.  Ultimately, they lost in the round of 32 to ninth-seeded Wichita State.  But if the Zags are to make it to the second weekend of the tourney this year, the slipper will have to be on the other foot.  Cuz this time, they’d be the team looking to take out a one-seed–if they even survive the second round!

But I wouldn’t bet my billion-dollar bracket on it.  Not even someone who’s been cheering them on in every one of those 16 tourneys would pick this team to go all the way.  Speaking for myself here, I really think Gonzaga’s year was last year…and they blew it.  A deep tournament run with this season’s team would be almost akin to that first Cinderella story back in ’99.  Where’s Casey Calvary when you need him?

OK, so Calvary (Class of ’01) is long gone, but it’s the most recent departures of Mike Hart, Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk that really hurt right now.  I mean, you can’t stop your seniors from graduating–while Olynyk probably wouldn’t be a lottery pick had he waited until this year’s draft–but they went from having four premium post players (and a do-everything swingman) to frequently fielding a four-guard lineup.  Both Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have stepped up admirably, but there is absolutely no one behind them on the bench.  They’ll almost certainly have to abandon the high-low game without Dower next season–their future backup centre is another 7-foot, 300-pounder in the Karnowski mould.

But hey, you don’t necessarily need a big man to win big in March.  I mean, did Wichita State have anyone who was over 6’8″?  Of course, they did have great guards, a suffocating defense and spot-on three-point shooting.  For Gonzaga, well, two outta three (on a good day) ain’t bad, right?  Problem is Gary Bell’s been banged up, Kevin Pangos is playing hurt–and ineffective, at that–and David Stockton, well, he ain’t quite as good as his old man.  Two out of the three can hit the three pretty consistently, although Pangos’ turf toe seems to rob him of much lift on his shot.  But between Bell and Drew Barham, the Zags can still shoot out the lights…on a good night.  But on the flipside, they’re just not gonna press a team into submission.  Sure, they held the likes of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and San Diego under 60 at home, but playing at The Kennel, I’m pretty sure the Zags could hold 1990 Loyola Marymount under 60, as long as they put Bell on Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers in a coma. ;)

Of course, while there are tournament games in Spokane this year, an eight-seed doesn’t often get to play at its home gym.  And while San Diego isn’t too far away–hey, it’s within the WCC!–it’s also a whole lot closer to Arizona.  The Wildcats earned a one-seed after a 30-4 season that had them ranked fourth in the country.  There is some hope in the fact that they lost the Pac-12 championship game to a 26-8 UCLA squad that might have only been an eight-seed were it not for that big win.  (As it stands, they’re the four-seed in the South Region.)

Then again, the Bruins seem to match up well against Arizona, losing by just four to the then-top-ranked team back in January.  In fact, UCLA, 12th in the nation in scoring (81.8 ppg) is the only team to score more than 70 against the fifth-ranked Wildcat D (58.1 points allowed) this season.  Gonzaga, despite a stellar .498 team shooting percentage, averaged a more-modest 76.9 ppg, and that’s against a much-weaker schedule.  The Zags only faced one ranked team in 2012-13, and lost, 60-54, to then-24th-ranked Memphis.  (Coincidentally, the Tigers are also an eight-seed in the tourney.)

But let’s not overlook their first March Madness opponent.  Although they’re seeded ninth, Oklahoma State was actually ranked ninth in the country before losing to Kansas on Jan 18th.  Then they lost seven of their next eight games–six to teams that made the tourney–before righting the ship and winning a rematch with Kansas earlier this month.  Put it this way: the Big 12, which is actually down to 10 teams, is still sending seven schools to March Madness.  Only the top two from the WCC got invited–and BYU’s a 10-seed (at best).  Mind you, I’d certainly trade places with the Cougs and take on an Oregon team that lost to lowly Washington and Oregon State over a Final Four dark horse in OK State.

Then again, as a Gonzaga fan, I am definitely advancing the Zags over the Cowboys in my bracket.  But while I’ll clearly be rooting for them to then take out a top-five team in the third round, I still have visions of Buffalo dancing in my head.  The last time Gonzaga was an eight-seed, they travelled all the way out east to Upstate NY, only to run into top-seeded Syracuse in the second round.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there–watching the 87-65 loss on TV was bad enough without being surrounded by Orange!  That being said…

GO ZAGS!  BEAT STATE!

Gonzaga might still be the team to beat in the WCC…but just barely!

Suffice to say that Gonzaga isn’t as good as last season.  Losing your entire starting frontcourt is certainly a setback, and it’s pretty hard to improve on being the number-one ranked team heading into the tourney…but let’s not talk about the NCAA’s just yet.

