Monday, January 29, 2007

:35 Second Shot Clock

Since we are all up-and-running again and what not, why don't we try to start a regular post that I'd like to do every Monday morning, but that we all know will last three, maybe four weeks, mysteriously dissapear for a couple of weeks, have a brief resurgence for a week or two, and then die forever a week before March Madness?

We'll call this little Monday morning segment "The :35 Second Shot Clock" for a couple of reasons: 1) it's gonna be all about college hoops, and that's how long its shot clock is and b) it is should be relatively short, but it will drag on much longer than it needs to, much like the college shot clock. (Really, does the damn thing need to be 35 seconds long? That's absurd; the NBA has it right, but I'll settle for even 30 seconds. If you are down 4 with 1:07 left, you know you are only getting the ball once. That just doesn't seem right to me.)

Since we're a little late to the party, let's start at the top: Who's the class of '07? Seems like there are two, maybe three choices here: North Carolina or Florida, and Ohio St. just because no one has any idea how good Greg Oden is going to be once The Dance starts.

UNC, at least to me, is the odds-on favorite to go home with the hardware in April. Yea, they are ridiculously loaded (witness the dismantling of Arizona without Brandan Wright). Yea, they are the deepest team in the country. Yea, they have a brilliant (yes, brilliant) coach. But the thing about the Heels that has to scare the hell out of every team in the country is its up-tempo transition game. No one in American runs like the Heels and it isn't even close.

Carolina's transition game is like a devastating rushing attack in the NFL. If your defense is a little suspect, or your stretch-the-field passing attack takes the occasional day off, or your offense is having trouble executing between the twenties, you know that grind it out rushing attack can bail you out. Just hand it off to your clock killing running back and let him run behind his mammoth offensive line, you'll own the time of possession and field position categories and cover up a few deficiencies. It makes the rest of your team look better.

This is what the Carolina transition game does. Even if UNC isn't shooting particularly well (this has happened, and will happen in The Tourney) or if the defense is getting exposes (no one is confusing Carolina with the Bulls or even Pitt for that matter) or their half-court sets are being well-defended, they always have the transition game to rely on. It is relentless, and it is available every single game.

As deep as they are, they can run all game, although it is much more effective with human blur Tywon Lawson pushing the ball, and it changes the way teams have to play. Teams can't send as many rebounders to the rim as they'd like; if they do, they risk easy 2-1's at the other end. Long jumpers, not high-percentage to begin with, come with long rebounds as consequences; those are death wishes disguised as open invitations to run. The less you execute on offense, the more you pay for it on defense. Even if you score, Carolina has it out of the net and past half court before you've finished your follow through. If there was a stat for "most layups made within 5 seconds of an opponent field goal" UNC would easily be the nation's leader.

Lawson is the reason this is all so effective. I loved Ed Cota back in the day (his fake behind-the-back passes for no reason at all always made me smile) and of course everybody loved Raymond, but Lawson - gulp - may be my favorite Tar Heel point guard. Ever. His speed is...well, really, really fast. He uses the behind the back dribble as a regular move, like a crossover, not just as a change of direction. I've never seen anyone get end to end faster; you can't make it through a game without sitting up in your seat and saying - out loud - "holy shit is he fast!" Now that his decision making and general understanding of the system has matured, he is one of the top five weapons in college basketball. I'm not even kidding.

Could I see Florida's experience getting them a tough, March Madness win? I guess (although I refuse to admit they are good; something about them rubs me the wrong way and that something is Joakim Noah). Could I see Greg Oden dominating a game at both ends for the upset? Sure. Kevin Durant handing in a virtuoso performance? Absolutely. But the point is, to beat Carolina, some team is going to have to play a brilliant game and get a monster effort from its best player. Carolina doesn't need to hand in their A game to win the National Title. That's the difference.

As of right now, who are the four No. 1 seeds? Seems fairly straightforward: UCLA, Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin. Those four seem to be the consensus top-four in the nation right now and I think anyone would be hard pressed to see another team sneak in there. Maybe Ohio State. Maybe.

