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So I figured out why they had to raise the floor three feet in order to put the basketball floor in the center of Ford Field . . .

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. . . because if they hadn’t, I would have been watching 10 floating heads bob around the court for two hours yesterday. This photo was taken from my seat for the Kansas-Davidson game. We were in the fourth row from the top of the section of temporary seats they installed around the court. The viewing angle was less than ideal, necessitating the raised floor.

I’d say this arrangement is probably OK for a Final Four, where nearly everyone in the building will be absolutely thrilled to be there. But it wasn’t the best setup for a regional final, where many fans were just local basketball fans and there were a substantial number of empty seats in the upper deck.

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America’s newfound hoops hero: Stephen Curry trying to free himself. The most remarkable shooter I’ve ever seen play in person. A quick-release jumpshot with beautiful rotation and arc. And a plethora of moves to get the shot off. He wasn’t quite as efficient as he had been in previous games–25 points on 25 FG attempts, 4-16 from 3-point range–but this was against one of the elite defenses in the country.

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At various points during the game, this ominous Death-Star-like object appeared above the court. Is the NCAA subconsciously admitting they’ve gone over to the dark side?

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Davidson fans going nuts. For a school with a student body of 1,700, I can’t believe how many fans they had there. Seemed like there were at least 5,000 of them.

Reportedly, many students left North Carolina at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, got to Detroit just in time to see the game, and then got back on the bus to go home. That’s commitment, baby.

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These were either die-hard Davidson fans or two people trying to get picked for a Wendy’s commercial.

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The last shot that went awry for the Wildcats (the ball is up there somewhere against the background of the crowd), denying them the the eternal glory that would have come with crashing the Final Four in a year otherwise dominated by the major powers.

(I happened to notice today that the four #1 seeds were ranked 1-4 in both preseason polls. As improbable as all four seeds getting to the Final Four is, I’d say that the four top-ranked teams from five months ago all getting there is an even more unlikely scenario.)

It was a catch-22 for the Wildcats: run Curry off screens to try to free him, but risk him never touching the ball, or put the ball in his hands (as they did) and risk a double-team (as Kansas did). In the end, they got one fairly clean look at a 3-pointer to beat one of the top teams in the country. That’s about all you can ask for.

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The final score. For all the (deserved) attention for Curry, I was actually more impressed with Davidson’s defense. They seemed to have a real knack for grabbing steals and loose balls. They forced Kansas to turn it over 14 times in 63 possessions (22.2%) and managed to get 9 offensive rebounds in 30 opportunities (30.0%) against the larger Jayhawks. And they didn’t let the more athletic perimeter players for Kansas beat them to the hoop too often

They’ll lose senior point guard Jason Richards, who showed a remarkable ability to get to the hoop before Kansas figured out they could lay off him because he couldn’t shoot, but this could still be a very good team next year that won’t sneak up on anyone.

It would’ve been great to see MSU play at Ford Field, but going to this game was a thoroughly memorable experience. And we can always dream about seeing our Spartans play in a Final Four less than two hours from East Lansing next year, right? (See how quickly I’ve gone into offseason optimism mode?)

As for the other game yesterday, I was en route to Detroit during most of it, but the highlights I’ve seen and the box score would indicate that Memphis’ dominant performance against the Spartans was no fluke. An 18-point win against a pretty talented Texas team. Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined for 46 points on just 22 FG attempts (21-25 at the line).

Certainly, we want MSU to be able to compete toe-to-toe with any opponent in the country. But no one should think that MSU lost to some decent team from a lower-tier conference. They lost to a team that has the potential to dominate any team in the country when they’re playing to their full potential.

Postscript: I was going to do a slide show like this for the Big Ten Tournament, which would have involved several extremely humorous jokes playing off the fact that Bo Ryan looks like the Badgers’ mascot.  But I didn’t have the emotional ability to relive the tournament when we got back from Indianapolis.  Maybe next year . . .

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What’s say, we talk about some college basketball teams not hailing from East Lansing today . . .