This weekend, the West Coast Conference basketball tourney got underway in Vegas–a tournament I attended last year.  Once again, the Gonzaga men’s team headed in as the one-seed, but whereas last time they were a perfect 16-0 in the conference en route to a 32-3 record, this year’s 26-6 squad has had a few more setbacks…and I’m not just talking those three additional losses.  But yes, they did lose three times on the road in conference play, dropping games at Portland, San Diego and BYU.  And while there isn’t much shame in losing in Utah, to a BYU team that’s possibly heading to March Madness either way, the other two defeats were both unexpected and unsettling.  Hey, it’s worth noting that neither Portland nor San Diego advanced past the WCC quarterfinals…

Then again, Gonzaga almost didn’t make it through, either.  Up against a ninth-seeded, 14-19 Santa Clara squad, the Zags needed a last-second layup to eke out a 77-75 win.  Incidentally, that was the second time in three meetings between the two schools that they went down to the wire; with a Sam Dower three-pointer the difference in a narrow 54-52 escape from Santa Clara back in January.  Even though their coach is, like, 1-16 against ‘em, Santa Clara seems to match up pretty well with Gonzaga–which isn’t something you should be saying about a nine-seed.  At least the Zags should have a much easier matchup with Saint Mary’s tonight, considering that they just beat them by 28 at Saint Mary’s on Saint Mary’s senior night.  If there’s one team in the WCC that’s hurting more than Gonzaga from recent departures, it’s gotta be the Gaels.

That being said, while Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have played well in the post for GU, both of these guys were coming off the bench last year.  And there is absolutely nobody behind them–if one of the bigs gets in foul trouble, Gonzaga usually goes with four guards.  And did I mention Dower’s a senior?  That lack of depth might not hurt them in the WCC, but could come back to bite ‘em in the NCAAs.

Mind you, I dunno if we can take another berth in the Big Dance for granted.  While the ESPN crew on Saturday seemed fairly certain that Gonzaga was getting in, one way or another, this team just hasn’t had those quality non-conference wins they’ve picked up in the past.  Outside of beating BYU in Spokane, the next best win on the Zags’ resume is Arkansas, a fifth-place team in the SEC.  Aaaaand that’s why they’ve spent most of the season outside the Top 25.  It says here that Gonzaga’s strength of schedule is 93rd in the nation–five spots below Saint Mary’s!  Here’s hoping a win tonight might bump them up a bit.

In any case, to book a certain bid back to the Tourney, Gonzaga’s gonna hafta go through the Gaels, then either San Francisco or BYU.  Considering that the Cougars have already eclipsed San Fran twice–albeit by a total of 12 points–it’s looking like it’ll probably be the Cougs.  In which case, the Orleans Arena might actually be somewhat of a neutral site tomorrow, instead of Gonzaga’s home away from home.  Safe to say that either Gonzaga or BYU belongs in the NCAA tourney, but it’s a guaranteed bid for the winner, while the loser will hafta sweat it out…and be stuck with a double-digit seed, at best.  Barring any upsets tonight, I’m gonna say Zags 75, Cougs 71.

(And if it’s Gonzaga that gets upset tonight, you probably won’t be hearing from me tomorrow.)

For Lithuania, the Dream Team was somewhat of a misnomer…

For USA basketball fans, the Dream Team referred to simply the best squad you could dream of–at least, that was certainly true of the 1992 edition, despite its inclusion of Christian Laettner over the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Isiah Thomas.  But while the States cruised to gold in Barcelona, it was the bronze-medal-winning Lithuanian outfit that was truly a dream team, for they fulfilled the hopes and dreams of a nation, not just those who dreamed of seeing Magic and Bird in the same uni.

In the feature-length documentary The Other Dream Team, director Marius Markevicius showed just how closely intertwined the nascent Lithuanian nation was with basketball, its national sport.  And at an Olympic tournament with an overwhelmingly clear favourite, the Lithuanians provided a true underdog story you could root for.  (They certainly had the Deadheads’ support–check out those tie-dye t-shirts!)  Forget the Miracle on Ice, this was a true Miracle on Hardwood for the former Soviet nation.

Y’see, in the pre-Soviet days, Lithuania was somewhat of a roundball powerhouse, winning two of the first three EuroBasket titles in the late 1930’s.  The sport stayed strong during the occupation, serving as a morale-booster for Siberian exiles, and Lithuania eventually produced a generation of players in who’d lead local club team BC Žalgiris to back-to-back-to-back championship wins over the Russian Red Army team right around the time Pat Reilly was coining the term “three-peat.”  You’ve probably heard of some of these guys, like Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, who paved the path for Lithuanians to the NBA.

