#1: The Syracuse Orange
I'm going to go out on a limb here: come March, Syracuse will not make the Sweet Sixteen. Of the current number 1 seeds projected by Lunardi 2 days ago, (Missouri, Ohio State, and Kentucky being the other three), Syracuse is by far the weakest, despite being the overall #1 seed. I'm not a big fan of Ken Pomeroy's basketball rankings (#1 reason why: Michigan State, 18-5, strength of schedule: 11, is ranked one below Wisconsin, 18-6, SOS: 31, whom the Spartans defeated earlier this season. I have other reasons, but that one best exemplifies my opinion) but I'm going to be citing him a lot in this entry because his rankings are easy to compare. Syracuse is ranked #6 by Pomeroy (below both MSU and Wisconsin); they have a strength of schedule of 55 and here's why: they have played 3 ranked teams this entire season. Ohio State, ranked below Syracuse in the AP poll but above them in Pomeroy, has played 7. Michigan State has played 7. Wisconsin has played 6. Northwestern, who I've argued before would make the NCAA tournament if they were in a different conference, has played 5. They have a higher strength of schedule at this point in the season than the #2 team in the nation. It's easy to 24-1 when you play below the best of your abilities.
Syracuse's games against ranked opponents so far this season have been against Florida, Marquette, and Georgetown and they've won them all. Against unranked opponents, they've won by an average of 19.5 points; against ranked opponents, they've won by an average of 4.6. When they've played against formidable opponents, Syracuse has struggled. This is part of the reason that I think they'll struggle in March. Everyone will be good. Syracuse has two games remaining against ranked opponents, both of which are against Louisville. It's a shame that Marquette won't get the chance to play Syracuse in Milwaukee this season; if they did, I think they would win. With any luck, they'll get that opportunity during the Big East Tournament instead.
#2: The Officials
I'm not the only person who, after watching a game end with an outcome different from what I want, would be happy to blame the officiating. Most of the time, that's a coping mechanism: it's reassuring to blame your team's poor performance on that guy on the sidelines with the ridiculous facial expressions and over-the-top gestures that the cameras show as much as the players. Sometimes it's accurate. And when it's accurate, we're left with this question: to what extent can we place blame on the referees?
On January 28, with 26.3 seconds to go at home against West Virginia, the Orange (Oranges?) found themselves up by two with the ball in the hands of the Mountaineers. After an airball, Deniz Kilicli of West Virginia grabbed the rebound and put the ball back up with 11 seconds left only to have it blocked by Syracuse's Baye Kieta and, after a Syracuse miss and a failed desperation three by the Mountaineers, Syracuse won. Here's the thing: it wasn't a block. It was goaltending.
This brings us back to the question of how much blame can be placed on the officials or, to phrase it differently, how much responsibility should the officials take for blown calls? We have no idea what would have happened in the remaining 11 seconds of that game. Perhaps the shot would have gone in and Syracuse would have hit a buzzer beater at the end to win it anyway. The blame can't be placed squarely on the officials. West Virginia could have done more to guarantee that the game didn't come down to the final possession: they could have shot more than 40.7%; they could have held Syracuse below 46%; they could have made one of the 12 threes they missed, Kilicli could have gone more than 1-5 from the free throw line.
At the same time, maybe the game would have gone to overtime and West Virginia would have gone on a 13-4 run to win. As coach Bob Huggins said afterwards in reference to the goaltending call, "Do I think it was? No. I know it was. I saw the replay. It's hard. You've got 30 seconds and you're trying to get the refocused and they're all thinking about other things."Once a chance like that is taken away, through no fault of your own, it's hard to concentrate on anything but how unfair that is. Sure, they had a chance after the game but that was the momentum changer, the moment where they could say, "Even when I do the right thing, it goes against me." At the very least, this should have been acknowledged. Someone should have come forward and apologized. It's been done before after blown calls and this was undoubtedly a situation where one would be applicable. No such apology was given.
After mistakes like these, defenders will rush to the sides of the referees and say, "No one's perfect" or "That's a tough call" and they're right. But making those tough calls, and making them correctly, are their jobs. If the officials can't make the right call at the end of a close game, why are they still officials?
#3: The Iowa State Cyclones
And now for something completely different! I'm kidding; there is a connection between all of this, I swear. The Cyclones are currently 17-7, 7-4 in the Big 12. They made national news recently after defeating #5 Kansas, but I've been watching them for reasons entirely unrelated for some time now.
