Friday, March 23, 2007

Hoop Dreams

I would have called this Basketball Diaries, but in deference to Fornelli at Foul Balls, I sought out another overly obvious cultural reference for this collection of basketball related thoughts.

I went to the Bulls-Nuggets game last night. It was one of the more exciting games I've seen in quite a while. I must admit that I turned to the Red Head with about six minutes remaining and declared the game over. The Nuggets were up seven, and the Bulls were showing no signs of life. Then Tyrus Thomas re-entered the game. In that final 6:13, Thomas scored five points and grabbed four rebounds, including of course, his tip in with 0.2 left to give the Bulls a one point win. It was a perfectly appropriate ending to the game, as the Bulls collected 21 offensive rebounds to 28 defensive rebounds for Denver. Nearly half the time when the Bulls shot and missed, they grabbed the rebound and got a second opportunity. Anyway, after his tip-in Thomas went insane for several seconds. I mean, he looked like all he was seeing was white noise as he made strange facial expressions and even stranger, circular hand motions.

On the night, Thomas was a plus-seven. In comparison, Ben Wallace, who sat out the entire fourth quarter, was minus-10. The Bulls were down only two when Wallace left the game for the last time, and yet every Bulls run had occurred with him on the bench, every Denver run with Big Ben on the floor. He sleep walked through the game. It was obvious to everyone, including Scott Skiles, and it's why PJ Brown and Tyrus manned the middle in crunch time. Wallace finished with six points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals. But he also finished with four turnovers and a whole lot of moping around. I'm pretty sure that we'll see Brown and Thomas finishing play-off games, as well. And, even if there are nights when Ben is everywhere, at his price, anything less than consistently controlling games on the defensive end makes Big Ben a the Big Problem for this team. The challenge of the off-season for John Paxson may be fixing this, and I certainly can't think of a valid solution.

As a quick, final note, one other "player" in last night's game stunk up the joint. I've never witnessed a ref melt down the way Violet Palmer did last night. As bad call after bad call mounted up, and her frustration mirrored it, she entirely lost her self-confidence. Yes, Denver attempted 24 free throws to the 13 for the Bulls, but it's more than that. She T'd up Skiles about 3 seconds into an argument about one especially egregious call, and then refused to allow Nuggets reserve Eduardo Najera enter the game because he headed to the scorer's table a few seconds too late. How many times have you seen a player bounce up just before the ref hands the ball to a player to inbound it, and be waved into the game? Palmer had lost control of her whistle. Fortunately, her crisis of confidence caused her to fade into the background somewhat after the first quarter or she could have destroyed the flow of what turned out to be a great game.

Speaking of great games, last night's NCAA action was full of them. I still control my own destiny in my pools. Regardless of who wins the Ohio State-Memphis game (where we know it won't be my pick -- Texas A&M), and the Oregon-UNLV game (again, Wisconsin is not a likely candidate), I still win both of my pools if my remaining picks work out. Nice, right? Anyway, I correctly picked three of last night's winners, and as I said yesterday, Memphis-Texas A&M was the only toss-up game of the Sweet 16.

After last night's close games, all won by favorites, you'd have to figure there will be at least one blow out and one upset tonight, before the round is over. The most likely blowout candidate is UNC over USC, I believe. The canonization of Tim Floyd aside, UNC is elite on offense and much better on defense than the Trojans. Anything can happen in a single game, but UNC is the heaviest favorite going into the night, and the team most likely to win by double digits.

As for an upset, UNLV over Oregon is the most likely contender. I expect that game to be close, and while it's not quite a toss-up game, a UNLV win would not surprise me. This is not an anti-Pac 10 thing. Oregon is very good, but Carolina, Florida and Georgetown are three of the five best teams in the country, so it is less likely that one of them gets upset. (Incidentally, of the three, I think Florida is the most vulnerable, though I expect they'll win by 7-10 points). As for USC, they were overseeded as a five, but deserve credit for taking advantage of the seed. I think, however, that if you flipped Arizona's and USC's spots in the bracket, Arizona would be playing UNC tomorrow, and USC would be home already.


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