But first, they had to play for the enemy.  In fact, on the 1988 Soviet Union team that beat the Americans for Olympic gold, four of the starting five were Lithuanian.  So when an independent Lithuania runs into the Unified Team (ie. ex-Soviet Union), in the ’92 bronze-medal match, one can only imagine the significance, not to mention the outcome.  Actually, it was a pretty close game, although as Soviet teammate turned opponent Sasha Volkov admits on tape, history was on Lithuania’s side.

Director Markevicius not only conducts extensive interviews with all the key players on that squad, but also key Lithuanian political figures of the era, providing a true historical perspective not only of Lithuanian basketball but of the Lithuanian nation, leaving no dobut that all its star players would bond together to form its first national team.  (None of this Nash can’t play for Canada crap!)  As for the tie-dye, well, it just so happens that Marciulionis’, then a Golden State Warrior, Bay Area fundraising campaign caught the attention of the Grateful Dead themselves, who kicked in some cash along with the unofficial team unis.  No, they did NOT wear those on the court–but they sure did on the podium!

The fact of the matter is that ’92 is to Lithuania what ’72 was to Canada–had our country, and not just its ice rinks, been invaded by the Soviets.  Coincidentally, it was also the birth year of Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, the highest Lithuanian pick in NBA history when he was taken fifth overall a couple years back.  The film also follows Jonas throughout his pre-draft workouts, culminating with a footnote on the future of Lithuanian basketball–not to mention the Toronto team.  And speaking of footnotes, it just so happens that Lithuania won silver at Eurobasket just two months ago.  With Sabonis and Marciulionis both running hoops schools in their home country, it seems that the future of Lithuanian basketball is in great shape…

If only the same could be said for the Raptors.

Note: The Other Dream Team was the premiere screening of this year’s European Union Film Festival, which runs until the 27th at The Royal and features one film from each EU nation.  All screenings are free–but if you kick in 10 bucks ahead of time, you don’t hafta wait in line.  Full festival schedule here.

Wellp, I guess this makes me a Celtics fan…

Although Anthony Bennett got all the headlines–especially north of the border–he wasn’t the only Canadian taken in the first round of last night’s NBA draft.  After a run of guards from picks 7 to 11, the Oklahoma City Thunder took young New Zealander Steven Adams with the 12th overall pick that originally belonged to the Raptors.  Had Toronto hung on to that pick (hey, I can live without Kyle Lowry), they could have landed the most offensively gifted Canadian centre since…  Man, I don’t think I can even come up with a name, unless we’re talking hockey. ;)

As it stands, Gonzaga grad Kelly Olynyk was picked 13th overall. Fittingly enough, as he wore number 13 in college.  In fact, some of the early mock drafts already had him going to the Mavs at 13.  As I noted back in April, when he officially declared, “Draftexpress.com, for instance, has Olynyk going 13th overall to Dallas, where he could hone his Dirk Nowitzki-like game behind Dirk Nowitzki himself.”

Aye, but here’s the rub.  Dallas traded the 13th pick to the Boston Celtics.  So instead of honing his game behind the Dunking Deutschman, he’ll be doing so behind Kevin Garnett, another one of the premier new-breed power forwards.  But wait, there’s more!  The Celts then turned around and dealt KG and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn for a smorgasbord of sub-par players.  Suddenly, instead of honing his game behind Dirk or KG, Olynyk simply has to beat out Kris “Don’t Call Me Kardashian” Humphries for a spot in the starting lineup!

And the best part?  As Atlantic Division rivals, Boston is bound to visit Toronto a fistful of times next season.  Hey, the Raptors don’t have an all-Celtics ticket pack, do they? :P

Not cheering for either team, but I’ll still watch the games… Because it’s the Cup!

(Now where’s my money, Bettman?  You don’t want me to send Agents Bouchard and Ward after ya, now do ya, punk?)

All corporate sponsorship aside, it’s safe to say I’ll be watching me some hockey tonight.  Still trying to figure out what the heck happened to Pittsburgh, the Miami Heat of the NHL, who were held to just two goals in four games against Boston in the Eastern Final, though.  And with their elimination, I threw my Jarome Iginla jersey in the wash.  If only he hadn’t vetoed that trade to Boston…  Matt Bartkowski would be wearing a Flames jersey (on the golf course) right now!  And, of course, Iggy would be in the finals.

Then again, if the Boston Bruins are the NHL’s Indiana Pacers (minus the “no homo” and “y’all motherfuckers“…  OK, basically without Roy Hibbert), you could almost argue that the Chicago Blackhawks are the Heat.  Chicago did finish with the best record in the league, after all, and won–or lost via shootout–24 straight games, almost equaling the Heat’s 27 game mark.  The Hawks boast some serious star-power in the likes of Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa, none of whom resort to shooting from the outside like Chris Bosh.  But hey, Boston was pretty much able to hold Crosby, Malkin, Morrow and Iginla off the scoreboard, sooo…

I guess what I’m saying is that I expect this, like the Pacers-Heat series, to be a hotly-contested, back-and-forth affair in which neither side is able to take two straight games.  But in the end, the better team wins.  Hawks in 7.