That maybe all hinges on Greg Oden. He opened up the Michigan State game with seven straight points, all on unguardable baby hooks, from both the right and the left. Izzo had the absolute right strategy - make him make actual moves, limit his dunks and second chance points - and by the end, it nearly worked for the Spartans. Oden's physical ability is light years - light years - ahead of his actual skill, but he's playing with a bum right hand for God's sake. That's why he's the x-factor in the tournament: how good (read: healthy) can he be by March? If he plays the way he did in the first five minutes of the MSU game - hooks from either block over either shoulder, pinning shots all over the place - Ohio State is a very real title contender. If he's up and down, their chances decline considerably.

(The best line I've heard about Oden: "He looks like James Worthy right now...I mean he looks like James Worthy, the 50 year old man." I can't remember who said it - Tom Brennan? - but its the clubhouse leader right now. And you know how people refuse to believe he's 19 or whatever age he says he is? Why don't they believe it? I mean, why the hell would Oden lie about being 19? What would be the benefit of actually being 35 and playing in the NCAA? To waste years and years of your athletic career not being paid and going to classes? How does this make sense? This isn't like Danny Almonte, where being a few years older was actually worth it. If Oden was actually older and he actually is, it would be the dumbest single move in sports since the Texans said "Mario Williams."

That said, who would you take No. 1 next year, Oden or Durant?

(Quick aside: how pissed is Rick Barnes that he gets a talent like Durant to come and he doesn't have a title-worthy team around him? Imagine Durant a few years ago with PJ Tucker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, that Paulino dude who bombed threes and that huge white guy with really, really blond hair? I mean, I'm sure Barnes isn't mad, per se...but he really has to be frustrated with the timing, I think.)

I think Oden can be a Bill Russell-type and dominate both ends of the court. (Not win 11 title - shutup. Just that style of player.) He has a long way to go offensively - can he face up? his a mid-range J? does he have any actual moves? - but I think will be able to do it all eventually. and one scores on Ohio State in the paint. Ever. He gets everything, or he alters it, or guys are so conscious of him they don't even drive. He gets help side blocks and few times has someone scored directly on him. He's just a defensive terror.

Durant, on the other hand...I don't even know who to compare him to. A Dirk who can explode to the rim? KG with three point range (thank you, Simmons)? I think he's a 6'9" Ray Allen. Everything he does is so damn smooth, you don't even realize how impressive he is. It's effortless. A taller Tracy McGrady, maybe? I don't know. He is rail-thin though, although he'll bulk up.

One thing that is completely arbitrary: I can see Durant hitting game winners in the playoffs; I can't see Oden doing that. I don't know why, maybe its because Durant is already so polished and Oden isn't exactly the most suave public speaker (but, hey - that's why he's in school, damnit!). I really don't know why; chalk it up to an irrational gut feeling.

That said, I'd still take Oden. He has the potential to dominate at both ends. Few players today can make that claim. Kobe? Yao? Artest, maybe?

A few quick thoughts:

Speaking of the draft, Alondo Tucker reminds me of Dwyane Wade. Not their style, necessarily, but just the way they go nonchalantly about their business. They both have that same uber-confident, unfazed look in their eyes.

I caught a little of Stanford's upset of UCLA last night...could someone inform Stanford that they have a basketball team in the friggin' PAC 10 and that they aren't some I-AA school splitting court time 50/50 with the freakin' volleyball team? Their home court has more lines on it than a mirror at Tony Montana's house. It looks ridiculous. My lord, build the volleyball team a 7,000 seat gym, tuck it in some remote corner of campus, and have some self-respect. You upset the No. 1 team in the nation and you had to storm a court that looked like it belonged at the local YMCA. Apologize.You can't get Tiger to spring for a line-free court?

Virginia Tech is overrated. They beat a Duke team that isn't that good to begin with (and it was a revenge game to boot) and then played the game of their life against UNC (and if you think this is all a not-so-subtle attempt to make UNC look goo by comparison,'re correct).They have lost to Marshall, GW and Western Michigan for God's sake. They have one-and-done written all over them in the NCAA Tourney. Although I did love that guy putting his nuts right in Greg Paulus's face. Made my day.

That's alot to talk about - Who's the four No. 1 seeds? Oden or Durant? Name one reason UNC won't win the title?

Read the Rest After the Jump...