Big Ten Roundup

  • Tony Bennett to Bloomington? That’d be a fine move for Indiana based on what I know about Bennett. But, from a Spartan perspective, I’d rather see them go with a more up-tempo guy like Bruce Pearl. Playing against deliberate, disciplined teams in Big Ten play may build character, but I could go for a little variety. Washington state ranks 335th out of 341 Division 1 teams in average possessions per 40 minutes this year.
  • UMHoops has a review of the Michigan season composed by a guest blogger. Said blogger notes that Beilein clearly made the decision to implement his own system from the get-go, even without the personnel to make it work well this year. I’d say that was the correct decision. Cost them some bad losses this year, but may speed up a return to contention over the next couple years as the returning players will be able to mesh with the recruits Beilein brings in.
  • Badgercentric reviews all the things that went wrong for Wisconsin in their loss to Davidson last night. As I watched the game, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “I know the Wisconsin Badgers. The Wisconsin Badgers are a friend of mine.* And this team is not the Wisconsin Badgers.” (*Well, an acquaintance, at least.) For once, a Wisconsin opponent seemed like the more efficient and composed team on the floor. The biggest oddity to me was that Ryan never got the team to pound the ball down low to take advantage of the size mismatches Wisconsin had.
  • Thus ends the Big Ten’s existence in 2007-08 NCAA men’s basketball play. (Note: Forgot about the Buckeyes in NIT play.)  Two teams in the sweet sixteen was a good showing given that the Big Ten only got 4 teams in the tournament this year, vs. the 5-6 teams that’ve participated in most recent seasons. And there’s every reason to think the conference is on the upswing. With the exceptions of IU and maybe Ohio State, there’s reason to think every other team in the league should be at least as good as they were this season, if not better. (Wisconsin loses Butch and Flowers, but has a permanent exemption from ever having their future prospects discounted due to the graduation of one or two key players.)

An Evening at Ford Field

I’ll be headed to Detroit tomorrow to take in the Midwest regional final between Kansas and Davidson. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been to a Final Four (2001 in Minneapolis) and opening round games (2006 at the Palace), but never to a regional final.

Regional finals often seem to produce the best pure basketball games in tournament play (see, for example, MSU-Iowa State in 2000 and MSU-Kentucky in 2005). You’ve reduced the field to eight quality teams. The teams are in a rhythm having already played three tournament games, but haven’t yet faced the hype machine that kicks into action between the second and third tournament weekends. And the enduring glory of a trip to the Final Four is on the line.

I’ll be donning a red t-shirt tomorrow and appointing myself an honorary Wildcat for the day (if LeBron can do it, so can I, right?). I thought, therefore, I should do a quick scouting report on Davidson.

Having won three NCAA games as a #10 seed, Davidson has been designated as this year’s Cinderella. But both the world’s leading expert on mid-majors and the Wildcats’ tempo-free statistics say this is simply a very good basketball team. Witness:

  • 29-6 overall record
  • A perfect 20-0 record in Southern Conference play
  • Single-digit nonconference losses against UNC and Duke
  • A 25-game winning streak
  • A rank of #20 in the kenpom ratings
  • Ranks of #15 and #37 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency

The highlight of their tempo-free statistical profile is in the area of turnover percentage. They give it up on only 16.9% of possessions while forcing their opponents to do so on 24.0% of trips down the floor. That’s an extra five shots per game in a 70-possession game.

They makes those extra shots count with an effective FG% of 54.1%. Sophomore Stephen Curry has, of course, become a national phenomenon by scoring 103 points on just 65 FG attempts in three tournament games. Curry has averaged 25.9 points/game this season, coming into tournament play sporting shooting percentages of .546/.468/.898 (2pt/3pt/FT). Those are nearly unbelievable numbers for a guy who ranks 12th in the nation in the percentage of his team’s shots he takes while he’s on the floor.

