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About Steve Hartman

Digital Sales Manager at Rivertown Multimedia. Huge sports fan from basketball to tennis, golf to football and everything in between.

Wolves will take Towns, but should they?

Hi everyone. Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted. Got caught up with work and my leisurely blog has taken a hit. But I’m back and looking forward to posting more often now.

Tonight is the NBA Draft. For the first time in team history the Wolves are picking #1. It’s downright shocking this franchise, in all its awfulness, never had the top pick before. Today they have 2 #1s on the roster and will soon have 3. I believe the “Kandi-Man” was also a #1 they picked up later.

But tonight has a different feel for Wolves fans. Not only do you have the #1 pick, but you also have a promising roster. Andrew Wiggins is a star in the making, Rubio is a veteran PG who, with the right players around him, could be a nice piece. Kevin Martin is an ideal 6th man scoring guard but on this roster probably still has to start. Levine and Muhammed can be impactful players down the road. What this team needs is another star, probably either a PF or C. That being said let’s take a look at the top 3 players in tonight’s draft.

Karl Anthony-Towns: The PF from Kentucky is the likely top pick to the Wolves. He’s a great all-around big. More mobile defensively than Okafor and has better range offensively. He also is a much better FT shooter. The knocks on Towns are that he’s good at a lot and not great at anything (yet). He’s not Anthony Davis, who will become a top 5 player in this league soon if he isn’t already. He certainly fits the NBA in 2015. He can guard and run the pick n roll or pop. He defends the ball screens well. He runs, jumps, blocks shots. Another knock I’ve heard on Towns is his potential maybe isn’t as high as others. How much better will he get?

Jahlil Okafor: The Duke center was the likely top pick for much of the college season. But he got exposed a little in the pick n roll game, especially during the NCAA Tournament. Coach K couldn’t take him off the floor because of his offensive value, but you saw Duke actually play much better defense with him on the bench. And that is what is keeping Okafor from being the top pick in some minds. He’s not a good defender (yet), especially on ball screens. He struggles at the FT line. And for his size he’s not a great shot-blocker. That being said, his offensive game is nearly unstoppable. He shot over 65% from the field and made other bigs look sad. He has a huge frame, thick through the lower body, huge hands and can make shots with both hands around the basket. He has a better offensive game than Towns right now, but would have to improve dramatically on defense. If Flip Saunders and the Wolves believe he can drop some weight, become more durable and quicker laterally, his ceiling may be higher than Towns’.

D’Angelo Russell: The combo guard from Ohio State is the most intriguing player in this draft. Many NBA executives have said he’s likely the best overall player in the draft. But history also suggests teams over-value big men and likely would take Towns or Okafor over him. It’s a guard-driven league today though and NBA teams know it. Russell showed extremely high basketball IQ with the ball in his hands. He’s able to create for others and score in multiple ways. He has the size to play either guard spot, on the ball or off. He, like Okafor, isn’t the greatest defender. He needs work staying engaged defensively. Russell won’t be able to get away on athleticism alone in the NBA and needs to play better position defense. But again, NBA teams feel like they can coach defense to pretty much any young player. What they can’t teach are Russell’s offensive gifts. It wouldn’t shock me if the Lakers took Russell 2nd and paired him with a big they get via Free Agency or Trade, i.e. Demarcus Cousins, Lamarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love.

My Prediction: The Wolves pick Towns and roll into 2015-16 with a starting lineup of Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Towns and Pekovic. Off the bench they bring Dieng, Muhammed, Levine, Garnett and probably some new back-up point guard or someone they take later in the draft. Will they bring Tyus Jones home to Minnesota? I doubt it. Either way, this team if healthy will be a contender for the last playoff spots. One thing I could see is the Wolves feel Dieng and Garnett can protect the rim and stop the ball screen well enough to draft Okafor, but I highly doubt it. With Wiggins and Rubio staying put for now I don’t see Russell being a fit. A combo of Towns and Wiggins for 3-4 years guaranteed can bring a lot of success to this franchise and I think it’s the safest bet at this point.

Chicago’s Best are Better Than Wild’s

It almost pains me to say it. But a week after writing the merits of Zach Parise and how he’s everything we hope to see in a star player, his star just doesn’t burn as bright as those of the Chicago Blackhawks.

We know the best players have to come up big to win in the playoffs. Stars can be made out of role players, but rarely are teams carried by role players. And right now, unfortunately for Wild fans, the best players from Chicago are just better than the Wild.

