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Thursday, March 27, 2008

2008-09: The year of the Boilers?

I am thankful that my entire life has decided to go haywire this week when there is little to write about in regards to Purdue sports. The only real news is that softball continues to play well with the Big Ten season looming. Baseball has also gotten off the schneid with a five game winning streak and opens Big Ten play by hosting Northwestern this weekend. The Boilers have an advantageous Conference schedule by opening against three of the weakest teams in the conference. They also do not face Michigan, a team picked by many to be the conference’s first College World Series participant since 1984.

Though the baseball Boilers sport a 7-11 record so far, they have played very well in games against ranked opponents. Baylor is currently ranked 20th in the country and the Boilers played them to three one run games to start the season. Purdue also fared well against #18 Kentucky, who is currently 20-2, but ultimately couldn’t break through. Because of this, Purdue will likely need to qualify for and win the Big Ten Tournament to make their second NCAA tournament appearance ever. Purdue does sport the conference’s best team ERA, but they are dead last in batting average. I would love for Purdue baseball to be successful, but for now my attention turns to Miami. In just 6 days I’ll traveling south to see the #2 ranked Hurricanes play Clemson.

This trip will be a welcome relief after a week that has seen me get unexpectedly laid off, scramble to return to substitute teaching while looking for a new job, and a very close relative head into the hospital. Because of all this the publishing schedule here at Off the Tracks will be scaled back a bit, but I have a few things planned before football season gets going in August.

First off will be a 15 part retrospective chosen by you the readers on the 15 biggest wins of the Joe Tiller era. It is my tribute to Coach Tiller and what he has done for this program. Since he is just 2 wins away from passing Jack Mollenkopf as the winningest coach in school history it is the least I can do to recap some of his biggest moments.

I am also tentatively planning on heading to West Lafayette for the Spring Game on April 19th. Last year wasn’t incredibly entertaining, but there were a few big plays. Hopefully we will have enough healthy bodies for a full game rather than last year’s weird scrimmage style. I also hope to be working again full-time by then so I can afford my season ticket renewal.

After those articles I’ll once again be working on a team-by-team preview of our 12 opponents for the 2008 football season. Thanks to the Big Ten Bloggers’ network I have been able to cross-reference 8 of our 12 opponents fairly well. This year I have already lined up an information exchange and likely blog trade for the week of the game with one of the best-named blogs out there: Addicted to Quack. Addicted to Quack is, naturally, an Oregon blog. It was the winner of the 2007 college football Best Pac-10 blog award. The staff has also been incredibly nice. Since I am planning on heading to Autzen in 2009 they have already told me it will be an experience I won’t forget.

I am sure there will be a few baseball notes here and there, as well as coverage of any breaking stories like players robbing the Village Bottle Shoppe on River Road. Since Selwyn Lymon is no longer with the team and Kyle Williams is safely in jail I don’t anticipate many stories like those. For now I want to try and look forward to next season for the three marquee Purdue sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball.

2008 in football:

We haven’t exactly been that exciting since The Fumble. Even with the Danny Hope hiring a lackluster recruiting class has left most Purdue fans with a lukewarm feeling about the 2008 season. A tougher non-conference schedule and improved teams in conference have many wondering if we will even make a bowl. Most people are putting our hopes in two things: that Curtis painter goes out guns blazing and that the players rally around the “win for Tiller” battlecry in his final year. Even then many think 8-4 is a best-case scenario.

I think 2008 could be a good year for us. We’re not going to win the national championship, and contending for a Big Ten title would be a reach, but there are enough pieces there to at least have a decent season. What will be critical is finally beating a good team not named Central Michigan. There are several instances in the schedule where we can get a good win. I feel that the Oregon game, being early in the season, is a major contest. They have to travel across the country to play us. They are talented, but not as experienced as last year, so it could take them awhile to get going. Central Michigan will be a tough game as well. Traveling to Notre Dame is always difficult for us, but they still have a lot of question marks that make them far from a lock to beat us. How can you trust a team with a quarterback that CFN rates like this? So you’re telling me that this Clausen kid may not be good enough to be the starter over an incoming true freshman, but if he is he will be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Also, his offensive line, which has done next to nothing in two years, must suddenly become a wall. Does anyone not see how dumb that statement is?

Inside the conference we need to win at least four games. We cannot afford another sub-.500 conference season. There is enough there, however, to make it more than possible. Home games against Indiana and Minnesota have to be wins. They have never won in West Lafayette since Tiller came to town, and barring an absolute collapse we should be able to hold serve there. Three of our road games (Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan State) will be tough, but we certainly can get them. I refuse to talk Iowa up after what they have done lately, but we always struggle at Kinnick. Northwestern will be a sneaky good team. They appear to be primed for one of those 6 conference win seasons where five of them come in the, “How the hell did they pull that one off?” variety. Michigan State is an enigma without much experience, but a good coach. Beating Ohio State in Columbus would simply be the biggest shocker of Tiller’s career.

That leaves two home games against Michigan and Penn State. Both will have brand new quarterbacks. Michigan appears to be coming apart at the seams, so this will be our best chance to beat them since 2000. Penn State will be tough, but if we’re playing well at the time we can certainly get a win. We need to at least split these two games for a chance at a good season. I still think the key for the entire year lies in the non-conference portion. 4-0 is a realistic goal, and if we do reach it we will show that it is a much stronger 4-0 than the past few years. It also means that a 9-10 win season is not impossible, but I am expecting 8-4.

2008-09 in women’s basketball:

I expect nothing short of a return to national prominence for the lady Boilers as they get back two of their best players plus a solid recruiting class. The ladies played very hard late in the season, and it was simply a lack of depth and talent that finally toppled them against Tennessee. The return of Wysdom-Hilton and Jodi Howell could easily mean a return to the Final Four. At the very least they will be one of the top teams in the Big Ten. We already know we own the Big Ten Tournament, so a return to the NCAA Tournament is almost a given barring more injuries. Even after this season I wouldn’t count that out with injuries.

2008-09 in men’s basketball:

What can logically be the next step for these guys? So much is expected of them I am hoping that there is not a step back. One would think the next logical step is A Big Ten championship and at least two NCAA Tournament wins. The Final Four is certainly not out of reach, especially if Calasan and Johnson develop into better post players in the offseason. Because of this I pose the following question to you the reader: Would not winning the Big Ten next season be a disappointment?

It is hard to judge how well we will do nationally since the schedule hasn’t even been released yet. Undoubtedly we will be ranked in the preseason. We know we get a home game in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. Since we finished this season so well it will likely come against an ACC team that did well. We already played Clemson this year, so I could see us potentially hosting Duke, North Carolina, or Miami. We will also be playing in another pre-season tournament like the NIT, so there is decent potential for good games there. The rest is very up in the air at the moment.

I like that we are making a commitment to get physically stronger in all areas. Keaton Grant is facing an offseason knees surgery, and someone needs to make a JPC donation so Chris Kramer can have a personal masseuse. Lewis Jackson is being touted as the point guard we desperately need, but he will still be a freshman. He would have to show uncanny development to be great right away. JuJuan Johnson has shown signs he can be the dominant big man we need. I am really excited to see him play if he can add 25-30 pounds.

