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Prowling the NBA - March Madness: Breaking Bracketology

As the owner and editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, Joe Lanardi coined the term "bracketology" as a quantifiable system by which the entire NCAA tournament bracket can be more or less predicted.

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It's a simple-on-paper, complex-in-practice process involving just about every aspect of a team imaginable. Conference play, non-conference play, overall record, strength of schedule, roster and matchups, coaching, system, venue....etc etc etc. Endless hours go into each decision.

Then a team like Northern Iowa comes along and throws it all out the window.

In case you haven't heard yet, UNI unceremoniously dumped #1 seed Kansas to the curb this afternoon, 69-67 (a score which, BTW, doesn't reflect how poorly Kansas actually played).

So Kansas joins a host of other teams in the woulda-coulda-shoulda category. Bracketology and Cinderella make for an odd couple. There's also plenty of NBA news, with a few stories as startling as the tournament's #1 overall seed bowing out. But let's start with them anyway....

Kansas looked terrible today:

So much for my prediction that KU's experience would carry them through. The Jayhawks looked anything but a team that knew what it was doing. Sherron Collins forgot he was a point guard. Xavier Henry forgot how to shoot free throws. Cole Aldrich was positively Big Al-ish today....put up some great box score numbers, but Kansas definitely played better without him. He had a tendency to hold the ball....and hold it and hold it and hold it....as he tried to figure out what to do with Jordan Eglseder's 7'0", 280 lbs frame. This isn't going to help Aldrich's rep he's picked up this season of not playing "big" like he should. Aldrich ultimately got pulled at the end as Kansas was forced to put on the full court press.

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And Collins certainly didn't help any, putting on a downright Jonny Flynn performance. 4-15 shooting, 0-6 from three, 5 turnovers, only 4 assists, and a panic attack at the end. He, Henry, and Tayshawn Taylor lost their composure, pounded the ball into the hardwood with no direction, and jacked up quick, contested shots. It was pretty ugly.

Credit too, though, UNI's defense. They came out understanding they had a quickness advantage on the wings, and used it to really get up into Kansas' system, forcing turnovers and isolating KU's guards from each other to stop ball movement and force bad shots.

Also credit Ali Farokhmanesh for one of the gutsiest shots I've ever seen in the tournament.

So what does this do? Well, for one, it really wrecks just about everyone's brackets. Two, it probably puts a sizable dent in the draft stocks of Aldrich and Henry. Three, it gives Ohio State a very realistic chance at the Final Four. And four, it practically gift wraps the championship for Kentucky, as long as they don't get a Vikings-esque prima donna syndrome and let their overconfidence undo them (which, honestly, is a rather realistic possibility as well...)

And now for this week's shocking NBA news...

Tom Penn is out as the Trailblazer's Vice President of Operations:

Yes, the same Tom Penn who was nearly hired to be our VPO this past summer. He chose to stick with the Blazers after they offered him a big raise and prestigious promotion.

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And now he's gone. What happened? Well, there's two theories, and both probably have some truth to them.

The first is that Vulcan Inc, the management and investment firm founded by Microsoft co-founder and Blazers' owner Paul Allen, didn't believe that we actually offered him a job. IE, Penn made up the whole thing just to get his raise and promotion.

Well, we know that isn't true; anyone who paid attention to the situation knows that we made every effort to sign Penn, to the point the insiders considered it a done deal.

Posted on May 17th, 2009 – 9:47 PM
By Jerry Zgoda

From everything I’m hearing, Tom Penn is signed, sealed and delivered (or at least completely agreed to, give me some poetic license for the Stevie Wonder reference). I’m guessing a Tuesday press conference, just hours before the team learns its draft lottery fate.

So either the Vulcans (snicker..) didn't pay attention or didn't believe what they heard. They are, after all, not basketball minds. But they are apparently fairly vindictive. Reports say they've wanted Penn fired all year, and have been just waiting for a semi-legitimate reason to make it happen.

The reason they came up with (also known as the second theory behind why Penn was fired) was "philosophical differences". Whatever that means. Not that I'm, by any means, an insider into the inner workings of the Blazers, but I'll take my best guess here...