Notable Chicago Blackhawks (Goals-Assists=Total Pts, +/-)

Patrick Kane (3-0=3, +3)

Duncan Keith (0-3=3, +5)

Jonathan Toews (1-0=1, +1)

Marian Hossa (0-2=2, +1)

Patrick Sharp (1-2=3, +3)

Combined: 5 goals, 12 points and +13

Notable Minnesota Wild

Zach Parise (1-1=2, -1)

Ryan Suter (0-1=1, -4)

Mikko Koivu (0-1=1, -3)

Mikael Granlund (1-0=1, +0)

Thomas Vanek (0-2=2, -5)

Jason Pominville (0-0=0, -1)

Combined: 2 goals, 7 points and -14.

It’s not hard to figure out. The Wild lack the high-end talent of the Blackhawks. The story was the same in last year’s 2nd round matchup, won by Chicago 4-2. Wild had as many if not more scoring chances. The difference was Chicago buried their chances and made the Wild pay for mistakes. Turnovers killed Minnesota in Game 2, starting with the 2-0 shortie in which goalie Devan Dubnyk made a great initial save, but the puck bounced in off his stick to give Patrick Kane his 1st goal of the game. Pominville has missed his chances and Mikael Granlund has been nowhere to be found.

Chicago’s blue line of Keith, Hjallmarson, Oduya and company have been better at moving the puck than Suter, Brodin, Scandella, Spurgeon, etc. Too many turnovers and misplayed pucks deep in their own zone have cost the Wild at least 2 goals this series. The hard-working, gritty play of the Wild forwards in the 4-2 series win vs the Blues has been missing as well. Missed scoring chances plagued Minnesota late in a 4-3 Game 1 loss. There are rarely missed quality chances for Chicago. Any free space with the puck leaves Dubnyk in a nearly impossible spot against some of the best stick-handlers in the NHL.

Wild fans are having deja vu all over in 2015. Their only hope is for their stars to shine at Xcel Energy Center Tuesday night, reigniting the team and get the series tied at 2 before heading back to Chicago. Certainly not impossible. The Wild is a resilient group, but a lot has to change from Game 2 to Game 3. See Game 4-5 in the Blues series as evidence it can happen.

Parise: A Star We Can Be Proud Of

It was refreshing to see a star player on a local team rise to the occasion and vault his team to victory. That’s exactly what Minnesota Wild fans got from Zach Parise Sunday in Game 6 versus the St. Louis Blues. Parise scored two goals, both of which came in critical moments. His first, a short-handed goal from a bad angle, got the crowd roaring in the 1st period. His second, under 2 minutes into the 3rd period, got the crowd to relax after TJ Oshie had cut the lead to 2-1 with 3 seconds to go in the second. Reclaiming momentum was huge at that point and Parise did it in classic fashion, a hustle play, getting himself to the front of the net for an easy rebound and finish.

Not since the Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett in the 2004 NBA playoffs, more famously Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris in  the Twins 1991 World Series victory, have Minnesota sports fans found their star(s) rising at the right time in the biggest of ways. Not assisting on the play, not playing great defense, not just with poise and leadership. This was actually doing what needed to be done.

Parise is what we all hope our starts will be: Incredibly hard working, talented, forthright, honest and out of the spotlight off the ice (or court/field). The Minnesota Wild can only hope Parise lives up to his words against the Chicago Blackhawks. Statements like the one below certainly give the fans confidence Parise is the player to lead them past the ‘Hawks.

“All players want to be a part of a big-stage game, they want to contribute and that’s the part of being an athlete,” Parise said. “We have to deliver. At the end of the day, we have to deliver. That’s what we were supposed to do and we were able to do that (Sunday).”

Twins Need to Call Up (some) Prospects

There has been a lot of back-and-forth among Twin Cities media members over the Twins’ strategy of when and how to bring up prospects. Some consider it smart business and valuable learning time for prospects to stay in the minors. Others argue they shouldn’t keep players who happen to be better than the major leaguers on the farm just to save a year of salary.

1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey made a wonderful, noteworthy list of pitchers the Twins have signed or acquired and how awful they are. Yet, he’s also the media member constantly telling listeners the Twins don’t need to spend more money. While I agree the Twins are a mid-major market and should be spending wisely they haven’t been doing so. Also, their refusal to put money into the RIGHT players is costing them dearly. It’s not bad luck Ervin Santana was caught with PEDs, or Ricky Nolasco was awful in 2014, or that Mike Pelfrey never reclaimed former glory. They are who everyone said they were…average or below pitchers. Good teams make good decisions. Bad teams make bad ones. If you want GOOD SP you need to spend. The Twins front office obviously isn’t as savvy as Oakland’s or St. Louis’. If they were they’d be better, or at least more consistent. Huge swings in team performance every 5 years is a sign of instability, poor evaluation and development.