My main concern is wondering how the minutes will be doled out. Assuming Jackson can play well right away, we could have as many as nine potential starters. Obviously we can’t play all these guys at the same time. This past season minutes were divided up very well and for the most part everyone was happy. We will need that again, especially if Chris Reid develops into a guy we can use in 3-5 minutes of spot duty in the paint. Look for Bobby Riddell to be a situational sharpshooter for us as well. He’s the most experienced player of the Bench Mafia and maybe the entire team. If he and Reid can both contribute even a little we will be one of the deepest teams in the country.

Inside the conference I am wondering who will be our main competition. Expect Wisconsin and Michigan State to be tough because, well, they are always tough. Ohio State continues to bring in tons of talent, while Minnesota could be a surprise team in year two of Tubby-time. Indiana will almost certainly take a step back unless Gordon decides to delay his millions. They may have more of a dropoff if the NCAA drops the hammer on them. Iowa and Michigan will be better, but not title contenders. Penn State is promising and could easily be an irritant to everyone. Illinois will likely be middle of the pack, while Northwestern will be Northwestern.

On all fronts it looks like next season could be a big year, with football bringing up the rear. Here are my three goals for each of the three teams:

Football:
1. Win the bucket back at any cost.
2. Go 4-0 in the non-conference season
3. Go at least .500 in an improved Big Ten


Women’s basketball:
1. Stay healthy all season
2. Win the Big Ten
3. Reach the Final Four


Men’s basketball:
1. Keep everyone happy with minutes and keep promoting the team atmosphere
2. Win the Big Ten
3. Reach the Sweet 16.


Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments section.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bittersweet Ending

I apologize for the lateness in my game thoughts from the Xavier game. Late Sunday afternoon I was informed I would not be returning to my job with the NCAA on Monday morning. Since I am headed to Florida in little more than a week, I was forced to scramble to find some work until we left. That means it is back to substitute teaching until my temp agency can find me another position after I get back. It also doesn’t help that I had no indication whatsoever that my time was going to be ending until about 6pm Sunday evening. Since this was Easter Sunday, you can imagine what kind of mood I was in as I hustled to find replacement work.

A prior commitment for Saturday night meant that I could only watch about the first five minutes of the game. I set my VCR and headed to dinner and a concert with the game on the radio. I intended to save the actual game for once the concert was over, but I couldn’t help myself from looking at the score on my phone as the second half progressed. In short, Xavier is a very good team and their experience paid off in the end. They had an answer for every run, and were able to counter every move. When we started by scoring the first nine points they didn’t fold. We knew they wouldn’t after the resolve they showed against Georgia on Thursday. When we tied it on an E’Twaun Moore floater just before halftime, Drew Lavender, the Boilermaker killer, hit an absolutely huge 3-pointer just before the buzzer. Thank God we never have to see him again after the damage he has done. Though the last time he hurt us was much earlier in the season, it effectively started the end for us. Saturday’s triple did the exact same thing.

Even when we made a big run to take the lead with little more than five minutes left Xavier’s experience came into play. As a veteran team they knew what to do. While they weren’t bigger than us, they were stronger than us. While we were equal in talent, they held a larger edge in experience. They knew what they needed to do. They coerced a foul-prone team into fouling them, and they did what veteran teams do by getting to the free throw line and hitting their free throws. Bob Kravitz said it best Sunday morning, as he continued his startling change in allegiance from IU to Purdue. He stated that there was a huge lesson for these Boilers to learn in this game. If we learn it, we will win these types of games next year instead of lose them.

Positives from the Xavier game:

Tarrance Crump -- It is not often that I give this credit to a player, but Tarrance Crump played his balls off in this NCAA Tournament. Tarance only scored in double figures for 6 of 34 games this season, but two of those came in our two NCAA Tournament games. T-Crump is graduating in May with a great GPA and appears well on his way to a good life away from basketball. The kid left everything he had on the floor in this tournament with 22 points, 6 of 13 shooting from the field, 10 of 11 from the line, 3 dimes, and 3 of just 39 rebounds on the season. The pessimist would ask where this was all year, but the optimist’s view would thank him for throwing everything on the floor when it mattered most. That is the stance I am taking, at least.

Free throw shooting – We did our part when sent to the line. Keaton Grant was especially strong here. Once he comes back fully healthy next season he should be even better. I don’t think we will ever the extent as to how bad he was hurt this year, but it was pretty bad at the end. He did a good job of getting to the line Saturday night, as did Crump. They understood we needed to attack their defense. This did pay off for us.

Rebounding – Any game in which this crew wins the rebounding game is a good game. Much was made about how Xavier was stronger in the paint. Even in that, we won the battle of the boards. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into points on the board. Ultimately that is what cost us the game. Considering that Calasan and Johnson, our only two real post players, had three rebounds between them it is even more astonishing that we won the battle of the boards.

A hot start – For the second game in a row we got off to the best start possible. That is what you want to do in tournament play, and I certainly cannot fault us for doing that when it mattered most. Unfortunately, we ran into a team that was able to handle that hot start. Baylor did not have much tournament experience and folded under the pressure. Xavier was much more experience and they even looked unconcerned early on.

Negatives from the Xavier game:

Fouls – We gave up four plus one scenarios. In my book that is four too many. The guy was going to hit the shot anyway, so just give it up without the benefit of the foul. WE also put them on the line 33 times. That was one of the things we absolutely could not afford to do going into the game. If we’re going to take our team to the next level we must learn to defend without committing dumb fouls. This can eliminate 10-15 chances to score per game and greatly increase our own possessions.

Field goal shooting – We hit 39% from the field, they hit 54%. For two teams that were mirror images of each other before the game and extremely close in every statistical category during the game that is quite a glaring number. Xavier hit the shots they needed to when they needed to. Aside from a hot start and big run near the end we did not. It should also be noted we shot 21 3-pointers to their 12. We have come to rely on the 3-point shot too much this year when we can accomplish something near the basket. Speaking of which…

JuJuan Johnson and Nemanja Calsan – Take the ball to the rack, guys! Do you not realize I will kill to be your size and able to drive to the hole?We had six points from our interior players and they rarely asserted themselves in a game where they could have made a difference. This is where this team can go from very good to great. If these two can because the post players I knowt hey can be we will be unstoppable next year. They just need to gain confidence. I thought JuJuan had learned it some during the Baylor game but he stepped back here. If they can get bigger in the weight room other teams will have even more trouble with us.

Assists – This has been a strength all season long, but only nine dimes were dropped in the deciding game of the season. This tells me we abandoned the team concept we had when it mattered most. We had too many guys trying to take it themselves, and even then the shots weren’t falling. Maybe we did end up hitting a wall and I was unaware.

Final Thoughts:

We finished 25-9 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. On the one hand, this is good because many people thought we would struggle to make the tournament. We now have the longest active streak of first round wins, but that is something that could still be in play even if we had barely made the tournament. While we exceeded expectations, we have raised the bar for ourselves that anything less than a sweet 16 appearance and run towards a Big Ten title would be a disappointment. We will be ranked going into next season, and will be hunted by the rest of the country.

This season feels disappointing right now because we finished one game short of each of those goals this year. We were one game short of winning the Big Ten, and one game short of the sweet 16. They felt like realistic goals since the second Wisconsin win, so it is a tad disappointing to not get one of them. Perhaps my perspective will change in the next few days, but I am known to be an exacting person.

