The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
If you are a college basketball fan, yesterday’s revealing of the brackets was a palate cleanser of sorts in between the first course of the season—everything from November through the made-for-TV-money conference tournaments—and the real fun.
If you’re a local college basketball fan, you had better hope that main course is capable of filling you up. Despite matchups that can’t be considered daunting, neither Temple nor Villanova is a lock to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament, much less the second weekend. Both enter the round of 68 with some significant questions and enough worries to make real the possibility that each could be one and done.
Now, don’t start with the vitriol just yet. The tourney’s very nature is an uncertainty that can fill even the mightiest team with some concern. History tells us that all but the number-one seeds are in danger the first round, and after that everybody could be 40 minutes from the off-season. So, looking at ‘Nova and Temple a bit sideways does not indicate “hate,” but rather reality.
And let’s face it, has there been any team in the nation that has encountered reality’s stark slap more in the last month than Villanova. When the Wildcats take the court Friday, it will be a day short of a month since their last victory. ’Nova has lost five straight and 10 of its last 15. It’s possible to shrug off 80 percent of the recent losing streak as bad luck against good opposition, but when you blow a 16-point lead to lowly South Florida in the first round of the Big East tourney, you can’t hide the truth. Villanova doesn’t exactly march into NCAA competition. It staggers like a bus rider on a St. Patty’s Day pub crawl.
Coughing up the lead against USF did allow coach Jay Wright to move into full spin mode. He rested his injured, beleaguered players. He held a training camp of sorts. He channeled Norman Vincent Peale. Wright did everything but stage a funeral for the regular season. It’s a new beginning. A fresh start. Blah, blah, blah.
Villanova’s stock has fallen so far that the Wildcats are underdogs to George Mason, which didn’t even win the Colonial Athletic Association. Nothing against the CAA, but if this game were being played in November, ‘Nova would be a pretty big favorite. However, when you collapse into the tournament, you don’t exactly engender confidence among the wise guys. Back in January, people forecast the hot Cats as a number two or three seed, with first-round games in nearby Washington D.C. and a second weekend in bucolic Newark, NJ. Now, Villanova is headed to Cleveland, with hometown favorite Ohio State as a likely second-round opponent—if the Wildcats make it that far.
Breaking this one down is almost meaningless at this point, because the outcome will be determined in the Wildcats’ minds. If they believe they can win and play that way, they should be able to overcome the Patriots’ strong perimeter game, which is led by hot-shooting senior guard Cam Long. If they have the kind of confidence that characterized the first 17 games of their season, the Cats will attack the thin GMU front line and make hay. It would be nice if Antonio Pena channeled former do-everything forward Dante Cunningham, and Corey Fisher did his best Scottie Reynolds imitation. If Villanova is sure of itself, this could be a rout. But that kind of certainty doesn’t come from self-help books. ’Nova won’t win in a walk, but it will prevail, 72-69. After that, though, it’s lights out against the stout Buckeyes.
Temple was supposed to enter the NCAA tournament with the momentum of a fourth straight A-10 championship and the same good feelings that characterized its 12-1 regular-season conclusion. Instead, the Owls tried to jump-shoot their way past Richmond in the conference semis and left Atlantic City on a big low. They are still a bit thin, thanks to the absence of Scootie Randall (foot). The good news? Temple gets Penn State in the first round—in Tucson. Great move by the NCAA, which always cares about its athlete-students and forces two teams from Pennsylvania to travel 2,500 miles to play. What, the Indonesia pod wasn’t available?
This is a perfect set-up for the Owls. Penn State has exactly one good regular-season win on its resume: home against Wisconsin. The 19-13 Nittany Lions rely heavily on guard Talor Battle, who is a special talent but whom the Owls can control with their sticky defense. Things would be easier for Temple if Randall’s foot allows him to play, but even without him, the Owls should be able to win, thanks to a more complete lineup and the know-how to contain Battle. However, don’t expect a masterpiece. PSU beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals, 36-33, and Temple isn’t exactly known for playing with a wide-open throttle. Temple 61, Penn State 56.
Unlike Villanova, which faces one of the tourney’s few behemoths if it survives the opener, the Owls have a more manageable mission in the second round. San Diego State may have warranted a Sports Illustrated story and plenty of national attention, but although the Aztecs are experienced and play good defense, they are vulnerable, especially when you consider the coaching matchup of Temple’s Fran Dunphy and SDSU’s Steve “Roll The Balls Out” Fisher. This isn’t a lock, but go with the Owls—if Randall plays. Temple 77, San Diego State 75.
- The severity of Chase Utley’s knee injury and the Phillies’ weeks-long unwillingness to provide complete information about it should be instructive to fans for the future. If the Phils say it’s a sprain, it’s a tear. If it’s “fractured,” it’s “broken” in three places. A four-week stay on the DL means eight. A three-month stint means goodbye, season.
- Talk about grim work: After playing five games last week, the Sixers play four from tonight through Saturday—all on the west coast. The heady times of February have been replaced by March’s harsh reality. This will test the team’s mettle, and fans had better hope it doesn’t wipe out the young team for the stretch drive.
- Anybody looking for evidence that big-time college sports have become entirely about the money and nothing else should look no further than the Ohio State football disgrace. Coach Jim Tressel covered up a violation, lied to his superiors and the NCAA and received a meager two-game suspension. OSU decided the blow to its reputation was preferable to losing its cash cow. Disgusting.