Monday, March 14, 2011

ACC championship thoughts... and the NCAA brackets

Well, I was all set to come on here and give congratulations to dook for yesterday's rout.  And, I will give them some credit - they came out the aggressor, and they played with much more effort at the start.  Coach K has made the ACC tournament a priority from the start of his coaching career, and it continues to be.  Roy stubbornly keeps calling it a "cocktail party" and continues to treat it that way.  Each coach's respective teams seemed to follow their coach's lead this past weekend, as has been the case recently.  So, for that, kudos to Coach K and dook for their effort.

What I can't applaud, after taking some time to let the game sink in a little (and checking out some replay), is the officiating.  Now, I'm not going to say that the refs cost UNC the game.  There's no way to tell something like that.  You never really know how the final score would have been affected when poor officiating changes the outcome of the game.  Sometimes it doesn't really affect the outcome, and sometimes it does, to varying degrees.  But, there's a comeback argument about officiating that I often hear and disagree with.  It usually goes something like this:  "Well, change a few of the calls.  Your team lost by 17 points, so those couple of calls don't really change anything in the grand scheme of things."

I think that's flawed logic, and here's why:  The way the game is called sets the tone for what will be allowed defensively and offensively for both teams.  That's especially true when the officials establish early on that one team is going to be able to get away with things that the other team won't be able to do.  That kind of officiating doesn't just affect one or two plays - it affects the way a team is allowed to play the entire game.

Yesterday, dook was allowed to play "aggressive" defense.  What I mean by that is constant hand-checking, pushing, reaching in, grabbing, arm-barring, and slapping of the defender.  Their strategy was to do this as much as possible, hoping that the officials would only call some of it.  I think they were probably surprised by how much they were still able to get away with.

Here's an example of one play that sums of dook's "defense" on the day, starting at the 0:31 mark.  Nolan Smith played this type of defense against Kendall Marshall all game long, which is the reason why the stellar freshman that dominated two previous games against them was shut down this time.

Also, one or two big plays called the wrong way can have a huge impact on the momentum in a game.  Even thought it's just one call, the momentum shift can affect a point swing of more than just the two or so points from that one play.  Also, if a player gets in foul trouble faster because of that play, the effect can be even greater.  A great example of this yesterday was the Dexter Strickland "charge" early in the game when he dunked over Kyle Singler.  There are many reasons why this wasn't a charge:

1) If a player can get dunked on while trying to draw a charge, he's too far under the basket.  This should be the only argument necessary here.
2) Singler had his back turned to the play and then turned around at the last second as Strickland was rising for the dunk.
3) Strickland tried to avoid Singler by shifting to his left while jumping, and Singler accounted for this by leaning to his left.
4) If there was any contact at all, it was on Singler's shoulder as Strickland was trying to go around him and Singler was sliding under him.  As the overhead replay showed, Singler started falling backward before the (minimal, if any) contact came.

That one play changed the momentum of the game in more than one way.  That dunk would have cut the lead to 13-8 and given a jolt of life to the UNC team.  Instead, it demoralized them even more.  It put Strickland in foul trouble, which he stayed in the rest of the game.  It completely changed the momentum of the game from that point forward.

I can argue the calls further, but the point is that dook had an unfair advantage this game.  Again, I won't say that it cost UNC the game.  I just wish we had been able to see a fairly officiated game, because I think that would have been a dandy.

Moving forward, my hope is that this was a wake-up call for UNC's players.  They heard everyone talk about how great they were for a week, and now they'll hear a lot of criticisms and expectations for them to lose early in the NCAA tourney.  Those criticisms could become great motivation for this team if they use it as fuel going into the tourney.

My feeling about the tourney draw is that it wasn't great, but it's not terrible either.  The first round is what it is.  If UNC loses that game, then that probably says more about them than Long Island.  Both Washington and Georgia could be tough in the second round.  Neither team really ever got blown out in games, and most of their losses were extremely close.  I would expect a close game if UNC gets to that point.  If they're lucky enough to get beyond that, then Syracuse is a potential opponent.  Everyone talks about their vaunted zone like it would be the death of UNC, but they were able to beat plenty of teams that zoned them this year.  Also, there were teams that were able to score on Cuse's zone.  I'm sure it would be a tough challenge if that game came to pass, but I think UNC could make it a good game.  And, I won't even mention Ohio State.  If UNC somehow makes it that far, I think everything is gravy at that point no matter who they play.  Every game from that point on would be extremely tough.

As for dook, they got a relatively favorable draw with San Diego St. as their #2, but a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Texas or Arizona could trip them up.  Also, UConn could take them down if those two meet up (if UConn makes it that far).  I wouldn't be surprised to see dook lose as early as the Sweet 16 or make the Final Four.  But, I don't think a championship is in the cards for the dookies unless they get a healthy Kyrie Irving back.  The refs won't let them get away with their normal tactics in the big tourney.

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