All that being said, I have no problem keeping certain players down on the farm at the moment. The 1-6 start certainly signaled doom for some fans who immediately wanted to see Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer, Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton on the big club. But each of these cases have to be examined individually.

For years the Twins have been at the forefront of a crippling disease among MLB teams. Pitchers refusing to miss bats. It’s become almost epidemic. In today’s game, power arms in both the bullpen and starting rotation are what win games. Trotting out average pitchers, with average stuff, who have always been average at best will not move you past Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. That’s why it’s so puzzling to see veterans like Mike Pelfrey, who has a career ERA of 4.56, ERA+ of 88, 5.56 K/9 Inn and a 1.5 K/BB ratio. We know what Pelfrey is and after 4 straight 90-loss seasons we don’t care to see anymore. Let Meyer provide something no other starter in the rotation can provide…strikeouts.

The Twins currently rank last in MLB in strikeouts. They ranked 2nd to last in 2014, 2013 & 2011, only 28th out of 30 in 2012. Shockingly, the last time Minnesota made the playoffs they ranked 11th in MLB in Ks. Funny how that works. The formula is pretty simple: If the Twins want to remain relevant and bring some excitement to Target Field the next call-up should be Alex Meyer. I don’t care about his control problems. Meyer will get more out of working with new pitching coach Neil Allen vs MLB hitters than he will in the minors. Also, lest we not forget, Francisco Liriano was a 23-year-old with nasty stuff, but a lack of control. The Twins got a few good years out of him before Tommy John surgery. But yet he’s back on top with strong seasons in Pittsburgh. Waiting until guys are in to their mid-to-upper 20s is 2-3 years of prime arm life wasted in the minor leagues. Bringing Meyer up also may help keep the ball from going in play which with this team is a good thing. It’s one thing to “pitch-to-contact” when you have elite defense like KC.

That brings us to the next point. Byron Buxton needs to be called up. Not because of his hitting and base-running abilities, which by all accounts are impressive. But rather because I can’t stand to watch one more inning of the bumbling, stumbling, goof troop known as the Twins outfield. Watching them screw up routine catches and not get to balls in the corners would be enough to drive most fans away. It’s like Torii Hunter said, “the Bad News Bears.” Unfortunately, these are grown men who have played the game most of their lives! Buxton will learn to hit and steal bases. But right now, he’s needed so fans don’t have to witness the carnage of more OF shenanigans.

How about Sano you may be asking? He isn’t the smoothest defensive player, but does have power. Unfortunately, the Twins already have players like that, Arcia and Vargas. The biggest issue (so far, and it’s early) is the Twins inability to catch the ball and make easy plays on defense. Sure, their bats looked weak to begin, but this team finished 6th in runs scored last season. Offense shouldn’t be the problem. If the 2013 Trevor Plouffe was starting at 3B I’d probably want to see Sano. But Trevor Plouffe has improved his defense and players like Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas are playing corner IF positions and DH. I’d prefer to give them some more run in 2015. I don’t think Sano adds as much to this team as currently constructed as does Buxton.

The final player that should be called up because of NECESSITY and not fan interest, is Jose Berrios. Berrios first drew interest during the 2013 World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico as a 19-year-old. He has averaged over a SO per inning and his K/9 is 9.8. All you need to know about the state of the Twins bullpen, outside of Glen Perkins and Casey Fein, is players like Blaine Boyer, JR Graham and Tim Stauffer are in it. You can’t tell me Berrios not only has better stuff, but definitely fits the mold of a perfect bullpen guy in 2015. Hard thrower with a nasty slider. Watch the video below and tell me he couldn’t get out MLB hitters. Starting him in the bullpen would be a great way for him to acclimate to the majors without adding too much pressure or arm stress.

I agree players shouldn’t be brought up just because they’re young, exciting or have potential. But when your on-field product is atrocious and has been for 4 years, it’s  time to see what you truly have in young players. Fans, front office, players and the manager KNOW what we have in aging veterans who provide “stability” or a “stop-gap.” Enough of that. Start the climb back up the hill with Buxton, Meyer and Berrios. Leave Rosario and Sano for another year.

Can Badgers Exact More Revenge?

Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers were able to stave off Arizona’s revenge in their West Regional Final by beating Arizona. They delivered their own kind of revenge against Kentucky in Saturday’s Final Four. UK beat Wisconsin by 1 in last year’s semifinal. This time it was Bucky, who upset the undefeated Wildcats 71-64 in an epic semifinal. Now, Frank Kaminsky and co. have another chance to utilize revenge for motivation, not that they need it.

The Blue Devils went to Wisconsin and won 80-70 in December during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That game featured leading-scorer Traevon Jackson (25 points) and Rasheed Sulaimon for Duke. Sulaimon has been dismissed from Duke and Jackson is still recovering from a foot injury though he has scored 10 points in the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, these are different teams than the ones who met 5 months ago. Duke shot the ball well, Tyus Jones took control late and the Blue Devils looked a step ahead of Wisconsin.