I am proud of this team though. There is a ton of excitement for the future, and we have several months to improve an already good product. We need to get bigger at every position. Our incoming freshmen, especially point guard Lewis Jackson, look to be solid compliments to this team. Calasan and Johnson will be bigger and savvier in the paint as well. Some have said we need to recruit a big man. JuJuan Johnson showed me in round one he can be that player. We will be back, and it is scary to think of us as an even better team.

Friday, March 21, 2008

NCAA Tournament Round 2: Xavier Musketeers

Due the close proximity to Cincinnati we have played the Musketeers several times. We own a 9-3 record all-time against them, and we have played five times in the last 11 years alone. Tomorrow's matchup will be quite interesting as they are nearly as balanced as we are in terms of scoring. They are a team that does not feature much size, but they are a very disciplined team when it comes to defense. The more that I look at Xavier, the more I see them as a near mirror image of our own team.

Though we lead the overall series with the Musketeers, we come in having lost the last two games. During Coach Painter's first season we had a thoroughly forgettable loss in the Boilermaker Blockbuster 74-55 at Conseco Fieldhouse. We also lost the back end of a home-and-home series 74-59 in the 2002-03 season when the Musketeers were ranked 16th. Our last win came the previous season in a mild upset when we won 70-66 at Mackey Arena. I remember going to that game, as it was my senior year at Purdue. The Musketeers had a sure first-round NBA draft pick in David West, but we played quite a game in knocking them off 70-66. As dismal as that season was, it was probably the best home win of the year. In what surely has to be a typo of some kind, John Allison actually played like a live basketball center with 20 points and 11 rebounds to spark the win. If John Allison can have that type of game against an NBA post player I suppose anything is possible.

Xavier so far:

It is hard to consider Xavier a mid-major. The Atlantic 10 has had a long reputation as a multiple-bid conference. The Musketeers themselves are making their 19th tournament appearance. 18 of those appearances have come in the past 25 years, so they are regularly in the bracket. Their best showing in that time came in 2004 when they made a run to the elite 8 as a 7 seed before falling to Duke 66-63. They beat some very solid teams that year, as Louisville, Mississippi State, and Texas all fell to them along the way. Just last season they had Ohio State beat before Ron Lewis nailed a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime. Because of that loss, Xavier is very determined to get through the second round this year.

Xavier has already won a school record 28 games on the season. They also have some very impressive wins both in and out of conference. Outside the conference Xavier had wins over NCAA tournament teams in Coppin State, Kent State, Indiana, Belmont, and Kansas State. They also played some very good teams like Tennessee, Arizona State, and Creighton. They weren't afraid to step up in weight class with games against the likes of Virginia from the ACC and Auburn from the SEC. Once inside the conference they struggled only against Temple and St. Joseph's, both of whom made this tournament. All told, they have a 6-4 record against NCAA teams this year. Their only two losses to non-NCAA teams came against Arizona State, who was possibly the team bounced out by Georgia's run, and Miami (OH).

What concerns me is that Xavier has played very well against this stiff competition. They didn't just beat Kansas State, they blew them out 103-77. They pounded Indiana by 15 back when Indiana was still playing as a team that looked like it was going somewhere. Belmont, who was seconds away from upsetting Duke last night, got blasted by Xavier 90-49. These guys come to play every night, and only the Arizona State loss and the Temple loss were games that saw them get beat by more than 10 points. Against Georgia yesterday they played a very impressive second half after an ugly first half found them down 9.

Who is dangerous for the Musketeers:

Few teams are as balanced in scoring as Xavier. We have exhibited good balance this year and yesterday was the best example of that. Xavier shows it even more as five players average in double figures while a sixth, Stanley Burrell, is just below that at 9.8 per game. Josh Duncan is the leading scorer at 11.9 per game. Derrick Brown (11.0 ppg), Drew Lavender (10.8 ppg), C.J. Anderson (10.5 ppg), and B.J. Raymond (10.2 ppg) round out what is essentially a six man rotation. Jason Love is the seventh man, as he has played in every game so far and contributes about six points per game in 18 minutes. Adrion Graves and Dante Jackson can be expected to play spot duty, but they only combine to contribute four points per game. All told Xavier is averaging 75 points per game, so they aren't filling it up quite as well as Baylor.

Though we haven't played Xavier since the 2005 season, we are familiar with a few of their players. Duncan had six points as a sophomore in the Boilermaker Blockbuster game, while Burrell had 16. Raymond even played sparingly in the end. Perhaps the player that Purdue fans remember most is one that wasn't even in a Xavier uniform when he played us. As a freshman way back in the 2003-04 season Lavender, then at Oklahoma, scored 14 points and hit the game-winning shot as the Sooners beat the Boilers in Norman. The loss ended a 6-0 start that saw victories over Clemson, Seton Hall, and Duke. It also was the first in a series of frustrating close losses that saw Purdue tumble from potential top 4 seed to the NIT by season's end. All told we lost seven games that season by three points or less. We have Lavender to blame for starting that trend in basketball, since we were having so much fun with one possession losses in football at the time.

Lavender runs the show from the point, but Xavier really excels on the defensive end of the floor as well. Burrell is known as a defensive stopper equal in esteem to our own Secretary of Defense Chris Kramer. As a team Xavier forces 5.6 steals per game. Burrell has the most steals on the team and averages at least one a game. As a team Xavier has not given up a ton of points in games this year. They generally hold their opponents under 70 points and force them into bad shots. Doesn't this sound familiar? They are not going to run as much as Baylor did, and they are perfectly fine with settling in to a defensive slugfest. I am encouraged by the fact that we won yesterday by playing a completely different style, but with no one player to focus on we will need to continue playing team defense.

One area that we must continue to focus on is our own fouls. Xavier had a HUGE advantage over Georgia yesterday from the foul line. Duncan led the charge by getting to the line 14 times, hitting 11 shots. All told Xavier shot 33 free throws to Georgia's five. Xavier took advantage by hitting 27 of those attempts, so we must keep them off the line. They weren't particularly strong on the offensive glass, but that didn't matter with so many free throws. As long as the game is called evenly and we keep them from getting to the line so much we have a great chance. This has not been our strength this year, however. This is where Xavier's experience comes into play. They have been here through the battles while we have not. Of course, we have played like a very experienced team most of the year, so that may not matter.

What not to fear from Xavier:

The thing I am most encouraged about from yesterday is the play of JuJuan Johnson in the interior. Baylor did not have much size, but Xavier has even less. Duncan is 6'9" 238 as a player in the post. Brown goes 6'8" 225, but that is really it as far as an interior presence. Love comes off the bench at 6'9", but there is not an overwhelming amount of size that we must fear. The rebounding totals show this as they only average 36 rebounds per game as a team. We only average about 33, but we have been doing much better after some pretty bad efforts earlier in the year. They only had 28 boards against Georgia.

Xavier is not going to be afraid of us after playing a very difficult non-conference schedule and rolling through the Atlantic 10, but they have faded just a little after a strong beginning. They also had an 11 game winning streak in conference play like us, but lost two of their final five games. Both of losses came to St. Joseph's, a team fighting to get into the NCAA tournament off the bubble. They have still won 28 games, and when a team does that they don't have a lot of weaknesses. They are prone to turning the ball over, doing so 13 times a game. As much as Burrell is known for his defense, he turns the ball over more than any other player on Xavier's roster.