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Penn was General Manager Kevin Pritchard's salary cap expert. His job was money management....how much to spend where. Well, Paul Allen is not, by any means, a poor man. He has so much net worth that not only does he own the Blazers, but he made an attempt to also buy the Sonics to keep them from leaving Seattle (shot down, of course, on the obvious conflict of interests problem).

Reports say the Vulcan group blames Penn for the Blazers not landing a top free agent this past summer....namely Hedo Turkoglu. Which, to me, translates as "the money guy didn't offer Hedo enough money". If Penn, as a salary cap-ologist, has been saying "limit the spending", while the ownership gurus are saying "spend whatever it takes"....well, there's a philosophical difference. Stupid, short-sighted, uninformed....but it's there.

But you want to know what the real surprise here is? That's not the shocking part of this story...

Kevin Pritchard is reportedly being forced out the door too:

Um. What???

I sounds absurd. Pritchard is Portland's golden boy....credited with almost singlehandedly digging the team out from the Jailblazer years. Draft two role players and trade them for two franchise cornerstones? Check. Stockpile a mass amount of wing talent? Check. Sell of Zach Randolph and actually have the other team happy to get him? Well....it was Isiah Thomas, but check.

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But the Vulcans apparently don't discriminate when it comes to their vindictiveness. The same way they blame Penn for losing out of Hedo and Paul Millsap, they also reportedly blame Pritchard for a number of quarrels, first and foremost the decision to draft Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant (and despite what John Hollinger says, not all 30 teams would have drafted Oden).

The NBA world is just learning of this all now, but apparently this has been brewing for a while, with KP not only aware of it, but hedging his bets as well. Warren LeGarie, the agent for both Pritchard and Penn, had this to say:

"We've been given no indication that this team sees Kevin as somebody who will be there on a long-term basis. All we've seen is them taking away people that Kevin feels are important to his ability to do his job successfully.

"I've been a Blazer fan from early on. I've been involved in some way with the team for many many years. I want them to be successful. They gave Kevin an unbelievably wonderful opportunity. But in order to make that opportunity work, he still needs to have people who believe in him around him, and people that he'd like to have, and that's certainly not the case anymore."

Sources say Pritchard tasked LeGarie with finding him a new job starting last summer. And well....it might be a smart pre-emptive strike. Blazers' president Larry Miller was very non-committal when asked his thoughts:

"I can never commit to anybody being around long term. I don't know that I'll be here long term. That's just not the way it works. To me, Kevin is our GM, and my feeling is we should focus on finishing out the season, trying to win games, trying to have a successful run in the playoffs. That should be our focus right now. The situation with Tom was an isolated incident. It's unfortunate, but hopefully we can put it behind us."

Will Paul Allen gain enough control over Vulcan Inc to keep Pritchard from being outed? Does he even want Pritchard around in the first place? No one really knows right now, but certainly this all is something the injury-plagued Blazers do not need.

Well. On to happier news...

Michael Jordan has been approved as the new owner of the Charlotte Bobcats:

Granted, this has been a foregone conclusion for weeks now, but making it official still sets some big precedents. Jordan is now the first former NBA player to own an NBA team. He's also only the second black owner (the first being the man he bought to team from, Robert Johnson). And Jordan plans to make the most of the opportunity to run the team playing for the state he grew up in.

Jordan has, technically, been running the Bobcats for years now...at least the basketball side of things....but there should still be some big changes now that he doesn't have to clear his decisions with anyone. He's had a better run with the Cats than he did at the helm of the Wizards, so here's hoping, right? We have a draft pick riding on all this after all.

MJ said owning the Bobcats is "a dream come true", adding, "Purchasing the Bobcats is the culmination of my post-playing career goal of becoming the majority owner of an NBA franchise. I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to build a winning team in my home state of North Carolina."

While the Bobcats focus on finishing out the year, the Heat may be looking more towards next season...

Dwyane Wade plans on talking with other big name free agents about playing in Miami next year:

Specifically LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Amare Stoudemire.

LeBron, I would say, is about as close to a zero percent chance as there is without actually being zero. It's an interesting thought, a good topic for debate....but the honest possibility that LeBron will walk away from a ready-made contender in his home state is minute on a fractional level.

Bosh and Stoudemire are much better odds. The Raptors are all but out of the playoffs for good at this point, and everyone knows there's a fallout looming between STAT and the Suns.