But that was December. Wisconsin comes in to tonight’s championship game looking better than ever. The Badgers have also been tested by stiffer competition than the Blue Devils. I said all along playing Arizona before Kentucky would help Wisconsin get used to the length, athleticism of a defensive-minded team. Duke is not built like either Arizona nor Kentucky. I’m not yet sure if that’s good or bad for Wisconsin. They found out in December Okafor can’t be guarded 1on1 like Kentucky’s bigs. But this also might be a shootout and UW has more overall weapons and better depth than Duke. Whoever can exert their will and get their opponent in foul trouble might very well win the title.

Defense has been the mantra of college basketball for much of the year. Kentucky was being considered one of the greatest defensive teams in the last 20 years of college hoops. But even an “Eastern Conference playoff team” couldn’t hold down the high-powered Badgers. They rank #1 in offensive efficiency. Duke is right behind them at #3. All season, all tournament “experts” noted what is wrong with college basketball. Monday night will be an example of what is both right, current and beautiful about the college game. Post players, Okafor and Kaminsky, capable of handling the ball and scoring at will. Teams who take care of the ball thanks to veteran leadership and dynamic young guards. Wing players, Dekker and Winslow, capable of highlight-reel dunks. The Badgers seem like a loose bunch. Nothing seems to faze them. I can’t find the tweet, but someone made a great comparison: This UW Badgers team reminds them of the 2004 Boston Red Sox (hopefully minus the juicing superstar).

Now for my prediction. (I know people are asking since I picked both Final Four games and almost hit the UW/UK score). Full disclosure, I picked Duke in 2 out of my 3 brackets. I work in a pro-Badger environment so most of my opposition picked Wisconsin. Financially, I prefer a Duke win. As a fan, I prefer Duke wins. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is playing as well as anyone has in years. I saw this interesting stat about Duke’s 4 championship game victories and the quality of their opponents. For that reason….

Prediction: Wisconsin gets ultimate revenge and wins 82-74.

Final Four Tale of the Tape: Badgers/UK, Duke/Spartans

Today I’ll break down each game of the Final Four. The first match-up in Indianapolis is Duke vs Michigan State.

When Duke is on Offense: Duke is the best shooting team of the four. They shoot 50.2% from the field. Their offense revolves around POY-candidate Jahlil Okafor. Okafor shoots an insane 67% from the field, so expect Michigan State to send a second defender to get the ball out of Okafor’s hands. The last two Duke opponents, Utah and Gonzaga, did just that. Unfortunately for them they still lost. Michigan State doesn’t force a lot of turnovers. I expect a clean game, similar to the Regional Final, from the backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. The Spartans struggled early in the season on defense, but have been much better in the NCAA tourney. Physically they match up well on the perimeter. Branden Dawson should guard Duke’s Justice Winslow and that’s an intriguing match-up. Whoever gets the best of that battle could lead their team to victory. If either team gets in foul trouble all bets are off as both teams lack depth. I expect to see double teams off Jones, but not Matt Jones after he had a big game shooting vs the Zags. It’s pick your poison against Duke’s high-powered offense. ADVANTAGE: Duke

When Michigan State is on Offense: Tom Izzo is notorious for the physicality of his practices. The Spartans are typically one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. This team isn’t quite as good on the offensive glass as others. That being said, Duke will give up offensive rebounds. They don’t have a ton of size. Just like the Winslow/Dawson match-up could decide the game for Duke’s offense, the same goes for Michigan State. If Dawson can beat up Winslow on the offensive glass it could lead to 2nd chance points and open Trice 3’s. The Spartans, behind Trice and Bryn Forbes, shoot 38.6% from 3pt. Duke’s perimeter defense isn’t elite, but they do force some turnovers. If Michigan State can take care of the ball and attack the glass, I think they have a shot. ADVANTAGE: Push

Coaching Match-Up: Whew. Tough call. Both coaches have national championships. Both have been to 6+ Final Fours. Both teams are peaking at the right time. Both teams have also been playing their best defense of the season. I like Michigan State’s bench more than Duke’s and Izzo’s use of that bench could be key. Getting solid minutes from Gavin Schilling in the rotation with Matt Costello could keep them out of foul trouble. Duke won in the 2nd game of the year, 81-71. A lot has changed since then, but I think Duke is more talented overall, but Michigan St may be the tougher, more physical team. I think Izzo finds a way to motivate the Spartans one more time. ADVANTAGE: Michigan State

Prediction: Michigan State seems to be getting contributions from Trice and Dawson every game. Denzel Valentine has struggled with foul trouble. They’ll need all 3 at their best to win Saturday. Duke has proven they can win without huge games statistically from Okafor. He’s been neutralized, but as long as he makes good passing decisions out of the double-team and recognizes them quickly I like Duke’s chances. I wouldn’t count on Grayson Allen and Matt Jones to make shots like they have. In big games the stars have to shine. Duke has more stars than Michigan State. I expect Winslow to play well and Quinn Cook to carry Duke to a 75-69 win.

