Chatting with Michael Atchison: "This tournament is an elegant and complicated puzzle."

Atch and I chatted over e-mail all week, and I didn't get it posted before Day One of the tourney started, so I saved it for today.  While some of this is already outdated (though I don't think our comments look too stupid...yet), here it is in all its glory.

Monday

Michael Atchison: OK, where should we start this thing?  Whenever this season ends, we’re going to have an interesting post-mortem to do, trying to place this team in its proper historical place.  We already know that this is the best season since 1994, and who could possibly have imagined that back in November?  Actually, I think Ken Pomeroy’s numbers knew then (really, how did he do that?), but nobody else did.

As for the Tigers’ quadrant of the West Region, it really shapes up nicely, except for the local organizing committee (if you’re running the show in Boise and you see that you’re getting Missouri, Cornell, Marquette, Utah State, Xavier, Portland State, Florida State and Wisconsin, which stage of grief do you start with?  I’d settle in to a lengthy period of denial).  The building is going to be dead.  Pin-drop quiet.  Cornell looks like a pretty good place to start for Mizzou.  They don’t play slow like you’d expect from an Ivy League team (they average 74.1 ppg).  Their best player is Ryan Wittman, son of former Hoosier Randy Wittman.  He’s a 6’6” swing player.  Mizzou could put Tiller, Taylor or Carroll on him.  The guard who doesn’t draw Wittman should be assigned to stop Louis Dale, a 5’11” guard from Birmingham, AL (I’ve got a suspicion that the staff and DeMarre are already familiar with this guy).  The one thing they have that has been like Kryptonite to Mizzou is a seven-foot center.  Jeff Foote plays 28 minutes per game and averages 12 points and 7 boards.  Cornell doesn’t appear to be very deep (the rotation looks like eight guys), so I’m sure part of the strategy will be to wear Foote out.  We’ll see if he can keep up with Leo.

The Boy: Hey, don't underestimate the raucous crowd I'm sure Portland State will be bringing!

Actually, you can probably go ahead and underestimate it.

Cornell does seem to have a couple of the components you need to pull a 3-14 upset, namely fearless shooting and big guys who rebound well (offensively, at least).  While faster than some Ivy teams, they do still average in the 66-67 possessions per game range, which is about five below where Mizzou likes to play.  I called Foote a poor man's Cole Aldrich in my stat preview (going up at 11), and I think that applies--it doesn't seem that the offense necessarily runs through him a whole lot (though I could be completely wrong--I clearly haven't seen CU play all year), but he's a strong rebounder and has good touch around the basket.  He could actually hurt Mizzou somewhat, both in rebounding and in pushing DeMarre or Leo further away from the basket.  The main problem for Cornell, though, is that they don't have another big guy who plays major minutes.  They seem to favor a planetary lineup--four satellites rotating around a center (of gravity), and that means that whoever Foote ISN'T guarding might thrive.

Of course, after the success of OSU's zone defense last week, I think it's safe to say that Cornell will be liberally using a zone of their own on Friday, which would make some sense with what is basically a 4-guard lineup.

And yes, as you mentioned, Mizzou has the potential to wear Foote out by the second half, meaning CU's only chance of winning will come in the form of 3-balls, likely from Wittman.

I do see Cornell as a team with the potential to make this a game for a while, but as we've covered before, Mike Anderson's Mizzou teams have only lost to one mid-major conference team in three years, and that was Xavier, who really isn't a mid-major team at this point.  Their athletes usually take over, and they usually pull away in the second half, and I would expect to see the same thing this time around.

As for the season as a whole...yeah, it's going to take some reflection before I can develop some cogent thoughts on the subject.  This isn't what the 2007 football season was in terms of national power or doing something that hasn't been done in almost 50 years--unless we make the Final Four or something--but it's been almost as emotionally satisfying, just watching this extremely likable team reconnecting with a fanbase soured by some sour seasons and less-than-likable characters.

So what do you make of the West Region as a whole?  According to KenPom's rankings, the region has 7 of the Top 20 teams in the country, including #1 Memphis waiting in the Sweet Sixteen if Mizzou gets that far.  That's not tremendously fun, but I guess Mizzou has risen to most challenges this year...

Michael Atchison: It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Memphis.  I know that Pomeroy has them number one, and BY FAR (there’s as much distance between Memphis at 1 and Carolina at 2 as there is between Carolina at 2 and Mizzou at 10), but they have such a weird profile.  They’re 0-2 against the RPI top 25, but they haven’t played a top 25 team since before Christmas.  They also haven’t lost since before Christmas, or since Tyreke Evans became The Man for them.  They’re not at all explosive offensively, but the defense is impenetrable.  Part of me wants to wonder how battle-tested they are coming out of Conference USA, but the same part of me wondered that last year, and they shredded the field until the final game.