What struck me in watching Curry last night is how he seems to glide through picks, rather than sprinting through them the way Neitzel does. It’s almost as if he’s lulling the defense into a sense of complacency before he launches his quick-release, picture-perfect jumpshot.

Complementing Curry to form a lethal backcourt is senior point guard Jason Richards, who averages 12.9 points and 8.1 assists per game. He’s put up 27 assists vs. just 4 turnovers in the three tournament games and ranks 10th in the nation in assist rate at 38.1% (assists divided by made field goals).

Also noteworthy: The Wildcats rebound very well on the defensive end for a team without a starting player taller than 6’8″ or bigger than 220 pounds. They hold their opponents to an offensive rebounding % of 29.0%.

In spite of all of this, Kenpom predicts a 79-67 win by the statistically-dominant Jayhawks (example: 14.5 percentage-point spread between offensive and defensive 2-point shooting percentages). Let’s hope Davidson can squeeze that margin a bit and provide a little more March magic to help distract us from last night’s Spartan collapse . . .

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There’s a third Big Ten team still alive in postseason play. Eleven Warriors has a preview of Ohio State’s NIT quarterfinal match-up tonight (9:00, ESPN2) against in-state rival Dayton. Apparently, Dayton coach Brian Gregory wasn’t allowed to get any help from his former boss in preparing for the Buckeyes.  Note also Gregory’s moxie in talking smack with his mentor:

“I told him not to get a big head because we beat Temple and Pitt by more than they did,” Gregory said. “Everybody’s talking about what a great win that was against Pitt. We beat them by 25.”

If both Ohio State and Florida can win their next two games, they would play a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament final in this year’s NIT final.

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There’s a third Big Ten team still alive in postseason play. Eleven Warriors has a preview of Ohio State’s NIT quarterfinal match-up tonight (9:00, ESPN2) against in-state rival Dayton. Apparently, Dayton coach Brian Gregory wasn’t allowed to get any help from his former boss in preparing for the Buckeyes.  Note also Gregory’s moxie in talking smack with his mentor:

“I told him not to get a big head because we beat Temple and Pitt by more than they did,” Gregory said. “Everybody’s talking about what a great win that was against Pitt. We beat them by 25.”

If both Ohio State and Florida can win their next two games, they would play a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament final in this year’s NIT final.

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Close but no cigar

Our friends from Ann Arbor did everything they could to do us a solid (as the kids say), nearly upsetting Wisconsin in Madison.  They fell just short, losing 64-61.

The Wolverines played with an intensity rarely seen from the Maize and Blue in recent years–particularly on the boards.  They pulled down 19 offensive rebounds in 33 opportunities for a whopping offensive rebounding percentage of 57.6% (geeky stat note: excludes team rebounds due to delayed posting of official box score).

Manny Harris was a revelation.  He scored 26 points on 11-19 FG shooting.  He scored on a variety of driving lay-ups and floaters.  He has a remarkable knack for creating off the dribble for a college freshman.

In the end, the Badgers did what the Badgers always seem to do: hit big shots at precisely the moments they need them.  The biggest was Marcus Landry’s 3-pointer with a hand in his face to put Wisconsin up by 4 and effectively end the game.

The Wolverines will be inconsistent this year due to their lack of depth, but this game serves as evidence that Beilein is slowly turning them around.  As he brings in new players and the team adjusts to his system, the Spartan-Wolverine basketball rivalry could become a great one.  For now, here’s hoping the Wolverines come in deflated on Sunday after losing a game they fought so hard in and we pin one more blow out on them.

As for Wisconsin, they avoided the big upset that MSU succumbed to in Iowa.  I start to get the feeling that making up for the Iowa loss is going to take a couple really big road performances by MSU against the conference’s other top teams.

In closing, let me offer up a bit of advice to Brent Musburger:   Every shot is not “huge.”  In the course of a good college basketball game, there are maybe 3-4 plays that really affect the momentum of the game.   I’d estimate that Musburger uses the word 15-20 times per game.  It’s a shame we’re forced to listen to his over-the-top calls for nearly every Big Ten game on ESPN–particularly in light of the fact that Steve Lavin is such a great color guy, seamlessly blending real basketball insight with a splash of personality.