 

When Wisconsin is on Offense: This is probably the most intriguing part of Final 4 weekend. How will Kentucky’s top-ranked defense fair vs Wisconsins top-ranked offense? Wisconsin presents the biggest challenge yet to the Wildcats defense. Notre Dame was able to get baskets inside and balance that with their excellent outside shooting. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky is a top 3 center in the country. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker can score inside and out. And all the Badgers’ guards can shoot the 3. Kentucky’s defense is so great because they’re able to run teams off the 3-pt line, force them into the paint where opponents are met with the shot-blocking Karl Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. The best recipe for success against the Wildcats is a big-man who can score with his back to the basket, 1on1. UK won’t double-team the post and that leaves “Frank the Tank” solo on the block. The key could be fouling. Wisconsin shoots 76.4% from the FT line. If they are able to get to the line it could create easy points. ADVANTAGE: Push

When Kentucky is on Offense: Kentucky’s offense isn’t great in the halfcourt. They rely a lot on their defense (14th in Turnovers forced) and offensive rebounding (7th in the nation). However, Wisconsin is 25th in the country in defensive rebounding and 2nd in fewest turnovers. This again is a rock vs hard place match-up. Again, Notre Dame had success against Kentucky because they did a solid job on the defensive glass limiting UK to 10 second-chance points. Wisconsin is only allow 7.4 second-chance pts per game. It may be hard for Kentucky to get offensive rebounds and force turnovers so I think they’re offense will struggle. One thing that really led them to victory in the Regional Final was Towns’ post game. The bigs of Wisconsin will have to slow him down if they are to win. ADVANTAGE: Push

Coaching Match-Up: I like Bo Ryan here. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of John Calipari. That being said the adjustment of focusing on post touches for Towns in the 2nd half vs Notre Dame worked and proved to be the difference. However, it doesn’t take a genius to go back to the well as long as the defense doesn’t alter its plan. Bo Ryan on the other hand has adapted a new offensive style and opened up his team’s game. Wisconsin is getting a season-long boost from Bronson Koenig at the pg position after Traevon Jackson went down with injury. I like the make-up of the veteran Badgers. And I especially like the Badgers intangibles (motivation from 2014’s loss to UK in the Final Four, senior leadership, etc) to push them over the edge. ADVANTAGE: Wisconsin

Prediction: I’m calling the upset here. Wisconsin finds another player to step up, perhaps Nigel Hayes being aggressive on offense. I also like the Badgers ability to pull both Cauley-Stein and Towns away from the basket and open things up for Dekker, Koenig, Gasser and Showalter. Wisconsin wins 72-68

Monday I’ll have my Championship prediction right back here.

Final 4 Preview: Michigan State joins the Party

I’ll come right out and say it. If you followed my advice and got excited to see two contrasting styles in last Thursday’s Sweet 16 match-up between Kentucky and West Virginia you were given 2 contrasting styles. One being good basketball with a stout defense and consistent shot-making. Another with terrible offense, poor shooting and non-existent defense. Kudos to Kentucky for using the bulletin board material, even though they didn’t need it.

On to the Final Four. Izzo, Krzyzewski, Ryan and Calipari. 4 Legends. 4 Hall-of-Famers. 4 Elite Programs. 4 Teams Left. Does it get any better?

Michigan State joins the Final Four as the “underdog.” How often has Michigan State and Tom Izzo, National Championship winner in 2000 and making his 7th Final Four appearance, been considered the underdog?! What an accomplishment for the Spartans. This may be Izzo’s best coaching job yet. A team that looked like a bubble team entering the Big Ten Tournament, stormed through Syracuse and put together 4 outstanding games to reach Indianapolis. This team may not have the talent other Spartan teams had but Travis Trice, Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine and unheralded transfer Bryn Forbes have pushed the Spartans through East Region into a match-up with Duke. This team was playing poor defense for most of the season and not dominating the glass like typical MSU teams. A commitment to get back to those areas of strength were obvious in their OT win over Louisville.