(Oh, and while we’re at it, Spurs in 5.  You heard it here first…)

Uh, so I guess there’s some basketball on, too…

Can’t say I’ve watched too much of the NBA playoffs up to this point, but now that we’re into the conference finals, things are getting interesting.  Well, in the Eastern Conference, anyways.  And thus, while I’ll be awaiting the start of the marquee Boston-Pittsburgh Eastern Final with all the other hockey fans, I’ll be sure to watch the Pacers and Heat in the meantime.

Of course, everybody expects Miami to win this series, and subsequently, the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  Let’s just say that if Dennis Green coached basketball, he would crown their ass by now.  But the hicks from the sticks (who once famously nixed the Knicks in six) have been giving them one heckuva run thus far.  Playing the first two games in South Beach, the Pacers took Game 1 into OT on a last-second shot, only to have the Heat squeak out a one-point win.  But instead of hitting the game-winning layup in Game 2, Lebron James turned the ball over, as the road team hung on for a 97-93 victory.  Now the series heads back to Indiana, where the home team is undefeated in the playoffs.  If they can get ahead in this series, it would really put the defending champs on the ropes!

In any case, I’ll be cheering for ‘em.  So will 49 of the 50 states, apparently.

On the other hand, while the Western Conference final has seen some competitive basketball with the last two games going into OT, the San Antonio Spurs have emerged victorious with a 3-0 series lead.  Although trading away Rudy Gay helped propel the Memphis Grizzlies to the conference final, it doesn’t look like it was enough to win the West.  Meanwhile, the Raptors have been sitting at home since April 17th.  I mean, basketball players don’t golf, right?

My point exactly.

Well, I should have a reason to go to ONE Raptors game next season…

Soooo, the NBA playoffs started last weekend, but I hafta say, I didn’t really notice.  Was I still mourning Gonzaga’s early exit from the NCAA tourney?  Perhaps a little.  But truth be told, I haven’t been following pro ball as closely as the college game these past few years.  I mean, it’s not like the Toronto Raptors have been giving me much to cheer for.  That said, there’s a good chance I’ll be going to at least one Raptors game next season–although I won’t necessarily be rooting for the home team.

Last Friday, Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk did the expected and declared for the NBA draft.  After becoming the third Zag to be named first-team All American, he’s now the fourth to leave school with eligibility remaining–even though, as a redshirt junior, he already has his undergraduate degree.  Of course, Olynyk also has a special set of skills to go along with his seven-foot frame, and could potentially go down in history as the top Canadian big man of all-time, unseating the likes of Bill Wennington, Todd MacCulloch and Jamaal Magloire in the process–perhaps not such a lofty achievement.  As it stands, many mock drafts have him projected to go between 10th and 14th overall.  And interestingly enough, the Raptors would’ve had the 12th overall pick had they not shipped it to Houston (for Kyle Lowry), who later passed it on to OKC in the James Harden trade.  So if the Raps wanna land the next Canadian superstar, well, they might hafta wait till Kevin Pangos is eligible in 2015. ;)

In fact, there’s a decent possibility that Raptors fans won’t even get to see KO in person more than once a year, as four of the five teams in that 10-14 range play in the Western Conference.  Draftexpress.com, for instance, has Olynyk going 13th overall to Dallas, where he could hone his Dirk Nowitzki-like game behind Dirk Nowitzki himself.  ESPN, meanwhile, has him going to Utah with the 14th pick, a team that’s had some incredible success drafting Gonzaga alumni in the first round.  (FWIW, I’m betting they sign David Stockton as an undrafted free-agent next year.)  And nbadraft.net has him 10th overall to Portland, a team that seems set at center with LaMarcus Aldridge–unless they trade him to Cleveland.  If nothing else, he’d be close to Spokane, as well as Kamloops.  And best-case scenario, he steps into the starting lineup, though I wouldn’t quite bank on that Aldridge trade.

Then again, these mock drafts are never an exact science.  Thus, it’s worth noting that two of Toronto’s Atlantic Division foes, namely Philly and Boston, have top-16 picks, while the pesky Milwaukee team that pwned the Raps all season picks 15th.  Considering that nbadraft.net has all three of them picking players 6-foot-9 or taller, and, let’s say the Blazers prefer Mason Plumlee, we could be seeing a lot more of Olynyk on the East Coast next year.  Cuz let’s face it, the chances of Andrew Bynum going a full season without injury are about as slim as North Philadelphia going a full week without gun violence.  Not that I really wanna see Kelly in a Sixers jersey.  But hey, I hear Boston’s nice this time of year…