Well, not much else to say about this. Feel free to spend the rest of this section watching DWade be amazing.

The video actually highlights two things Wade does better than anyone in the NBA: get defenders in the air with the pump fake, and split the double team off pick and rolls. His ability to do the latter, especially, is extremely impressive.

Oh, and as San Antonio is proving, even the good teams are thinking about next year.

Are the Spurs planning to trade Tiago Splitter for Chris Bosh?

A few Spurs insiders think so.

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Rubio is the best guard in the Spanish National league....maybe the best guard in all of Europe. Well. Consider Splitter his big man counterpart. And it turns out his situation could be an unfortunate foreshadowing of our own with Rubio. Highlighted are little quips here and there that are being made about Splitter, but could easily be made about Rubio as well. From the mySA newspaper:

Tiago Splitter, the Spurs' first-round pick in 2007, is widely acknowledged as the best big man in Europe. This summer, he has an opt-out clause in his contract with Tau Ceramica, the Spanish League team for which he has played since he was a teenager.

This was thought to be good timing for the Spurs. The league's collective bargaining agreement contains language that allows teams to treat first-rounders who play three years for non-NBA teams, post-draft, as if they are free agents. It will have been three years this June since the Spurs made Splitter the 28th selection of the 2007 draft, so he falls into that category.

Up to now, the Spurs had been limited to offering the 6-foot-11 center $970,000 for the first year of his rookie scale contract. Now, they can offer a lot more, but they are still bound by collective bargaining agreement rules. Just as they have no cap room to offer big money to free agents from other teams this summer, they are limited to cap exceptions as they try to lure Splitter.

The most they can offer: The mid-level cap exception, expected to be around $5 million.

Trouble is, even that amount likely won't pry him out of Spain. That's because the prospect of an NBA lockout that could wipe out the entire 2011-12 season is enough to make any player making mega-Euros think twice about bolting for the NBA. Splitter's deal reportedly is worth more than $5 million.

Make of that what you will...

As for Splitter, "That's why they're probably not going to get him, even for the full mid-level," said one NBA executive. "If you've got a nice, guaranteed deal over in Europe, why would you sign over here and face a lockout? It's more likely they'll try to do a sign-and-trade that includes his rights."

Bosh has been the Spurs' #1 target since 2008. He's a Texas native, a big man, highly productive, and....this season....highly unhappy. The Spurs seemingly torpedoed their own plan of signing him over the summer by trading for Richard Jefferson last summer, which ate up all their cap space. Well...that move hasn't exactly worked out. And with Splitter's availability up in the air and Bosh's availability seemingly 100% there, why not?

What would the Raptors get out of the deal? Well, as mentioned, Splitter is quite a talent.

You can also take a look at his DraftExpress profile here. He's averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds in Europe....16 and 7 in the ACB league....shooting high percentages and moving the ball well. The few times I've seen him play, I've come away with the impression of a young Pau Gasol with the intensity of Kenyon Martin.

The Raptors, of course, are going Euro....Jose Calderon, Hedo, and Andrea Bargnani are starters....and well, if you're going to go Euro, go Euro right? Splitter's bruising inside game would be a pretty good compliment to the sweet shooting Bargnani on offense, and....well, their defense can't get any worse than it already is, right?

At 7' tall, with a 7'2" wingspan and a 9'2" standing reach, Splitter is a formidable physical presence in the paint. I'm sure if the Spurs can find a way to afford him, they'll keep him. But if not....

And making sadder waves overseas...

Jeremy Tyler has quit his Israeli team:

Some of you are familiar with Tyler, as the newest experiment in circumventing the NBA's age limit rule. Instead of foregoing his freshman year of high school, Tyler decided to try giving up his senior year of high school instead, and....well, he wasn't ready for it. I'm sure a lot of people were agreeing with Skip Bayless on this, but Jalen Rose has turned out to be something of a prophet.

I wrote way back in November 15ths update that Tyler was not doing well with his Maccabi Haifa team.

"His coach calls him lazy and out of shape. The team captain says he is soft. His teammates say he needs to learn to shut up and show up on time. He has no friends on the team. In extensive interviews with Tyler, his teammates, coaches, his father and advisers, the consensus is that he is so naïve and immature that he has no idea how naïve and immature he is."