General Outlook:

If we play like we did yesterday we will win. Yesterday we showed a versatility that stunned even the fans that have followed this team all season long. We are certainly capable of beating Xavier at its own game, but we have to be able to hit our shots to do so. Since the Musketeers are so limited in the post I would like to see us utilize Calasan and Johnson at the same time and attack their defense. If JuJuan is going to play with confidence I say we freaking use it!

We will need to take care of the ball against their defense. We can certainly cause turnovers, as it is one area where they are prone. They don't have one go to guy that we need to stick Kramer on, so likely he will take the hot hand. We can expect Burrell to do the same in kind to us. Both teams will play a team-oriented style of defense, so it may come down to whoever has a hot scorer. They have an equal number of options to us in that department, so it is pretty much a wash. We'll need to watch Lavender's ability to penetrate as well.

One area that I am encouraged to have an advantage in is depth. We have a solid nine man rotation and one of that nine did nothing yesterday. Marcus Green will not have another game like that, but we can't exactly mark down 11 points from Tarrance Crump again either. They will play nine as well most likely, but our nine plays more and contributes more than their nine. We also have picked things up well when one of our big guns have struggled. Hummel was in foul trouble yesterday in the first half, but we picked it up for him.

I honestly expect a very close game. We're so similar to each other that it is tough to judge where a true advantage for either team can come from. We are the team that is coming in after scoring 90 points though, and that was the highest total of anyone on the first day of the tournament. We shared the ball well yesterday. We must continue to do so. We also must stay out of foul trouble. We will fall behind in a hurry if we keep sending this team to the line. As long as the game is called even and we don't allow a huge free throw discrepancy we will be fine. We need to keep hitting our own free throws as well.

We played a very focused game yesterday. Doing so again will mean another week of games. Purdue 65, Xavier 64

Thursday, March 20, 2008

And now, for something completely different…

After today’s events, I must conclude I don’t know nearly as much about basketball as originally thought. While taking it easy during the most relaxing afternoon in the history of work I watched my Boilers explode for 90 points. We thoroughly dominated a team at its own game. I was concerned in the opening minutes when we appeared content to run with Baylor. Instead of dictating the tempo as we have done for most of the past two seasons we opened things up. We challenged Baylor to beat us with their style of play. Instead of forcing Baylor to grind out possessions we let them shoot and drive to the basket. Instead of being patient on the offensive end we attacked their defense. This resulted in JuJuan Johnson playing one of the best halves of his career and allowed us to go inside-out for the first time in awhile. We held a team to 40% from the field while hitting almost 50% of our own shots. That is an easy recipe for a win with the talent we have.

Baylor led 11-10 with about 15 minutes left in the first half. Scott Martin then hit a big 3-pointer To give us the lead for good. From that point on we slowly pushed the lead out to 10. Once it got there at 28-18 on another three by E’Twaun, we never let it get below 10. This three came around the 9 minute mark of the first half. Therefore, for the next 29 minutes of game play we kept a high-scoring team to at least a 10-point distance. If I were Xavier, I would be very, very concerned about this fact because they play a very similar style to Baylor.

Positives from the Baylor game:

Scoring Balance – We put five guys in double figures and three more had at least 8 points. You’re not going to find much better balance than that from any NCAA Tournament team. Conversely, Baylor, who thrived on balance throughout the season, had seven guys score, but it wasn’t nearly as evenly spread around. Jerrells had an all-around good game, but 23 of his 27 came it he second half while we already had a big lead. We seemed to find a different weapon down the floor every time. We even built a lead while Hummel, our most versatile player, didn’t score in the first half.

JuJuan Johnson – I have to give a special nod to JuJuan, who had and OUTSTANDING first half. You could almost see the light go on for him at the offensive end of the floor, and his dunk in traffic was really freakin’ sweat. If the light went on for him finally I hope he continues to play with the confidence he showed. We will be incredibly good if he can start to dominate the low post. With Lewis Jackson coming in as a talented point guard next year all the pieces are coming together. If JJ can get it going in this tournament though, the run could happen this year.

Tarrance Crump – As good as JJ was in the first half, I felt Crump played just as solid of a game in the second half. When you score 90 points it is the result of one of two things. Either your stars went off, or you got good balance and unexpected offense from players that don’t normally score a lot. In JJ and Tarrance’s case, it was the latter. Tarrance dropped three dimes in addition to his 11 points. He even took care of the ball, relatively speaking. He played like a senior not ready to hang it up yet.

Free Throw shooting – With such a large lead it didn’t become an issue, but I was very pleased at how well this group hit its free throws in its first ever tournament game. The officials didn’t call a particularly close game, but we still got to the line almost as many times as Baylor did. We also didn’t let fouls become an issue. That was a concern before the game, but not as the game progressed.

Rebounding – This was one of our best rebounding efforts of the season. Since we won’t face a dominant big man in round two it is doubly encouraging to out-rebound a team in round one. JuJuan was especially effective here, pulling down eight of our rebounds. E’Twaun also crashed the boards for eight boards. Each team had 15 offensive rebounds, but we did not let second chance points become an issue. Baylor was content to shoot all game long. We were ready to rebound.

A Fast Start – This is an area we have been lacking in all season long. In many games we have had to play catch up. This was one of our better first half efforts on the season, preventing that need to play from behind. Not only did we hit on all cylinders offensively, we played pretty good defense as well. Baylor wasn’t hitting at all. We kept them from getting in a grove from 3-point land. They shot worse than their season average both from long range and from the field as a whole. By the time they started to hit shots we were up 20 and kept it there for most of the second half.

Killing runs – It wasn’t so much our balance, but the fact that we were able to hit a big shot at every juncture when it looked like Baylor was going to fight back. In the second half we controlled the game through a combination of tempo and big shots. It’s almost like we were toying with them. We played slow when we wanted to play slow to stop a run. We played fast when we needed a quick basket. As a fan, those games are incredibly fun to watch.

Negatives from the Baylor game:

Sloppy play – I don’t know if it was tourney nerves or what, but we need to cut down on our turnovers because a team like Xavier will make us pay more. It seemed like we played especially sloppy in the second half. Baylor did its part by never mounting a serious charge though. 13 turnovers is a bit much for us, especially when we only caused 11. Nine of those 13 turnovers came from steals, many from bad passes in traffic. There were one or two passes that got stolen I must count as a positive though. They came because we had a guy in position for an easy basket underneath had we been able to complete the pass. It may have just been that Baylor’s quickness made a difference on those plays.

Not causing turnovers – I must have combed the box score for five minutes looking for another negative. The truth is that we played very well in this game. We didn’t cause our requisite turnovers, but we didn’t really need to when we controlled a tournament game for nearly 30 of 40 minutes. To beat Xavier and make a deep run we will need to cause more turnovers. That can come though, now that we have our feet wet in tournament play. I guess one final negative would be the announcers who kept trying to will Baylor back into the game, but can you blame them? Of course they wanted an exciting game.