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Reader Feedback Thursday

We’re four games into the conference season and roughly halfway through the regular season. So I think it’s about time to look at who the all-conference performers are shaping up to be. Here’s my crack at it. I’ve included the traditional point-per-game stat plus one key tempo-free stat per player.

First Team

Jamar Butler (OSU): 15.1 PPG, 44.8% 3-point% (Conf Rank: 3)

Eric Gordon (IU): 23.0 PPG, 59.7 Effective FG% (3)

Raymar Morgan (MSU): 16.9 PPG, 11.9% Off Reb% (7)

Geary Claxton (PSU): 17.5 PPG, 20.4% Def Reb% (5)  [Deserving at midseason but now out for year]

D.J. White (IU): 16.6 PPG, 27.4% Def Reb% (1)

Second Team

Trevon Hughes (WIS): 13.7 PPG, 4.3% Steal% (3)

Drew Neitzel (MSU): 13.2 PPG, 4.6 Assist/TO ratio (1)

Robbie Hummel (PUR): 10.3 PPG, 124.4 Offensive Rating (5)

Shaun Pruitt (ILL): 12.8 PPG, 14.8% Off Reb% (3)

Brian Butch (WIS): 13.6 PPG, 15.5% Off Reb% (1)

Honorable Mention: Kosta Koufos (OSU), Dan Coleman (MIN), Manny Harris (UM), Othello Hunter (OSU), Goran Suton (MSU)

What have I missed? Who have I dissed? Big Ten individual stats leaders here. But feel free to tell the stats to shut up and make your case based on (1) actually watching the games on TV, (2) player hairstyles, or (3) whatever other criteria you can come up with.

As far as the player of the year race, the two leading candidates both appear to be Hoosiers. Seth Davis and TAFKATBTW are both praising D.J. White today. Both make solid arguments. Raymar may be the only non-Hoosier who could realistically make a run at POTY, but it’ll take consistent, high-level output over the next 14 conference games.

You can check out the two Hoosiers playing in Gopher land at 9:00 tonight on ESPN. Beyond the Arc notes the next three games (IU, MSU, @OSU) should tell us if Minnesota is for real.

Not-So-Major Blog Announcement: I’ve changed my blog handle from the clunky “spartan blogger” to the still-mysterious but friendlier “kj” (my initials–not an indication I was a huge Kevin Johnson/Phoenix Suns fan).

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Sunday Night Links

Indiana almost gave us back that game in the Big Ten standings–barely fending off Illinois 62-58 at home. The team stats are remarkably even for FG shooting, rebounding, and turnovers. The difference, perhaps, was the Hoosiers knocking down five more free throws than the Illini. I watched most of this game down the stretch. Illinois deserves credit for playing with Indiana right down to the end, given the obvious disparity in offensive talent. But Illinois couldn’t get the one or two key shots they needed to drop in the last couple minutes. The Illini drop to 0-4 in Big Ten play. Their NCAA tournament hopes appear to have dissolved at this early date.

Cool new stats website: StatSheet.com. Among other nifty things, they’ve got individual tempo-free stats by conference. For example, Goran Suton continues to lead the conference in offensive rebounding percentage. And to make things even better, they’ve got data going back all the way to 1996-97–covering all but the first year of the Izzo era! Check out Antonio Smith’s defensive rebounding percentage in 1996-97: 25.9%.

A glimmer of hope on the BTN-Comcast front.

MSU drops all the way to #5 in the Big Ten Bloggers Poll posted at Black Hearts Gold Pants (it’s an Iowa blog, so be forewarned that their recap of last night’s game will make you want to vomit). The Robert Goulet theme is a bit odd. But the advice is sound:

Now stop turning the ball over, Sparty.

MSU has turned the ball over 17-19 times in each of their first three conference games. I can’t bear to update my graph.

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