Mailbag: NCAA Tournament Edition

We had to much fun with our last mailbag, we figured we’d just have to do it again. The NCAA Tournament is our favorite time of the year, so we’re here to answer all your questions about Duke and March Madness.

The Blue Devils prepare for their first round game with an open practice in Greensboro (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

First, let’s take a look at a couple questions about Duke’s chances in the tournament this year.

Q: How far can Duke go this year?@jameezy9
Q: After now seeing the brackets, what’s CT’s honest expectations of the Duke team?@mrgoodvar

Our most honest assessment is that this is going to be a very tough road for Duke this year. The selection committee was not kind to the South region this year, which is by far the hardest of the four. This is particularly perplexing because the top seed in this year’s tournament, Kentucky, resides in the South. Typically the selection committee would seek to reward the top overall seed with the easiest road to the Final Four, but apparently this year that is not the case. The South region is stacked full of talented teams- other than Kentucky teams like Baylor and Indiana appear to be particularly dangerous. Luckily for Duke and Kentucky, two of the other biggest threats in this region, Wichita St. and UNLV both went down on Thursday.

As for Duke, this is a team that came off of a difficult stretch late in the season. After the first round none of these games will be easy, regardless of their opponent. Our predictions for the South region had Duke advancing to the Elite 8 before falling to Kentucky, but to even get there will be a challenge. We hope that Duke will find its form and be able to accomplish this. Luckily for us, Duke has proven all year that it will play up or down to its competition, so having other tough teams in the region could actually be beneficial for the Blue Devils. Our predictions have Duke defeating #10 seed Xavier in the second round and #6 seed UNLV in the Sweet 16. We already know the latter will not be happening. There simply isn’t another team in this region that will be able to compete with Kentucky, unfortunately. They are too talented and Anthony Davis will give this team fits inside.

We received quite a few questions about Duke forward Ryan Kelly and his availability.

Q: So what’s the update on Ryan Kelly? I feel we need him to make a deep run.@dukesjayash
Q: Will Ryan be back for the NCAA Tournament?@bryan_williams2
Q: Is Ryan Kelly going to play Friday? And if he does at 100%?@Dukeallday24

Losing Ryan Kelly will hurt Duke for sure. (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

We learned yesterday that Ryan Kelly would not be available to play in Duke’s first round contest against Lehigh. His availability beyond then remains to be seen. Rumblings around campus have been that Kelly’s sprain was fairly severe, and it appears the team has been rushing to try and get him back on the court as soon as possible. I would say they will probably be cautious in doing so as to not jeopardize his ability to play later in the tournament and train during the offseason. At the moment, I would say that it is doubtful that you see very much of him this weekend, and if you do he will be far from 100%.

As for Kelly’s importance to this Duke team, it is unquestionable. When Ryan Kelly plays well, this team wins basketball games. Duke is 17-1 in games where Ryan scores 10 points or more. It was clear that this team was missing something while playing without him in the ACC Tournament. Not only do they lack a big body that eats up space in the paint, they lose one of their better shooters and most versatile matchup problems. Let’s all hope for a speedy recovery, because it will be hard for Duke to be successful beyond the first weekend without Ryan Kelly.

Q: If Duke & UK meet in the Elite 8, we’ll all start having 1992 flashbacks. What does Duke need to make it happen?@jstorm64

First thing’s first- Duke is going to have to make it to the Elite 8 to face Kentucky. But in order to make it to the Elite 8 and to knock off Kentucky, the Blue Devils will have to follow the same gameplan. First and foremost, they’ll need to shoot the lights out. They cannot afford to have a game where they don’t knock down their long range shots against any opponent in this region, let alone Kentucky. They will need to get the Plumlee brothers involved early and often inside. Throughout the season, the Miles and Mason have been Duke’s two most efficient options on the offensive end. But more than anything, this team will need to defend the hell out of any team they face, especially on the inside. They’ll need to lock down the opposing team’s big men- for Kentucky this would mean Anthony Davis- and crash the board relentlessly. If these two meet in the Elite 8 we’ll have many flashbacks about the greatest college basketball game ever played 20 years ago. But fact of the matter is, Duke was the more talented team in that game. This year, they won’t be, so there is a much slimmer margin for error when going up against a power like Kentucky. Unfortunately, to make a long story short, they will need to be nothing short of perfect.