Up Next:

Obviously we need to concentrate on beating Xavier, but since I am not playing I am allowed to look ahead. I am thrilled to death that Duke just barely survived against Belmont as I write this. Justin Hare came very close to hitting a shot that would have been replayed for decades It would have also completely flayed open our half of the West bracket. Duke is vulnerable, and I feel that if we were to play them in round 3 we would give them one hell of a game. This entry is delayed simply because Belmont made me move from the computer chair to the couch for the final minutes. One final thought on the round of 16, for what it is worth: Only tomorrow’s Birmingham games allow a staff to scout a sweet 16 opponent without leaving the building. That’s just something to think about.

That is in the distance though. Up next is Xavier, and they are naturally a very good team. We have played the Musketeers recently. I remember seeing David West and company destroy us my senior year in a game at Mackey Arena. I think we also lost a return game in Cincinnati the next season. I also remember Drew Lavender hitting a lay-up to beat us during the 2003-04 season at Oklahoma. That loss was the first in a series of frustrating losses carrying over from football during a rough time to be a Purdue fan. I want some personal revenge against just him because of that. They are one of just two top four seeds in this tournament that is not from a BCS conference, so they have certainly earned their place in the field.

Consider this: We are a better team than last year. I think many of our own fans would agree with that. I think you would also agree that Xavier is not as good as Florida was last year. We gave the Gators everything they wanted for 40 minutes. Many of their players even said it was the toughest game they played in their quest to repeat. The more I think about that game, the more I realize that we barely hung on with ruthless defense, an inside-out game with Landry, and by hitting big shot after big shot. I didn’t think we had any business being on the floor with the now two-time champs, but we gave them a game that made me the most proud I have ever been as a Purdue fan in a loss.

The gap between the two teams this Saturday is not nearly as wide. The way we played today makes me think that we are a very difficult matchup the first time you see us. Only twice in 10 tries did we lose a Big Ten game the first time a team saw us. Even then I still take the Michigan State game with a caveat, as I think it could have been different had Hummel played. We’re a tough team to play the first time around. Tell me who Xavier prepares for after the balance we showed today?

Tomorrow I will go more in depth with my preview of Xavier. We will have to play well in order to beat the Musketeers, but I do think we match up better with them than we did with Baylor. For now, I am going to bask in the glow of watching even more basketball games tonight. My team has already won, and I still have 20 games to watch in the next 24 hours. These four days are my favorite four days of the year. We have now won 10 straight first round NCAA Tournament games dating back to 1993. We’re not the greatest second round team out there, but we’re still alive. After tomorrow, only 32 teams can say that. The most important thing at this time of year is to still be alive.

Baylor game open thread

One of the joys of working for the NCAA is that watching the opening rounds of the tournament is not banned, but encouraged. I am being forced by my employer today to get off the phones from answering dumb questions, herded into the break room with a plasma TV and DirecTV, and forced to eat pizza and watch basketball. It is a hard life, but these are the sacrifices I must make for my readers here at Off the Tracks. That is why I am opening up the forums today to see if I can break my comments record of 12 on one article. That record was set on the infamous Notre Dame 1-7 or 0-8 prediction for their start to the 2007 football season, and most of it came in the form of angry Notre Dame fans who thought I barely had the ability to walk upright, let alone write about football. Hopefully if we reach 12 or more comments on this entry they will be generally more positive. I am also planning a more in depth wrap-up of the game tonight while I watch even more basketball at home with the benefit of a fine crafted Colorado Ale. If I could just be at the actual restaurant in Breckenridge while watching the game with a buffalo burger life would be perfect.

So during this afternoon's game feel free to stop by and comment as the game goes along. I will be right here with March Madness On Demand up and running as the Boilers take on the Bears in round one of the tournament. I'll try to comment along with everyone as the game goes on. It's time to Boiler Up and carry Purdue into round 2! As of now, Off the Tracks is officially turned over to you, the readers that make this great. Comment moderation is also turned off, so it will be real-time commenting today.

Quick notes:

  • Lake the Posts is taking this blogging thing one step further. That fine Northwestern education is paying off as they are stepping forward with original video content in an interview with Gary Barnett. Lake the Posts has long been one of the finest blogs in our distinguished little network, so I offer them this tip of the cap for another job well done.
  • Baylorfans.com has picked up on the preview of the round 1 game, and yea it was good! One of the posters is now even immortalized in the "What people are saying about Off the Tracks" section on the right. The Bears have some quality, classy fans and they are indeed a worthy foe in round 1.
  • Today's final item is one of nervous anticipation. Yesterday I applied to be the Purdue representative over at SB Nation. They do not have a Purdue blog at the moment, but our friends over at Black Heart Gold Pants, Around the Oval, Maize and Brew, and Black Shoe Diaries have already received the honor of being linked. Being accepted would be another huge step forward for this small labor of love.
  • BTFU!!!!!!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

NCAA Tournament Round 1: Baylor Bears

First off, a quick programming note: We are now officially live at offthetracks.org. All previous bookmarks will re-direct to the new site. All sign-ins for comments should be the same as it was on blogger. Nothing should really change on your end, but it is still an exciting time as we have finally gone live at the new address.

What is also exciting is that I finally have a new opponent to preview. It's nice to have some variety after covering the same teams for the last two and a half months. We're just two days away from the opening tip of the NCAA's. It is looking more and more like Purdue will take the role of favored team in its first round game for the first time since 2000. That season we were also a 6 seed in the West, opening against Dayton. We managed to escape with a 1-point victory that also propelled us to wins over 3 seed Oklahoma and 10 seed Gonzaga. Wisconsin ended our Final Four bid in the regional final, which was doubly depressing since I was a sophomore at Purdue that year and the Final Four was down the road in Indianapolis. In the "what might have been" category we had played every team in that Final Four (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina), beating three of them at least once in the process. We had knocked off Florida out in Maui before losing to the Tar Heels in a close championship game.

Of all the schools in the Big Ten it appears that Wisconsin has been the bane of our existence since the beginning of the decade. Considering the pain they have caused us in both football and basketball and the way they have prevented our rise nationally, we should be pretty pissed off at them. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about them until the National Championship game. It's unlikely we are going to get that far, but how vindicating would it be to turn the tables on them and deny them a National Championship by beating them a third time after all they have done to us? For now, however, let's get back to the opponent at hand in the Baylor Bears.

Baylor so far:

Baylor has obviously had a pretty good season, otherwise they wouldn't be in the NCAA Tournament. They even have a blog, making them a dangerous foe in the world of fandom. They come in with a 21-10 overall record and 9-7 record in Big 12 play. They have stumbled down the stretch, including a bad double overtime loss to last place Colorado in the Big 12 tournament. They are making their first NCAA appearance since 1988. It makes me old to think that most of their current roster was in diapers the last time Baylor played in the tournament, if they were even born yet. In an interesting twist they were a first round loser to Memphis by a 75-60 score that year. We defeated the Tigers that year in round 2, 100-73, meaning a second round matchup that season was possible. The Bears do have a bit of history in the tournament by appearing in the 1948 and 1950 Final Fours, but this marks just their fifth NCAA tournament appearance, and only second since 1950. It should also be noted that the 1946, 1948, and 1950 appearances came when only 8 teams played in the tournament.