Speaking of the Blue Devils, I must issue full disclosure. Duke has been my favorite team since a 30-point loss to UNLV in 1990. But I’m also openly critical of recent teams’ reliance on outside shooting and lack of toughness down low. The last national championship team from Duke didn’t hit its stride until the emergence of a baker owner and Lance Johnson solidified the front line. The 2014-15 edition of Blue Devil basketball has had that from the start. National Player of the Year candidate Jahlil Okafor changed the face of this team once he hit campus. He’s the consistent, dominant low-post scorer Duke hasn’t had since Sheldon Williams. Sorry Plumlee brothers, but your offensive game wasn’t like this. Quinn Cook’s leadership has been well-documented. His ability to take and make big shots has brought this team a trusted late-game closer. Speaking of closers, freshman Tyus Jones is unbelievable in big games. You could look at handful of boxscores and surmise Jones is an average point guard. But in the biggest games, on the biggest stages, Jones shines. The South Regional Most Outstanding Player continued his big-game heroics with 15 pts, 6 asts, 3 rebs and 0 turnovers against Gonzaga. But on Sunday, it was another Jones, Matt Jones, who played brilliantly and led the Devils back to Indy, where they’ve won 2 previous titles. For the game, Duke only committed 2 turnovers…2! That’s a great recipe for success in the tourney.

Wisconsin is going back to the Final Four a year after losing to Kentucky in the semi-finals. What is their reward? A rematch with the undefeated Wildcats. When the brackets came out most people saw this coming and neutral parties probably hoped it would. Wisconsin’s offensive attack is so balanced, so diverse it can give even the best defenses problems, right Arizona? Bo Ryan has done a masterful job adapting this team’s ability into a more free-flowing offense and not restricting them with his patented Swing Offense. Sam Dekker came up huge against Arizona. Hitting shots like he did late in the 85-78 win over the Wildcats will present problems for Kentucky. Traevon Jackson is slowly getting back in the mix after missing time with an injury. But Bronson Koenig, La Crosse’s own, has run the team as well as one could expect. He, Josh Gasser and out of nowhere, Zak Showalter, have kept the turnovers down, shooting consistent and Badgers winning.

Kentucky is a juggernaut. For as much as I’d like to see them lose (my disdain for Calipari is no secret to my Twitter followers), they are the best team in the field. The Notre Dame game went as I expected. They were finally tested with a good offensive team and they won, but it certainly didn’t look like they would. Credit to Aaron Harrison. He continues to hit big shots. Not just this year, but last year in the surprise Final Four run for the Wildcats. In 2014, UK didn’t have Willie Cauley-Stein. That’s a key defensive piece for Calipari. They also didn’t have freshman Karl Anthony-Towns. Towns domination of the Irish frontline helped Kentucky stay close enough to pull out the win. He’s a force on both ends and could be a tough match-up for Wisconsin. But now the Wildcats have to face highly efficient offenses in back-to-back games, and perhaps 3 in a row if UK and Duke were to win. Kentucky’s offense is so reliant on offensive rebounds. You could see their struggles through most of the game as ND was doing a great job on the boards. But eventually they were able to isolate Towns and he went to work. As much as I hate to say it, Kentucky has been the best team by a couple rungs so far in this tournament.

I’ll have my “official” Final Four predictions later this week. I have to get my bearings on what will be an outstanding finish to this tournament.

Sweet 16 Preview: Best Match-Up, Best Player So Far, more

The first weekend of the Men’s Basketball NCAA Championship Tournament is in the books. I love the first weekend for the amount of games, excitement and Cinderella stories. But the rounds of 16 and 8 provide truly great basketball at the highest level. Some of the weaker teams have been weeded out and the cream will truly rise to the top by Sunday. Here are my thoughts for this weekend’s Sweet 16 games.

Most Intriguing Sweet 16 Match-Up – Although it’s tempting to pick UNC/Wisconsin because of the coaching match-up and amount of points that will be scored, I have to go with West Virginia vs Kentucky. It’s Bob Huggins and his 8-2 head-to-head record versus John Calipari and his undefeated Wildcats. It’s not just the intrigue of Kentucky’s undefeated season that has my attention. It’s the gritty and tough brand of basketball the Mountaineers continue to play. Are they the most polished and skilled team that seems to have the best chance to beat UK? No. But they press full court and that could cause problems for UK’s guards. The full court pressure and creating  turnovers can negate some of the Wildcats’ height and offensive rebounding. All in all I believe Kentucky wins, but it will be closer than the current -13.5 spread. West Virginia doesn’t shoot it from outside well enough (only 32% from 3pt) to really threaten UK but the contrast in styles will be interesting. One thing is for sure, WVU and Huggins will NOT be intimidated by Kentucky’s size and undefeated record.