Back to Mizzou’s quadrant in Boise.  Marquette looms as a likely second round opponent, but I don’t know how you evaluate them right now.  They’ve lost five of six since Dominic James was lost for the year, but those five were against Pitt (1 seed), UConn (1 seed), Louisville (1 seed), Syracuse (3 seed) in OT, and Villanova (3 seed) at the buzzer.  They’re still formidable, but I like Mizzou’s chances against a team playing without its point guard, and a squad that has been reduced essentially to a seven man rotation.  Someone ought to toss J.T. Tiller a rag doll with Jerel McNeal’s scent on it right now, because his assignment on Sunday will be clear if both teams advance.  There’s no need to sweat the other half of the bracket.  You hope to play one of those teams, but it won’t be more than one.  And if you get there, it’s probably UConn.  But really, if you get to that game, you’re looking at Goliath no matter which region you’re in.  And frankly, right now I’d rather face UConn than Pitt, Louisville or Carolina.

Not sure what this says about me, but I’m sure it’s not good.  First, I just bought the BracketCast app for my iPhone (99 cents).  It projects Mizzou to the Sweet 16, and gives the Tigers a 46.16% chance of beating Memphis.  Second, I just filled out a bracket using Pomeroy’s rating as the sole criterion.  Tennessee and Oklahoma State play each other in round one and have an identical Pythagorean score, though Pomeroy ranks Tennessee one spot higher.

Tuesday

The Boy: I did the Pomeroy thing too, sadly...one day I hope my football stats will be treated just 10% as religiously as KenPom's are.  Seriously, he very much existed before this year and has been putting out strong analysis for a while, but his new website has made him a king.

Looking at the draws of KU, MU and OU, I (knock on wood) very much prefer MU's.  Kansas gets an experienced NDSU in the first round (I'd love to pick that upset, but I can't) and a very dangerous (just ask KenPom) West Virginia team in the second round.  OU's draw is decent, but Clemson could give them fits in the second round if they rediscover where they placed their mojo.  Marquette could loom as a VERY dangerous second-round opponent for Mizzou if both are lucky enough to win on Friday, but they are extremely thin.  They were a thin 8-man rotation before James got hurt, and now they're down to basically 7.  They're tough and experienced, but playing Mizzou is like playing in thin air--you're simply going to wear down faster against them than others.

(Come to think of it, how thin is the air in Boise?)

And if I had my choice of 2-seeds to potentially face in the Sweet Sixteen, I'd have chosen Duke before Memphis, but Memphis before Michigan State.  Memphis and Mizzou could play the most exciting 50-48 game of all-time if both defenses are at their highest level.  We would have a fighting shot in that game, but it would be a battle.

So let's walk through the regions quickly, starting in the upper left.  What do you make of the Midwest Region?

Michael Atchison: Boise:  Elevation 2842 feet.

Louisville looms large over the Midwest, but there’s really good depth in that bracket, and the numbers suggest that West Virginia at 6 is one of the most underseeded teams in the tournament.  I don’t think Michigan State will have much trouble slugging its way to the Sweet 16, but I think the potential Kansas-West Virginia matchup has the potential to be one of the very best games of the second round (and really, all of the 3 vs. 6 possibilities are really enticing).  Ultimately, I think Louisville will make it out, but they’ll have to run a gauntlet to do it, perhaps having to beat Ohio State in Dayton (thanks for protecting us, committee!), then Wake Forest (a former number one team), and then either the Big Ten regular season champ, the Big 12 regular season champ, or the Moutaineers.  I don’t recall a tournament that looked as uncertain as this one.

The Boy: Once I realized I was picking West Virginia to beat Kansas in the second round, it was really tempting to try to sneak in and pick a North Dakota State upset in the first round...but I couldn't do it.  WV-KU could be one of the more competitive games of the second round, and I hope it takes place (and WV wins, of course).  In all, the MW is one of the bigger tossup regions--I guess you could say this about a lot of teams, but there are a ton of unknowns here.  Which Kansas team will show up?  Which Wake Forest?  Is Utah really any good?  Can USC stay hot?  Is Michigan State athletic enough to run with Louisville if they meet in the Elite Eight?  Of all the unknowns, it's pretty clear that Louisville is rock solid, and while I can't convince myself that they truly are the best team in the country, they're the class of this region, and they have a pretty doable run to the Final Four.

Now that I've said that, they will lose in the second round.

The winner of the Midwest faces the winner of the West...but given that that's Mizzou's region, we'll save our final words on it for last.  To the East, where I'm still quite thankful that Pitt ended up in a different region than Missouri.  First of all, is there a more fun first round game than Tennessee/Oklahoma State?  Never mind that they're so statistically even--from a style standpoint, this should be up-tempo and crazy.  The most confounding first-round game for me is Florida State-Wisconsin.  I've been baffled that FSU wasn't more highly regarded--I've said they're underrated despite the fact that they're in the ACC--and I don't think much at all of Wisconsin.  However, Ken Pomeroy has Wisconsin actually ranked higher than FSU (#30 vs #35) despite FSU having a much higher seed, and at this point I trust Pom's word more than my own, so I picked the Badgers.