For all the good work that coach Painter has done, I am more impressed with what Scott Drew has done at Baylor. Drew is in his 5th season, and to say he took over a team in disarray is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a little damp. Coach Painter merely inherited a team that lacked talent recruited by a legend on the downside of his career. Drew took over a program that was in the midst of a full-fledged scandal of epic proportions. This scandal saw a player murdered by a teammate, the coach asking players to lie about said murder, drug use, recruiting violations, lying to investigators, and basically everything that makes any other NCAA scandal look like a quilting ring. This resulted in the Bears facing the harshest penalty in NCAA basketball history when they were not allowed to play any non-conference games for the 2005-06 season.

We recently played the Bears in the midst of that scandal. During Drew's first season (2003-04) while the Bears were being investigated we defeated them in Waco 76-65. The very next year, in coach Keady's final season we suffered maybe the worst home defeat of his illustrious career when a team of walk-ons and scrubs came into Mackey Arena and beat the Boilers 73-72 on Brandon McKnight's completely stupid foul in the final five seconds with the score tied. I was actually at that game, and I could not believe how dumb McKnight's play was. It's like he couldn't see one of the 11 scoreboards and see the score was indeed tied, and he was a senior point guard! Still, credit needs to be given to a Baylor team for fighting through that game when they were essentially playing only for pride.

Both teams have come a long way in that time. From Baylor's current season we have plenty of reasons to be nervous about this game. We share a pair of common opponents in Iowa State and Missouri, both of whom the Bears beat. The Bears did have the luxury of playing both at home while Purdue played both away from Mackey Arena. We are also a much different team now than when we lost to the Tigers and Cyclones. Most people would pick Purdue in a rematch. The Bears gained 15 of their 21 wins in the season's first 17 games and had some impressive wins over Notre Dame, Winthrop (an NCAA Tournament team), and at South Carolina. Since winning an epic 5 overtime game at Texas A&M in January Baylor has gone just 5-8. They lost to some very good teams in that span like Kansas and Texas (twice), but the loss to Colorado was pretty bad. Baylor is here because they had a good non-conference season and beat the bubble teams in its own conference. Against NCAA teams from its own conference Baylor went 2-6, and 5-8 overall. We were 4-3 against NCAA teams this season, so they are probably more tested than us

Who is dangerous for the Bears:

I think the closest opponent on our own schedule to Baylor in terms of style of play is Missouri. The Bears love to get up and down the court and they are certainly capable of scoring. They have four players averaging more than 12 points per game, and two more that throw in more than 8 per game. The Bears get more than 71 points per game from their top six players alone. Junior guard Curtis Jerrells is the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game. He is helped by freshman guard LaceDarius Dunn (13.5 ppg), junior forward Kevin Rogers (12.4 points, 8.6 rebounds), and junior guard Henry Dugat (12.1 ppg). Sophomore guard Tweety Carter has a great name and averages 9.6 per game. Aaron Bruce rounds out the scoring as a fifth guard at 8.7 points per game, and he is the one player who might be familiar to Purdue fans. He was a much bigger cog in the Bear offense as a freshman in 2004-05, averaging 18.2 per game. In the infamous Brandon McKnight game he had 17 points, including the game winning free throw as a result of McKnight's gaffe.

Personally, I think you have to feel good for a guy like Bruce. He has stuck around this program, seen his playing time diminish, and even made it through the "half death penalty" season of his sophomore year. This entire program has benefitted from leaders like him. It is a testament to their character that they are now in the NCAA Tournament just two years removed from a season where they were only allowed to play conference games.

While those six players round out the main rotation, Josh Lomers and Mark Shepherd come in to play some spot duty and offer the others a break. Mamadou Diene and Delbert Simpson will also likely see some minutes. Diene and Lomers are both 7-footers that could present some match-up problems with their size, but combined they only average about 7 points and 5 rebounds per game. This means there is not too much of an inside game. Baylor is a guard-heavy lineup, and as a result they rely heavily on their 3-point shooting. All five of the main guards have attempted over 110 3-pointers each this season, with each hitting at least 33% from long range. Only Rogers of the main six players is an inside presence, but he still shoots about 50% from the field. At 6'9" and 240 he could be a problem for Calasan and Johnson in the paint.

Baylor is also a team we must be wary about fouling. We have committed way too many fouls this season. While it can be a plus against a team like Illinois that struggles from the line, it is a big minus against Baylor. The Bears hit nearly 75% of their free throws as a team, and all six of their main players are at or above that 75% mark. This is a team that loves to shoot and shoots the ball very well from wherever they are on the floor. As a team they are 38% from 3-point land, and they shoot more than 22 of those per game. One in every three shots they throw up is a triple, so we must have a better defensive performance than against Illinois.

What not to fear from Baylor:

As much as Baylor loves to shoot, their defense is not nearly as frustrating as Missouri's. That ends their comparison with the Tigers. Baylor can fill up the basket, but they need to because they give up almost as many points as they score. In Big 12 play they held only two teams under 70 points in 17 games, so we should be able to score some points against them. Since we have a very versatile offense we will need continuous balance while finding the hot hand as we have done all season long. Many teams have had little trouble cracking 80 against these guys, and twice they have surrendered more than 100 points.

Baylor is not a particularly strong rebounding team at just 37.4 per game. If we can dictate our tempo with patient offense and grinding defense we should be able to frustrate them. This will be the key to any long tournament run for us. Both Baylor and our likely second-round opponent in Xavier are guard-oriented teams that rely heavily on their play from the perimeter. If we can stymie these teams with our stifling defense of old we stand a very good chance of winning. Baylor turns the ball over almost 13 times a game. If we can turn up the pressure and cause even more turnovers that will help our cause more.

We are also in the rare situation of having experience. Though we are dominated by freshmen and sophomores, we do have players like Crump, Kramer, Green, and Grant that have been here before and know what the atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament is like. The same is true for coach Painter. Since Baylor hasn't been here in 20 years everyone from the coaching staff on down is getting its first taste of tournament play. This is key since both teams have struggled somewhat down the stretch. Baylor has struggled more with their backslide from lock to bubble on Selection Sunday, while we only lost a game to a rival on their floor and two overtime contests to teams fighting to save their seasons. I like how that benefits us.

General Outlook:

I really like our chances in this game if our defense comes to play. Other than Rogers, who can run wild in the post, Baylor does not really have a proven post presence. Even their 7-footers in Diene and Lomers haven't played in every game. If they were to have big games it would be a departure from the norm for Baylor. We must come ready to play on the perimeter as they have a five guard attack that is not afraid to shoot. If their threes are falling they are dangerous. If they are not we should be able to win.

Conversely, we need to be able to hit our shots as well. I am very concerned that we just let Illinois shoot better than 60% against us. Baylor has multiple Demetri McCamey types, so another poor defensive performance will mean a quick exit from the tournament. We have not lost a first round tournament game since 1992. This tells me that we do come ready to play each year and we will need to be so more this year than ever because of their guards.

The key will be playing the game at our pace. We have a great chance to really get Calasan and Johnson involved in the paint, so why not play them together since Baylor doesn't have much size? If they then counter with their 7-footers we can go with our smaller lineup. We must cut back on our fouls as well. This has been a big problem this season, so it is time for us to play a little bit smarter. We can't afford to send Baylor to the line like we did with Illinois.