Q: Heard anything on Amile Jefferson and what are our chances in your mind on Shabazz?@dukefan6190

Amile Jefferson’s situation continues to be a mystery to us. It was our understanding that Amile would be prepared to make a decision this past weekend, but it appears he has chosen to wait a bit longer and weigh his options. This indicates that the competition for Amile between Duke and NC State is a bit closer than we originally thought. Our best guess is that he is waiting until the offseason to see whether certain players from Duke or NC State will decide to leave early and go pro before making his decision. It is unclear, however, whether that decision will be motivated by playing time or whether he is waiting to see if certain players he wants to play with will have left school before he arrives. Hopefully more on this situation becomes clear to us soon.

As for Shabazz Muhammad, he continues to weigh his options. My gut feeling is that Duke’s chances to land Shabazz are fairly good, but only time will tell at this point. If this season has showed us anything, it’s that we need a player like him to come here.

Q: How could anyone pick Missouri to get past the Elite 8 with Frank Haith as their head coach?@Mark_Jessup

Well, it’s pretty easy. We picked Missouri to get to the Final Four in our preview of the West region. Although Haith’s reputation as a head coach is suspect due to his past endeavors, you’ve have to hand it to him and his team because Missouri is playing some fantastic basketball right now. Other than Michigan State, who many consider to be the weakest and most vulnerable of the #1 seeds, there isn’t much other competition in the West region for them to face. Other than that, it’s just a case of a hot team playing great ball. They’ve proven to be an offensive juggernaut, and we believe that will at least get them through one of the weaker regions in this year’s tournament.

Q: Most memorable tourney game prior to being in college?@Caroline12White

Great question. As for my most memorable Duke game, it would have to be Duke coming back from 22 points down in the Final Four against Maryland in 2001. I remember staying up late and watching that game with my parents when I was just nine years old. That was probably one of the most exciting basketball games of my childhood and really got me hooked on the NCAA Tournament.

As for my most memorable non-Duke game, I’m going to have to go with the 2008 national championship game: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 in OT. That’s definitely one of the most underrated tournament games of the past decade, and Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer to send the game into overtime is definitely one of the most underrated clutch shots ever hit. Derrick Rose showed glimpses of the brilliance we would watch in the NBA for years to come, but good triumphed over evil as John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers choked the game away with poor free throw shooting and ineligible SAT scores.

Thanks to everyone for submitting some great questions. Hope you enjoyed the mailbag, and enjoy the basketball this weekend. This is the best weekend in sports.

March Madness: Breaking Down The South Region

It’s that time of year! The NCAA Tournament is upon us, which means it’s time to make our picks for the three most exciting weeks of the basketball season. In the next few days, we’ll be breaking the tournament region by region in our efforts to turn the Average Joe into a regular Joey Brackets. Let’s start with the South region.

The South region

Best First Round Matchup: #5 Wichita St. vs. #12 VCU

It won't be another run to the Final Four for VCU, but should be a great second round game.