42% of Iowa State's playing roster are transfer players. That's 5 of their 12. What's more, 3 of those 5 are from the Big Ten - Chris Allen from Michigan State, Chris Babb from Penn State, and Royce White from Minnesota - and they have at least one more Michigan State transfer (Korie Lucious) redshirting to play for them next season. Head Coach Fred Coiberg has one of the most unique recruiting strategies in the country - take a hodge-podge of talented players who didn't quite fit in with their past schools and put them together in the hopes of making a talented basketball team. It's working.
Individually, the players are flourishing. A rough freshmen year at Minnesota, which involved clashes with head coach Tubby Smith as well as legal problems, led to White leaving the team before the season started. Kentucky coach John Calipari offered White a spot on the squad - not surprising, as White was Mr. Minnesota and one of 20 players chosen to play in the 2009 Jordan Brand Classic - and White was prepared to accept until he thought about the plane ride it would take to get there. White's fear of flying, coupled with an anxiety disorder that began at age 10 after watching his best friend nearly die of a heart condition, caused him to cancel his flight and end his opportunity to play with the Wildcats. He ended up in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa, where he's the team's leader in scoring, rebounding, and assists per game. His anxiety problems still wake him 4-5 times a night and leave him questioning simple decisions for hours, but he's gaining control - with under 2 minutes left in the Kansas game, following a night that involved waking from a nightmare about missing a free throw and running to the gym in the early hours of the morning for practice, White hit 2 critical free throws to give the Cyclones a 5 point lead.
White's is just one of the transfers success stories. Following an unexplained dismissal from the Spartans, Chris Allen trails only White in points and assists per game. The 3rd highest scorer is Scott Christopherson, a transfer from Marquette and the 4th is Chris Babb from Penn State. 4 of the 5 starters from Iowa State are transfers.
Iowa State is 17-7, 7-4 in the Big 12. They've played 4 ranked teams thus far (more than Syracuse) and beaten one (Kansas); they still have 3 more left to play. They're ranked 37 by Pomeroy with a SOS of 38 (compared to Syracuse's 55). They haven't lost by more than 10 points this season (vs Iowa and Michigan) and their worst loss of the season, at Drake, came by 9 in the first weekend of the season. They've split games this season with Texas and Oklahoma St and defeated Kansas St in their first matchup; these are the other 3 Big 12 bubble teams.
Here's my other prediction for March: Iowa State will make the Sweet Sixteen. Here's why: 1) they don't do anything great, but they do everything well. They shoot 45% from the field and they rank in the top hundred for assists, points, and rebounds per game. 2) They've played a challenging schedule. Not only do they face ranked teams in their conference, but they willingly challenged themselves in the non-conference schedule as well. They haven't won many of these games, but they've been competitive in all of them. They're prepared for anyone. 3) For whatever reason, this team has chemistry. Maybe it's because they live in the middle of no where and have nothing else to do besides spend time together or maybe it's because many of them have been redshirted for a year before they started playing so they had time to prepare or maybe it's because they appreciate the importance of second chances and are trying to make the most of theirs; whatever it is, it's working. The team plays well, the play competitively, and they play together and that's what they need to go on a run in March.
#4: The Grand Conclusion
Syracuse and Iowa State are about as opposite as they can be. Syracuse is overrated, Iowa State is underrated. Syracuse is ranked nationally despite only playing 3 ranked teams while Iowa State is just beginning to receive national recognition for defeating one of the 4 ranked teams they've played so far. Syracuse is better, but Iowa State is better prepared. At this moment, Joe Lunardi currently has Syracuse as the #1 seed and Iowa State the #9 seed in the east - meaning that, right now, they are projected to meet up in the second round to determine who goes to the Sweet Sixteen. My prediction stands. Iowa State goes to the Sweet Sixteen. Syracuse doesn't. Unless the officials have something to say about it.
Brandon Jacobs wears jersey #27 for the New York Giants, Super Bowl XLVI Champs. He's a 6-4 running back from Southern Illinois University. He played in 14 games this season and started 6, but the Super Bowl was not one of these 14. That didn't stop him from getting some attention from the media, though. After Tom Brady's wife, Giselle Bundchen, said, "My husband cannot ... throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times", Jacobs jumped to the defense of his opposition and told Bundchen "to be cute and shut up". He apologized for the latter part of the comment...unnecessarily, in my opinion.
The Sports Nerd