"Tyler has played little, has been fined for team violations, has fought with the coach and teammates ... all in a couple months."

Well, none of that changed. He's averaged just 2 points and 2 rebounds, and played only 8 minutes a game. Last month, he walked out on the team at halftime to protest not getting more minutes. For the last three games, he sat on the bench not wearing a uniform after being left off the Haifa tournament squad. And, of course, he made the decision to leave the team and head home without telling...well, anyone.

"I'm as surprised as you are. We had no idea he was coming home," Tyler's agent Makhtar Ndiaye of the Wasserman Media Group told ESPN's William Weinbaum. "I'm speechless at this point and look forward to speaking with Jeremy. A contract, a learning process -- things weren't great -- but it was part of growing up. I'm disappointed and frustrated."

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For the record, I've felt all along that Tyler was going to end up in over his head. Reading about what Brandon Jennings went through last year with Lomattica Roma...the culture shock, the two-a-days, the hyper-critical coaches and media...I just had a feeling this wouldn't end well. A 16 year old kid thinking he'd go overseas and become a millionaire star in a land of grown men (and civil war...)? That just doesn't seem like a story with a happy ending, does it?

Which throws into question his entire character. Getting caught up in your own ego? Complaining about your coach not catering to your sense of self-entitlement? Quitting on your team with 5 weeks left in the season? And not telling anyone about it? Some NBA scouts say this won't affect Tyler's NBA chances. I couldn't disagree more. For whatever free passes he gets because of his age, these things build a reputation...and everyone knows what they say about first impressions.

On a brighter note, Latavious Williams is doing pretty well in the DLeague:

Williams is the other "get around the NBA rules" experiment...instead of going to college, he chose to go to the DLeague (Tulsa 66ers to be specific) where he's averaging about 7 points and 7 rebounds a game. But those stats don't show the true extent of his progress. From his DX profile:

From what we’re told, Williams came into training camp with little to no concept of the nuances of playing professional basketball. He was just asked to "run and jump in high school," and things like half-court spacing, defensive rotations, advance scouting and other basic concepts were largely a mystery to him. Had he shown up in Europe in this state, there is little doubt that he would have been on the first plane back home before the jet lag could even set in.

According to everyone we’ve spoken with, he’s been a very willing student all season long, responding extremely well to coaching and showing an excellent work ethic, two things that definitely bode well for his future.

While the mainstream media lost interest in Williams just about as quickly as they learned his name, there is no doubt that he’s improved considerably in his time in the D-League, something that high school players around America should surely take note of.

The interesting thing about Williams is that he does not seem to get caught up in the selfishness that often plagues the D-League. While he surely deserves credit for this, this is just as much a testament to his coaching staff (led by the well-respected Nate Tibbetts) and the entire Tulsa organization, as they refused to just spoon-feed him minutes early on in the year and really made him earn his playing time by doing things the right way.

All in all, there is a lot of things to be impressed about when evaluating Latavious Williams’ first season out of high school, even if he obviously still has a long ways to go. Many will look at his unremarkable per-game numbers and want to close the book on him, but digging deeper does reveal some intriguing things.

Williams is currently projected as the 19th pick in the second round by DX....and before anyone makes a fuss about whether he should declare or not, I should point out that all DLeague players are automatically entered into the draft pool each year.

I certainly think Williams would benefit more from another year with the 66ers than being drafted and potentially sitting on the bench every night. The DLeague is a good half-step between high school and the NBA. It's affiliated with the NBA, it's run by NBA talent, scouted by NBA scouts, and teaches (more or less) the NBA system. Whereas I think Tyler's story is going to end in unemployment, I think Williams' story will end in success, and pave the way for others to jump from high school to the DLeague in his footsteps.

And speaking of high schoolers who turned pro...

LeBron James became the youngest player ever to reach 15,000 points:

James beat Kobe Bryant's record by two years. 15,000 NBA points and he's 25 years old. Unbelievable.

And speaking of Bryant, Kobe had some kind words for Kurt Rambis this week...

Kobe and Phil believe in Kurt Rambis:

He doesn't seem to have many fans here, but he still has two big ones that count for a lot: Black Mamba and the Zen master.