As I said previously; I like our chances if our defense comes to play and sets the tone early. If we play our style of basketball by creating turnovers and forcing them into bad shots we can certainly create plenty of offense from the defense. Baylor hasn't really played a shred of defense all season, so we should only be worried if our shots don't start to fall. We just need to be patient, get good looks, and try to avoid our tendency to settle for threes if they aren't falling. We also need to crash the boards and generate some offensive rebounds. This is a game we should be able to win, and if we do it means we can piss off Digger Phelps for two more days. Purdue 75, Baylor 67

Monday, March 17, 2008

Let’s Dance!

Though I nearly suffered an unnecessary heart attack with Purdue being placed in the last game revealed by CBS, I must say that I am very pleased with our draw. The general consensus is that we will learn from our early Big Ten Tournament loss and use it as motivation to buckle down on defense in the real tournament. We also can use the time off and fewer games played to rest tired legs and heal some nagging injuries just enough to make a run. While there is no guarantee this exact scenario will play out, if it does I really like our chances of making a run to the sweet 16, and maybe even the elite 8. Consider the following:

We have been vulnerable to dominant Big Men all season long. It was critical in our losses to Illinois, Indiana, even Ohio State late with Koufos inside. Michigan State didn't have a huge size advantage, but they still had an advantage. Even Clemson caused problems in the second half. We won't face a team with a truly dominant post player (if the seeds play out as normal) until the regional final. Baylor has a pair of 7-footers, but neither contributes a ton and their leading rebounder is only 6'8". Xavier is very quick, but has no one over 6'9". If we control he pace of that game like I know we can they could be ripe for an upset. Many have talked this season about how well we would match up in a hypothetical game with Duke. Many have felt we would match up very well with them, and if we get to the sweet 16 we would get that shot.

Playing deep into the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups, and I feel we have favorable matchups with our style of play in each of the first three rounds. Even for our hypothetical opponents the committee did not do any favors in their games. Xavier must play a Georgia team as a 14 seed that probably believes in itself and its chances more than any other 14 seed in the history of the tournament. Here in Indiana, winning two games in one day used to be required three times just to win the state championship. Even now 16 teams do it every year, meaning there are 32 teams playing two games in one day. What Georgia did, against much better competition, is still pretty amazing considering they were the only team asked to do it. Their own conference tried to screw them over by giving them that path, yet they still overcame (even playing one game in overtime!) and got their auto-bid. A more reasonable scenario would have been to have them play their quarterfinal, then have the two semi-finals played on Sunday before a final to mean both teams would play two games. They will not be scared of Xavier in round one.

As for Duke, a healthy Arizona or West Virginia in round two is not a gimme game. I don't think Arizona belongs in the field since they finished with a losing record in their conference, but how many times has a team barely made the tournament, with others questioning their credentials, and made a big run? One need only look to #10 seed Purdue in 1999. Many considered us the last team in the field that year, while many more said we shouldn't have even gotten in at all. We justified our place by upsetting #7 Texas and #2 Miami to get to the sweet 16. That run also gave me now nine years of bragging rights over my wife's school since we never play the Canes in anything. Of course, this also means I was sweating yesterday's selection show, hoping we wouldn't get paired with them.

Getting back on topic after that tangent; in short, I think Arizona would have a good chance against Duke. West Virginia is a pretty good team as well. With as well as we play defense and no outstanding post presence I think we could definitely hassle the Dookies into quite a ballgame. If our squad last year could give a great Florida team everything it wanted for 40 minutes I think we can certainly play with a team like Duke this year. Past Duke I am not even going to begin dreaming yet. There is no since in thinking about a potential elite 8 matchup because it could be any of 8 teams. Too much can happen before that point to even begin speculating.

While our path is fairly favorable, others in the Big Ten and from the state of Indiana were not so lucky.

Wisconsin -- #3 seed Midwest – I honestly thought the Badgers had a good chance at a 2 seed if they won the Big Ten tourney, but maybe winning it over a weaker Illinois team is the reason they didn't get that. I actually think the Badgers are a sleeper for the Final Four. They are very tough, they only have four losses, and it is not like they played Sisters of the Poor and Blind in their non-conference season. They beat Texas on its home floor and Texas would have been considered a 1 seed if it had beaten Kansas yesterday. Their losses were to Duke, Marquette, and Purdue, who were all tournament teams. They also did not have a single stumble in Big Ten play that would be considered a "bad loss". When everyone else in the conference struggled, they took care of business and haven't lost to a team not named Purdue since December. They also crushed the giant that is Wofford. I like their chances for at least the sweet 16, and they definitely can play with Georgetown in that game.

Michigan State -- #5 seed South – I found this seed interesting, but I think Sparty has the talent to at least get to the sweet 16. There are still those that think they have Final Four talent. With Tom Izzo coaching, would you really be surprised if they did make it that far? They struggled mightily in the Big Ten, but as long as they can avoid the green uniforms (all 8 losses came in green this year) they will be fine. I never trust the Big East tournament champion to do anything in the NCAA's, so they can certainly beat Pittsburgh in round 2. Memphis also has a gaudy record, but is it a product of a weak conference? We will see.

Indiana -- #8 seed East – The Hoosiers have 2 seed talent, but a 12 seed bubble team mentality right now. If they use this week to get in their right frame of mind I certainly believe they have the ability to beat North Carolina in the second round and do some major damage in that region. If they don't, however, I would not be surprised if Arkansas beat them by 20. I think their seed was a little low, but they may have been dropped down to avoid playing another Big Ten team in another region. If Gordon finds his shot, they play as a team, and D.J. White plays like D.J. White can play I can see this team being a major pain in North Carolina's ass.

Notre Dame -- #5 seed East – Most people know of my hatred for Notre Dame football. I actually like their basketball team, though, because they play with honor in a conference. They are also very, very good and play hard each game. They drew a very tough 5/12 game against George Mason. The Patriots have a few guys on their roster who know a little something about pulling upsets, so the Irish do not have an easy game in round one. Harongody is a great player, and I feel like Washington State is a team that got a very undeserving 4 seed after their struggles in Pac-10 play. For crying out loud they lost 7 conference games and we still seeded higher than the Big Ten runner-up! The Irish could be a one and done, or they could be a 16 team that would give North Carolina a good game.

Butler -- #7 seed East – The Bulldogs received the biggest screw job of the tournament except maybe a team like Virginia Commonwealth. I felt the Rams were much more deserving than an 8th team from the Big East like Villanova. They would fight to the death in the tourney, and it's not like Colonial teams have never done anything with at large bids. Butler got screwed with a terrible seed, and they have to play a #10 seed in its home state. This will be followed by a 2 seed less than 200 miles away from its home campus. If the Bulldogs return to the sweet 16, and they are certainly capable, they will earn it. No team that has consistently been in the top 15 all year deserves a 7 seed, even if their only game against an NCAA foe was a loss to Drake. When it comes to Butler you can never count out a senior-dominated team that has tournament experience. The Bulldogs could make the tournament committee rue the day. What basketball fan from this state wouldn't want a Butler, Indiana, and Notre Dame East region in the sweet 16? If you throw 3 seed Louisville in there you have a major regional bragging rights battle on hand too.

