Gosh, that was a butt-kicking, wasn't it? Where was that Connecticut team all year?
The thing to remember if you only tune in to college basketball for the Tournament is that Georgia Tech was a really good team. That's how well Connecticut played Monday night in the NCAA Championship Game, that the Huskies were able to make such a team look so terrible.
Connecticut won the game 82-73, but it was only that close because the Huskies went into slowdown mode about midway through the second half and let the Yellow Jackets rally from a 25-point deficit. But even though Georgia Tech got to within seven near the end, it never looked for a moment like Connecticut wouldn't win.
So there you go: Meaningless season. UConn was No. 1 before it started and No. 1 at the end, so why'd they bother playing? Except for most of the year Connecticut looked entirely beatable, and did lose six times, including a meaningless game in November to this same Georgia Tech team, which used the occasion to announce itself on the national stage.
For all the brilliance of its inside-outside combination of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, not to mention a sparkling supporting cast, UConn never really put it all together until the Tournament. The Huskies had a tendency to play soft, to look distracted, like all they had to do was toss their jerseys out there and they'd win, which was usually the case but not always. Okafor, such a dominant force on both ends, had a sore back all year, but the Huskies should have been better than they were anyway.
But boy, did they put it all together in the Tournament. The silliest thing I heard repeated ad nauseam over the last few days was that before its comeback win over Duke in the semifinal Saturday, Connecticut "hadn't been challenged" in the Tournament, winning four games by lopsided scores. OK, the Huskies got a gimme in the first round against Vermont, winning by 17. Then came DePaul, one of five teams plus Rosie Ruiz and Al Gore who claimed a share of the Conference USA title. The Blue Demons were a solid but not great team, and the margin was 17 again.
But that Vanderbilt team in the third round was coming off a come-from-behind win over North Carolina State and playing really well. UConn beat 'em by 18. Then came Alabama, fresh off of wins over 1-seed Stanford and defending champ Syracuse. Remember how Alabama, along with their cousins Alabama-Birmingham, had become the darlings of the Tournament's midsection? Remember how they were so dangerous with their speed and their hustle? How the Tide had a chance, an outside chance but a chance, to go way, way deep in the Tournament? UConn by 16.
It's not that Connecticut wasn't challenged, it's that the Huskies were beating people with baseball bats. Except for atrocious officiating that put Okafor in foul trouble and on the bench for half of the semifinal, they'd have clubbed Duke pretty good too.
Then they ran Georgia Tech, a team that had beaten Kansas and Oklahoma State even with its star, B.J. Elder, limping and ineffective, out of the gym.
Sports wisdom says you can't play below your potential during the season and then just turn it on for the playoffs, as though you've flipped a switch, but that's exactly what it looks like UConn did. For four months the Huskies were a talented but underachieving team, and they looked ripe for an early-round upset at worst, a loss in the crucible of the later rounds at best. Then for three weekends in March and April, they flipped that switch and became the team they were supposed to be.
Maybe it's foolish for future teams to try to emulate that strategy by coasting through the season and trying to catch fire at Tournament time, but it's nice to know that switch is there.
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Tim Brando wins the Salon Pool o' Experts [PERMALINK]
Broadcaster Tim Brando parlayed his fondness for the SEC and ACC into a victory in the second annual Salon Pool o' Experts, featuring the brackets of various national typists and chatterers who make their picks public, plus my son Buster, the coin-flippinest 1-year-old in America.
Brando had Georgia Tech going all the way, and also benefited from predicting Alabama's surprising run to the Elite 8. His bracket had three of the four semifinalists and both title-game teams, and he finished with 1,190 points, easily beating runner-up Tony Mejia of CBS.SportsLine.com, last year's champion, even though Mejia correctly picked UConn to win it all. Mejia had more points than in his winning effort last year, but not nearly enough.
The Sports Illustrated magazine bracket, which inspired the creation of the Pool with its irritating hubris, rode Connecticut to a third-place finish, just ahead of its own employee, Grant Wahl, the third and last participant who picked UConn to win, and John Salley of Fox Sports Net's "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period." Salley picked poorly after the first round, but got lucky when Georgia Tech went to the Championship Game. He'd picked his alma mater to win the Tournament.
Your Pool host finished a mediocre sixth out of 12. Last year I finished seventh out of 14, so clearly my improved work ethic paid off. Buster's coin, with some restrictions added this year to cut down on ridiculous upsets predicted -- he had East Tennessee State winning the trophy last year -- did a credible job. He nearly doubled his score from last year, but still finished last. If Duke had beaten Connecticut in the semifinal and won the title, hardly an unrealistic possibility, he'd have finished in the first division. There's always next year.
On the other hand, Buster's motivation may be lacking because he gets the Pool o' Experts Grand Prize -- dinner at my house -- every night already. In fact, my left foot is resting on some of it as I type this. But that prize now awaits Brando for his deft picking. Home cooking is neither guaranteed nor implied, but there's a place right around the corner that has good burgers.
The final standings, with point totals, based on 10 points for each correct pick in the first round, then 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 in subsequent rounds:
1. Tim Brando, Sporting News/CBS: 1,190
2. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com: 970
3. Sports Illustrated: 940
4. Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated: 930
4. John Salley, Fox Sports Net: 930
6. King Kaufman, Salon: 850
7. Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News: 740
8. Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated: 720
8. Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated/CBS: 720
10. NCAA Selection Committee: 700
11. Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated: 690
12. Buster, Coinflip Weekly: 520
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