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"Kurt's had a real good mind-set towards that [losing]," Jackson said. "He always has. He went to an expansion team after playing for the Lakers. That expansion team did pretty well. They won 20-something games, I think in Charlotte in that first season. He ended up being on a Sacramento team that had some issues later on in his career before getting into assistant coaching with Phoenix at the end of his career."

"Having been there myself as an assistant coach of a team that lost [17] in a row, you see the heads drop and issues start with individual players and things happening where it becomes excuses after excuses because losing is very hard to deal with in this game, particularly when everything is generated out of winning."

One thing I think we all agree one: Rambis has done a good job of not letting the team take on a defeatist attitude this year.

Kobe added, "He knew what he was getting into when he went there in terms of the team trying to rebuild. It's been a tough year for him, but they're executing extremely well, actually. It's always a work in progress. ... They have a couple key pieces, so they should be fine."

Phil says he keeps in frequent contact with Rambis still, and (get this) has been following us closely all year.


And a last NBA tidbit before getting to the college ball...

Stephen Curry played one hell of a game against the Lakers:

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And I don't just say that to make S-n-P unhappy, because believe me, I'm as unhappy as he is to see Curry going off. Over the last two months, Curry has averaged 21 points and 7 assists on over 45% shooting. But it's the way he's getting it done that's most impressive.

One play in the LAL/GSW game was very telling. Curry had the ball and was running in the middle of a pack. He stopped on a dime at the top of the three point line and looked to shoot. Didn't like it. Looked to pass right. Didn't like it. Looked to pass left. Didn't like it. Looked to shoot again. Didn't like it. Turned around looking for a trailer. Didn't find anyone. Finally he goes 360 all the way around, realized the Lakers defense had overshot him trying to pack the paint, pulled up and hit a three.

The whole time guys are flying left and right and up and down and everywhere around him.....and he just stood there, patiently waiting to see what he could get. No rush, no panic, no attempts to force a play. It was the ultimate IQ play, accentuated even more by the fact the 9 other guys on the court were in complete chaos.

In the rookie PG battle this year, Evans is the biggest. Lawson is the fastest. Flynn is probably the most explosive (although that explosiveness unfortunately gets directed the wrong way a lot...) Jennings, I'd say, is the best facilitator. And until a month ago, I would have said Curry is the best shooter. Which he still is, but there's something that stands out to me even more: he's the smartest.

Curry epitomizes high IQ. He's a master at taking what the defense give him. He lives off of making the easy play. He has a Ray Allen-esque ability to get his shot off against all physical odds no matter what gets thrown at him. And he plays with the craft of a 15 year veteran. It's incredible to watch.

Seriously people. Watch the video.

Tyreke Evans still leads the Rookie of the Year race, and I have no problem with that. The Kings are a better team, and Evans is putting up numbers as a rookie that puts him in a class with Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.

BUT

Curry will be better in the end. Possibly the best player from the entire draft. Better than Blake Griffin. Better than Brandon Jennings. And yes...I can see him being better than Rubio (hard comparison there though....like Nash and Kidd) Just about everyone sold his facilitating ability short before the draft, his defense hasn't been a liability (well....any more of a liability than one would expect out of Nellie ball...), and his shooting is pure on a whole different level.

I was browsing a couple boards during the Lakers/Warriors game and made an offhand comment about how smart Curry looked. And immediately got bombarded by quips about how good a Curry/Rubio backcourt could have been. Like I haven't thought about that every day since draft night....

Anyway, Curry also put up a triple double against the Clippers a month ago. 36 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists. It was an all-in-one highlight reel of everything that makes Steph Curry a special player.

And wouldn't you know it, Curry also leads us into the draft talk....

Draft Watch:

Hollinger unveiled his college PER stats this week. Last year's PER leader? Steph Curry. This year's is DeMarcus Cousins.