The Elite 8 Game I Most Want to See – This was a close call. Notre Dame’s efficient offense vs Kentucky’s defense OR a rematch of last season’s epic tourney game between UK and Wichita State. Jahlil Okafor and Duke vs the size experience of Gonzaga. But my choice is Wisconsin vs Arizona. The Wildcats defense is stifling. The Badgers offense ranks #1 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Kaminsky vs Tarczewski. Dekker vs Stanley Johnson. And TJ McConnell vs Bronson Koenig. Bo Ryan’s crew won last year’s Regional Final 64-63 in OT to reach the Final Four. It was a physical, grind-it-out game that both teams are comfortable playing. The seeds were reversed in 2014. Will the result be reversed also? Badgers fans hope not.

Most Impressive Player Thus Far – Tempting to go with Jahlil Okafor. The Duke center is averaging 23.5 pts in 2 games including 21-for-27 shooting. That’s insane. But alas, it’s not that unexpected for Okafor. The player who has impressed me the most is Michigan State’s Branden Dawson. The 6’6″ senior forward carried the team emotionally and physically in the Spartans upset win over 2-seed Virginia 60-54. He is averaging 14.5 pts, 7.5 rebs, 3 blocks through two games. In the win over Virginia, Dawson’s battery mate Denzel Valentine was riddled with foul trouble, but Dawson was able to carry the load. Though his effort has been inconsistent throughout the season, he seems to have hit his stride or been motivated by March. Like his coach, Tom Izzo, Dawson seems to get what the Madness is all about in March.

I can’t wait for this set of games. Everyone will be trying to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. There are great teams, great coaches and surprisingly, senior-laded teams all vying for the “One Shining Moment.” Buckle up, fans, it’s going to be a heck of a weekend of college hoops.

Who Can Knock Off Kentucky?

Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as heavy favorites. Some Vegas books even have them as even odds to win the whole thing. I won’t get into how incredible that is, but it’s remarkable to think that all 67 other teams combined have as good of a chance to win the tournament as Kentucky, according to some. But this current tournament reminds me a lot of the 1991 tournament where UNLV entered undefeated, rolling through its competition all year long. The only major difference is UNLV won the title the year before. Kentucky came close in 2014 losing to Connecticut in the championship game. College basketball history buffs know how 1991 ended for UNLV. That’s as close as we’ve had to an undefeated NCAA champion since 1976 and the Indiana Hoosiers.

So who could be this year’s 1991 Duke team? Here are my 5 “most likely” candidates to knock off the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Wisconsin tops the list. Their size and ability to shoot the 3 could give Kentucky problems. Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky could be the most multi-dimensional big man in the country. Kentucky’s bigs, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Anthony-Towns, are capable of defending all over the court, but can they guard “Frank the Tank” if Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and the rest of the Badgers are hitting shots? Wisconsin wouldn’t see Kentucky until the Final Four. Also in Wisconsin’s region? Arizona. There’s a chance that IF Bucky were able to reach the Final Four, beating Arizona given their size it would give Wisconsin a preview of what Kentucky is able to do defensively. Best thing in Wisconsin’s favor: They don’t turn the ball over. Kentucky thrives on turnovers and points off those turnovers. Chance of beating UK: 35%

Arizona has the size and athleticism all over the court to play with Kentucky. Much of Kentucky’s offense comes from the offensive glass. If anyone can keep the Wildcats from collecting offensive rebounds, it’s the Wildcats, Arizona’s version. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-9 Brandon Ashley and 6-7 forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, UA has plenty of size. But I worry a little about T.J. McConnell. He’s not a great outside shooter and could struggle with the size of the Harrison twins (both 6-5). I give Arizona a shot though. They’ve been red-hot lately, including blowout wins over other tourney teams Oregon and Utah. Chance of beating UK: 30%

Duke‘s starters match-up as well as any team with UK. Unfortunately, dismissals and transfers have hurt the Blue Devils’ depth. Their backcourt, though talented with freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook, is small. They’d be giving up 8″ combined vs the Harrisons. Center Jahlil Okafor may be the Player of the Year, but Kentucky’s bigs will be ready to knock him down a peg. Duke is similar to Wisconsin in they have players who can shoot the 3 and a post who can score almost at will. Duke doesn’t take care of the ball as well as the Badgers, and don’t have as much depth.They would need to get UK into foul trouble either by Okafor, or preferably by Jones and Cook, two of the best FT shooters in college basketball. Chance of beating UK: 25%

Notre Dame is the 2-seed in Kentucky’s region. They showed brilliant offensive basketball winning the ACC Tournament after beating Duke and North Carolina. There’s no doubt the Fighting Irish can score. But could they defend well enough to beat Kentucky? A meeting between these two teams would come with a trip to the Final Four on the line. No doubt, Mike Brey’s squad would be the best offensive team the Wildcats will have faced all year. 6-5 Guard Jerian Grant has the ability to take over a game, and another 6-5 guard, Pat Connaughton can get hot from 3. If they’re firing on all cylinders they could win a shootout. Chance of beating UK: 20%