This is a matchup between two mid-majors that are both very, very hot right now. Wichita State has lost twice since January 4 while Virginia Commonwealth has lost just once since January 8. They are set to collide Thursday in Portland in a matchup between two teams that could both easily make a run to the Sweet 16. Wichita St. sports a balanced offensive attack, with three players averaging more than 12 points per game. While they love to run and gun on offense, they also crash the boards relentlessly, pulling down 38 rebounds per game. Senior Garrett Stutz paces the Shockers’ offense. The 7-foot center records 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 82.1% from the free throw line. Meanwhile, VCU operates at a significantly slower pace. This is not the same team you saw make a run to the Final Four last year- the only starter remaining from last year’s team is senior Bradford Burgess, who leads the Rams with 13.3 points per game. But the Rams prefer to earn their stripes on the defensive end of the floor. Although they lost many key pieces from their tournament run last season, they haven’t lost the “havoc” defense that got them there. They’ll be all over the floor trying to slow Wichita State down and force as many turnovers as possible. Expect this game to be a chess match between two great coaches, VCU’s Shaka Smart and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will be struggling throughout the game to control the pace. Marshall previously led Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons before being hired by Wichita State in 2007. Ultimately, the Shockers should prove too strong for the Rams, but this should be a great basketball game.

Dark Horse: #6 UNLV
Look out for the Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV’s successes this season didn’t end when they knocked off previously top-ranked North Carolina in November. They went on to defeat then-ranked Illinois and split matchups with a talented San Diego State team. This is a team that is fully loaded with offensive firepower, and other teams might not be able to keep up. Sophomore Mike Moser is a force inside, averaging a double-double at 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Chace Stanback is the type of player that can take a stake and absolutely drive it into another team’s heart. Shooting a 46.4% clip from beyond the arc, Stanback is the sixth-ranked long-range shooter in the nation. When he gets going- watch out. Chace led the way with 28 points and 10 rebounds in UNLV’s victory over North Carolina and shot 8-for-9 from beyond the arc en route to 29 points in a win over Louisiana-Monroe. This is the type of team that is very capable of catching fire and making a run to the Elite 8, but could face a very tough third round matchup with an equally athletic Baylor team. These teams will make for a great matchup, and if UNLV can survive they could be big trouble for Duke in the Sweet 16.

Our Picks:

Don’t expect too many surprises in this region. The first round will be dominated by the higher seeds, as the two most dangerous lower seeded teams–Wichita State and VCU–have been matched up with one another. Iowa State and Connecticut will be close, but expect UConn’s talent should prevail. Xavier is far and away the best 10-seed in the tournament, and will be a tough test for Duke in the next round. Duke fans, be warned: Lehigh will also be a tough opponent for the Blue Devils. Lehigh hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, and is the highest Pomeroy-rated 15 seed in the field. That said, here’s how our bracket shaped up:

Crazie Talk's picks for the South region. Yes, we hope to have a rematch of the greatest game ever played. But chances are that UK will come out on top.

The Final Four Pick: Kentucky. There’s a reason why they are the top overall seed in this year’s tournament: Kentucky is far and away the most talented team in the country. They ran away with the SEC this season, finishing with a perfect 16-0 record. Anthony Davis is the odds on favorite to win both National Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the NCAA. They are simply too deep, too athletic, too talented for anyone in arguably this tournament’s toughest region to contend with. Whether or not they’ll be able to win a national championship with a bunch of one-and-dones and questionable team chemistry remains to be seen, but they should be able to make a run to New Orleans without more than a slight scare.

We’ll be back to preview the West region tomorrow. Let us know what you think about our analysis and picks in the comments below.

ACC Hoops Schedule Released…Go Get 'Em

Thank you sir, may I have another? (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

The Atlantic Coast Conference finally released the 2010-11 men’s basketball schedule today on their official website. And for those of you bored by our conference’s football offerings before the season has even begun, this is big news.

The ACC brass are stoked that the conference will be on television a record 182 times this upcoming year. Fans of the Big East and other power conferences complain that the ACC gets preferential treatment despite being a “weak” league. Right, a conference that has won five of the last ten natty champers is pitiful.

Here are some of the highlights of what promises to be another exciting year in ACC basketball. As the season draws closer, we will be back with full team previews. But for now, check out five of the best non-conference matchups before the New Year.