However, before anyone goes off the deep end using PER as a way to rank college players for the draft, let's note a few things:

Of the top 30 PER players, only 7 appear in DraftExpress' first round
DeMarcus Cousins
Evan Turner
Damion James
Hassan Whiteside
Larry Sanders
James Anderson
Quincy Pondexter

Of the top 50 PER players, only 9 appear in DraftExpress' first round...the above 7, plus
Cole Aldrich
Ed Davis

Likewise, of the top 15 PER players, only 2 appear in Chad Ford's mock projection
Evan Turner
DeMarcus Cousins

Of the top 50 PER players, only 6 appear in Chad Ford's top 20
DeMarcus Cousins
Evan Turner
Hassan Whiteside
Larry Sanders
Cole Aldrich
James Anderson

So like, pro PER, college PER comes with a list of qualifiers. For one, as most of you have already noticed, it heavily favors rebounding. Two, conference can have a huge impact on production. For example...

Jordan Eglseder #2 PER: Missouri Valley, 1 team in the tournament (UNI)
UNI didn't play a ranked team all year

Greg Monroe #68 PER: Big East, 8 teams in the tournament (Syracuse, WVU, Villanova, Pitt, Marquette, Louisville, Notre Dame)...Syracuse #1 seed in the tourney
Georgeown played 11 games against ranked teams

Now, granted Eglseder is part of the UNI team that knocked off Kansas today, while Georgetown was the first victim of a Cinderella upset. But no GM on the face of the earth will take him over Monroe, and factoring in the difference in competition they faced is a part of that.

Now is that the deciding line? There's plenty of other things to consider....physicals, basketball IQ, temperment. Jason Thompson came out of little Rider and has proven he most definitely belongs in the NBA. Just keep in mind that Jason Thompson's are exceptions, not the norm.

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But most of all, I reiterate the argument I made earlier in the month.....while mocks disagree on exact potential and placement, they're not stupid as a group. If a guy is low in all the mocks, or doesn't show up at all, there's a good reason for it.

One thing I do find incredible within PER's vacuum though, is that even when graded by a metric that heavily favors big men, Evan Turner is still at the top of the list. #5 overall, thanks in large part to the fact his rebounding grades out as well as any center. I'm not trying to say, "well I don't like PER, but I like it when it applies to Evan Turner". I don't like PER, period. I just find it amazing that, no matter what metric gets used, Turner always ends up near the top.

Anyway, a few odds and ends notes to wrap things up this week:

-- Greg Monroe says he's staying at Georgetown for his senior year. Did he mean it, or was he just doing the "team spirit" thing? I don't know. "I'm ready to go back and see how I can help my team next year," is was he said at the end of G'Town's loss to Ohio, but even his own coach isn't so sure about that. "You know, I think that he's going to sit and make that decision as time goes on right here," responded John Thompson III.

Monroe had a Corey Brewer-like game of extremes. The good: 19 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks. The bad: 7 turnovers, fouled out, lost the game. If he declares, I think he's a late lottery pick, which I think is about as good as he can hope for this year or next. That's something I'm sure a lot of people will be telling him in the next couple of weeks, so we'll see how it plays out.

-- Evan Turner shot just 2-13, but still grabbed 10 rebounds, dropped 5 dimes, and shut down James Nunnally at the other end. Jonny Flynn, takes notes. This is how you contribute without scoring.

-- Kentucky steamrolled Wake Forest today. It was pretty competitive until Al Farouq Aminu picked up his third foul just halfway through the first half....and it was over from there on out. Averaging 16-11, Aminu is a top 10 prospect who can be the kind of do-it-all small forward so highly valued in today's NBA. But this certainly wasn't the way he wanted to go out, and doesn't help his rep of being an inconsistent and unfocused player.

-- Kalin Lucas gave me a hand, backing up my Aaron Brooks comparison. 25 points, 4 assists on 7-11 shooting (3-5 from three, 8-12 from the line) in a 70-65 win over New Mexico State. Again, a player I think we should be watching closely as a late first round pick.

Well, I can at least console myself with the fact just about everyone's bracket collapsed with Kansas today.

Even Obama's bracket fell apart, after what had, to that point, been a near-prophetic run (Murray State over Vanderbilt? Seriously, who predicts that kind of stuff???) 

But I have to say, this has been as exciting a tournament so far as I can remember. Some people lament about the lack of a clear cut best team....after all it made everyone's job easy last year inking in UNC to win it all. But at the same time, no big dogs means everything's competitive, and it's definitely been competitive.

Sweet 16s up next, so tune in and I'll see you all next week.

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