Beyond the first round, though, I have no idea what to make of this region for one simple reason: Duke.  Are they actually capable of making a long tourney run this time around, or are they going to lose to Texas in the second round?  Again, Ken Pomeroy's rankings like Duke, but I just can't shake previous tourney performances out of my head.  And if I have Texas beating Duke, then I've got Villanova making the Elite Eight against their conference mates from Western Pennsylvania.

Michael Atchison: I don’t think this is the Duke of the past couple of years.  Singler, Henderson and Scheyer are really, really good.  Their run through the ACC Tournament was impressive, though they had some breaks that busted the bracket wide open for them (sound familiar, Tiger fans?).  One team in that region that I absolutely would not underestimate is UCLA.  The six seeds are good across the board in this event, but UCLA is coming off three straight final four appearances, so it’s pretty clear that Ben Howland has March figured out.  And when you have a guard like Darren Collison, and decent pieces around him, you’re dangerous.  The one big obstacle thrown in their way is a potential second round game against Villanova, in Philadelphia.  Some three seeds, it turns out, get really good treatment from the committee.  All that said, Pitt is it.

Thursday
(As you know, I disappeared from existence on Wednesday...)

The Boy: To the South!  As Sleepy and I mentioned on this week's podcast, that region is just not fun to pick.  Do you pick North Carolina, with a less-than-full-speed Ty Lawson?  Illinois, with no Chester Frazier?  Gonzaga, who's developed the reputation of underachieving as a high seed?  Arizona State, who's lost four of seven?  Syracuse, who's picked up steam after losing seven of ten a few weeks ago but might have spent themselves last weekend?  Clemson, who's gone 7-8 in their last 15?  Oklahoma, who has lost four of six and seems to have lost a step in their backcourt?  I guess in the end the smart pick is clearly UNC, but if you're a fan of momentum, you might go with Gonzaga.  Fan of Ken Pomeroy?  You may be tempted by ASU (KenPom's #12 team) or Syracuse (#15).

Michael Atchison: The South definitely is The Region of Damagaed Goods.  But North Carolina remains the obvious choice.  No one else has as much firepower, even with Lawson at less than full-speed.  The next choice, though, is Gonzaga, and it's a shame that both teams are in the same half of the bracket.  I don't think that "underachieving as a high seed" tag means anything.  First, it's a very small sample size.  Second, it was a different group of players.  And third, and most importantly, this may be the most complete Gonzaga team yet.  Pargo, Bouldin, Heytvelt, Daye, Gray, Downs - that's a lot of talent, a lot of size, and a good bit of experience.  As for Oklahoma, they just don't appear to be anywhere close to what they were a few weeks ago.  I think they can get it back - it'll only take one complete game from Willie Warren and Austin Johnson (I'm not concerned about Griffin; he remains unstoppable) for them to get back on stride, but that game better happen in the first weekend.  The really interesting team to me in this bracket is Arizona State, and it's because of James Harden.  He's the kind of guy who becomes a star nationally at this time of year - a strong perimeter player who can create his own offense, can create for others, and who isn't going up against conference opponents who know his every tendency.  The question for me will be whether he can crack Syracuse's zone in the second round.  So many matchups, so many possibilities, many of which will never come to pass.  This tournament is an elegant and complicated puzzle.

The Boy: And finally, back to the West.  Are you a Memphis guy?  UConn?  (Gasp) Mizzou?  I decided to avoid any homerdom and picked Mizzou to simply hold seed and lose in the Sweet Sixteen, but the only thing I want more than to see a Mizzou-Memphis game (so fun, so many athletes on the court) is a Mizzou-Anybody Else game in the Sweet Sixteen.  The only thing I want more than to beat Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen is to not have to play Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen.  My desire for good matchups is only trumped by my desire to win.

(And for the record, I'm a Memphis-to-the-Final-Four guy, but I'll gladly sacrifice my bracket for a Mizzou-Maryland game next weekend.)

Michael Atchison: Yeah, Memphis to the final four is the logical pick, and UConn is right behind (I really don't want our guys to have to face Thabeet - bad, bad matchup).  But Mizzou absolutely has a puncher's chance here.  After everything they've done this season, would you be surprised by anything they do from here on out?  And I'm with you on Mizzou vs. Anyone Else in the Sweet 16, partly because Cal is the most likely Anyone Else, and I've seen that one before and I'm quite fond of it.  Still, more than any other region, I'd be shocked if anyone other than one of the top three seeds emerged in the West.

The Boy: Any final words before we finish this up?  Go North Dakota State?

Michael Atchison: No, just go Mizzou.  Put a big bow on this beautiful season.

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