NOVEMBER 15: Miami at Memphis

Young Memphis Tigers coach Josh Pastner breathed a big sigh of relief when the best recruit of his short tenure, Will Barton, was declared eligible on August 20. I’m really impressed with what Pastner has been able to do in Calipari’s stead (how much he “learned” from the former Memphis coach remains to be seen). Miami’s sparkplug Durand Scott nearly beat Duke by himself in last year’s ACC Tournament, and young big man Reggie Johnson will fill in nicely for departing beast Dwayne Collins, who finally graduated. Look for Memphis to come out on top on sheer talent, but I’m impressed that Frank Haith has the cojones to schedule this type of game.

DECEMBER 1: Duke v. Michigan State

This game continues to lose its luster, as the Spartan guards are dropping like flies. First it was the transfer of Chris Allen to Iowa State after being kicked off the team in East Lansing. More recently, the twenty-year-old Korie Lucious, hero of the Maryland game, was caught over the legal limit while driving. Tom Izzo is probably my second favorite NCAA coach, mostly because he doesn’t put up with stuff like this. Lucious will likely be suspended for the first half of the season at the least. That leaves more of the burden on Kalin Lucas, who is rehabbing his torn ACL, and 2010 Big Dance star Durrell Summers. Yet this will be billed as the best game of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Look for Kyrie Irving to get after it against Lucas—a player to whom he has been compared in the past. I had hoped Duke would face MSU at full strength; nonetheless, Izzo is a gamer and this could be the highlight of Duke’s early season schedule.

DECEMBER 1: Virginia Tech vs. Purdue

Perhaps this is the year that Virginia Tech lives up to expectations. Many pundits think it’s a battle for second place in the conference between the Hokies and the Heels. Much of that advance praise for VT rests on do-it-all guard Malcolm Delaney, who wisely chose to return for his final year. Meanwhile, Purdue returns everyone but hard nosed point guard Chris Kramer. Pat Forde even put them ahead of Duke in his preseason rankings (but he has a hard time with such predictions). This would be a statement game for Seth Greenberg’s program—which returns everyone—and until I see Robbie Hummel play as well as he did pre-torn ACL, I think the Hokies have a good shot. Just don’t let Jeff Allen loose on JaJuan Johnson…that won’t end well.

DECEMBER 4: North Carolina vs. Kentucky

In a battle of the teams I hate the most, UNC and UK face off yet again in this home and home series. Recently, ESPN’s sometimes knowledgeable college hoops blogger Eamon Brennan stated that UK has a slight edge in this matchup. It’s tough to say. Both teams have the same problem: a lack of proven size. Kentucky’s frontline is thin: 6’8” frosh Terrence Jones, Florida transfer Eloy Vargas, and perhaps Turkish semi-pro Enes Kanter, if he is ruled eligible. UNC has the sometimes healthy Tyler Zeller, the “wet noodle” John Henson, and Mr. Barnes, who’s supposed to be a guard anyway. I think the game hinges on Kanter’s eligibility. If he plays, he will be too much to handle down low, and combined with UK’s superior guard play led by Brandon Knight, I think Kentucky squeezes this one out. Look for UNC’s season to be a reverse of last year’s: a slow start with a more productive second half.

DECEMBER 4: N.C. State at Syracuse

The ‘Cuse shocked a lot of people last year by reaching #1, but that’s mostly because people weren’t familiar with Wes Johnson and/or didn’t have respect for the Orange’s experience. Now most of that depth is gone, and for once in his life, Sidney Lowe has something to be excited about in Raleigh. All the hype has been loaded on CJ Leslie, but we think incoming point guard Ryan Harrow will determine State’s success as much as anyone. The frontcourt favors the ‘Cuse (remember the name Fab Melo), but the Wolfpack have an early chance to prove that they belong in the same breath as Duke and UNC for the first time since, I don’t know…Julius Hodge?


Look for our ACC Rundowns as the season draws closer. And be sure to follow us on Twitter.