Gonzaga is an interesting case. They, like Duke, wouldn’t see Kentucky until the championship game. That being said, if Gonzaga gets through a possible run of Iowa State, Duke and whoever wins the East region (Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma, Michigan State perhaps) they will have proven their mettle. Gonzaga, like Wisconsin and Arizona, has the size to match Kentucky. (Notice a trend here?) What I think separates Gonzaga from the rest is the play of Kevin Pangos. He’s an outstanding PG with the ability to create, score, defend and is slightly bigger than most other point guards on this list. The Bulldogs also possess size with Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and Ryan Edwards all over 6-10. If Gonzaga meets Kentucky they’ll have earned my respect (I don’t see them reaching the Final Four) and could finally get Mark Few in the Final Four and a National Title. But because the run to get their is awfully tough I only give them a Chance of beating UK: 15%.

Badgers’ Brutal Region, Other NCAA Tourney Thoughts

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show is one of the most exciting “non-game” events in sports. Snubs, match-ups, regions, are all delivered in Christmas-like fashion with the hosts revealing the content of each region like a present. Here are my initial thoughts:

The Wisconsin Badgers earned a #1 seed in the West Regional by winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. Other top contenders for a #1 Virginia and Duke lost in their conference tournaments. The Badgers reward for a 31-3 season? A region filled with other Final Four contenders. Arizona, also 31-3, comes in at #2 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. Baylor is a very athletic, defensive team. North Carolina made a strong run in the ACC Tournament and comes in hot as the 4-seed. There are 6 teams I believe could legitimately come out of the West Region.

Kentucky has a potentially difficult 2nd round game against Purdue on the horizon. If the Boilermakers can get by Cincinnati in the 1st game, I believe Matt Painter’s squad’s size inside, including two 7-footers, could negate Kentucky’s size. I still believe the Wildcats win because their guards are better than Purdue’s and because they have more depth, but I don’t think this is the cakewalk some might.

Double-digit seed most likely to advance? I take Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are extremely talented, but no one is talking about them nationally. The past 2 years, 12-seeds are 6-8 vs 5-seeds. And if SFA can get by 5th-seeded Utah, an underwhelming match-up vs Georgetown/Eastern Washington awaits. I think SFA can win 2 games and get to Houston where a date with Duke most likely awaits. The run ends there.

Many experts are saying the West (see above) is the toughest region, but I believe the East can prove just as brutal. Top-seed Villanova has received the least amount of attention I remember a major program getting after going 32-2. Virginia’s Justin Anderson is noticeably struggling upon returning from a broken finger. When healthy the Cavaliers are America’s BEST defensive team (Yes, even better than Kentucky). Oklahoma, Northern Iowa, Louisville, and Michigan State all have great, experienced players and their coaches have 14 Final Fours among them.

Best First Round Match-ups?

– Butler 6 v Texas 11. The Longhorns dropped in the rankings late in the season, but still have a squad worthy of a long run. Their size and strength gave UK all they could handle early in the year. If Rick Barnes can right the ship, I wouldn’t be surprised to see UT pull the upset and win another game.

– Wichita State 7 v Indiana 10. The Shockers earned 1-seed in 2014, and returned the majority of their team. But this year they fall to a 7 and get Indiana in round 1. Tom Crean’s Hoosiers have plenty of offense, but can they get stops? I hope not because I want to see a Wichita State/Kansas game in the round of 32. This battle in Omaha would be epic for the Shocker fanbase. Rumors swirl of the Jayhawks avoiding WSU for years!

– Arkansas 5 v Wofford 12. Wofford has a history of performing well in the tourney, losing by single digits in 2 of their previous 3 tournament appearances. Arkansas can get up and down and their pressure could be difficult for the Terriers to handle, but if Wofford can slow the game down this could be the classic 5/12 upset.

– UNC 4 v Harvard 13. I picked the Harvard upset of New Mexico 2 years ago, and they won another upset in 2014, so I’m tempted to go with the Crimson again, but I think UNC isn’t New Mexico and San Diego State. The Tar Heels are playing too well right now. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this closer than many may think. Watch out for Tommy Amaker’s team with local products Syani Chambers of Hopkins and Jonah Travis of DeLaSalle.

– Iowa 7 v Davidson 10. Davidson is one of the country’s most efficient offensive teams. At times, Iowa has been a juggernaut scoring as well. This should be a fun game to watch with plenty of points. Davidson’s entrance to the Big Dance was exciting enough by itself.