Programming note:

If you tried to access the site for most of Sunday you may have gotten a redirect to a default page from GoDaddy.com. I am in the middle of a domain name change right now and having difficulty in telling the internet what to do. Hopefully by the time Purdue tips off on Thursday the domain change will be complete and we will be up and running at the new http://www.offthetracks.org/ address. I'm doing the change for a couple of reasons: 1. It makes it easier for me to be found without having to type in the long blogspot address, and 2. It will make advertisers easier to find me so they can throw some proverbial phat cash in my direction. Once the change happens the old blogspot address will always re-direct to the new domain name, and all commenting will be the same. You won't need to change bookmarks or log-ins in order to comment. Essentially, nothing will really change on the reader's end, and I'll be able to continue posting through blogger to just it re-direct to my domain name. It's just one way I am working for you to make Off the Tracks even better! There will be a more formal announcement the instant things are up and running.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tickets 2

Some of the hardest tickets in the world are tickets to Lambeau Field. Fortunately, the days of the internet are here to save us. Here is a great place to get some Green Bay Packers tickets. It has long been my dream to see some of the historic stadiums such as Lambeau. I have been fortunate enough to see games at Wrgley, Fenway, and Yankee Stadium, but not yet for Lambeau. That is why I highly recommend that site for tickets.

The same is true for the Cowboys. Jerry Jones may be opening a billion dollar stadium, but he is certainly not helping with ticket prices. that's why you can find Dallas Cowboys Tickets right here. An easier ticket to see an actual good team might be in Baltimore for some Baltimore Ravens Tickets. They had a promising team and will certainly be one of the favorites in the AFC next season. That makes this link all the better for finding what is sure to be a hot ticket.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Well, that certainly sucked

Ugh

We have been a second half, finishing type of team all season, but last night that failed us. I knew Illinois was a dangerous team. I knew they were more than good enough to beat us. I knew Demetri McCamey was a dangerous player if he got hot. I knew that we needed to do the little things well like rebound missed free throws, hit or own, and not turn the ball over. We have done it all season, so I didn’t even mention it in the Illinois preview. In the end, those little things hurt us.

Demetri McCamey had an absolutely phenomenal game. Going 6 for 6 from long range and hitting every tough shot he needed to was clutch. The shot he hit to send the game to overtime is the type you simply tip your cap to a good player coming through when he needed to. He never should have had a chance at that shot though.

On the possession before, Purdue fans witnessed one of the worst calls you will ever witness in a tournament game. A travel called on Chris Kramer that was nowhere near a travel. I thought it was a foul. I had to listen to the radio broadcast on the way home from Rock Bottom on the north side of Indy before I found out it was a travel. It’s a call that was unnecessary, and absolutely turned the game. You figure if it is not called we can work the clock down to at least 10 seconds and get a shot attempt. If we draw a foul we surely make it a two possession game and can play the free throw game the rest of the way.

Even then, Illinois was feeling generous. With the amount of missed free throws and offensive rebounds given up in the overtime we had more than our fair share of chances to win this game. Illinois did everything in its power to give us the game in the extra five minutes, but we could not come up with a single possession that resulted in a field goal. It is disturbing to see us play like many expected us to play right at the end of the season when it matters most. Now, I don’t know if we can even hang on to a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Positives from the Illinois game:

E’Twaun Moore – The kid simply loves to play the Illini. Once again E’Twaun had a 20 point game inside Conseco Fieldhouse, and I like that we will be playing in Big Ten Tournaments here for the rest of his career. He hit a ton of huge shots tonight and connected on five 3-pointers. If he can start to play against the rest of the conference like he does against Illinois we will be fantastic.

Rest – One side benefit of losing early means we will have plenty of rest before taking on whoever we will play the NCAA’s. We’re going to be the favored seed in our first round game, and not too much of an underdog at worst in the second round. This means we still have a very good shot of at least making the sweet 16 and hanging around another week to stick in Digger Phelps’ craw. We should be at full strength by the time our first round game comes around, and coach Painter has to be plenty pissed off at going 3-3 down the stretch after an 11 game win streak.

3-point shooting – It was terrible in the overtime when we needed it, and that is because we may have went into 3-point desperation mode a little early. I have given up on us becoming a team that will get baskets inside the paint this year. We’re going to need to hit our 3’s if we’re going to have a deep run in the tournament. At least we hit some big ones, especially Keaton Grant.

Negatives from the Illinois game:

61.2% -- That number is Illinois’ field goal percentage in this game. It is nearly 20% above what we normally give up, and a sign that we played terrible defense. McCamey played an incredibly smart game by taking advantage of backdoor cuts for two critical baskets in overtime. Kramer was playing up on him to deny the ball, and that allowed McCamey to slip behind the defense for easy baskets. Pruitt also got a number of easy looks inside. We don’t shoot well enough to let even bad teams like Illinois shoot 61%. This makes me ill because if we hold them to our usual 40% we win easily. McCamey took over and flat out beat us.

Free Throw shooting – It’s not so much the number of misses, but when they came. Calasan had some key misses in the overtime. Moore missed a big one that would have tied it too. Illinois was its usual bad self hitting just 40%. That gave us a boat load of chances, especially in overtime, but we could not convert.

Bench play – This is another disturbing aspect from this game. Our bench has been very strong all season long, but only gave us 8 points. Crump actually played well and had a huge steal and basket in the second half. JuJuan Johnson and Scott Martin might as well have stayed in West Lafayette though with their contributions. These are two guys we need at least 10 points and 6 rebounds from and they gave us no points and 2 rebounds. It was probably Scott’s worst game of the season.

Turnovers – I like that we can rely on forcing 15-20 turnovers a game. It has become a key aspect of our overall game plan. We cannot, however, afford to give it back 16 times. The call at the end of regulation was a bad call, but we still had 15 other turnovers that more than made a difference.

Not getting the big stop – Perhaps credit should be given to Illinois here. Every time we needed to get one stop to seal the game in regulation Illinois would come through with a big shot to stay alive. In the overtime they made plays and we did not. They wanted this game more, and aside from their usual free throw problems they played like they were supposed to play all season long. This is the second time in three games that we have been unable to stop a hot shooting guard. If we can’t figure it out soon our tournament stay will be brief no matter who we play.

Up Next:

We’re going to the tournament. In the end, the only thing we missed out on from all this is a higher seed, possibly a 3. Now we will most likely be a 5, with an outside chance at a 4. I don’t like being in that 5/12 game because you’re either playing a major conference team that is trying to prove it is deserving of being in the tournament, a pretty good mid-major at large, or a good low major like a Davidson or something. It’s always a dangerous game to be in as the higher seed. Even being a 4 seed is no free ticket into round two.

I am convinced, however, that coach Painter will have this team ready to play. Historically the Big Ten tournament champ has not faired well in the NCAA’s, so perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. I am slightly upset that we don’t get another chance at Indiana, but if the basketball gods really want a second chance they will arrange it in the elite 8, final four, or championship game. We cannot control that at this point, and from the looks of things Indiana has plenty of their own problems after getting shocked by Minnesota. We only need to go and play one game at a time as it comes to us.

For the Big Ten, you have to be interested in the winner of today’s Illinois-Minnesota game sneaking into the field with the automatic bid. Just as it looked like Ohio State’s bubble may have popped someone else may step up and steal the auto-bid to give the conference five after all. Illinois has played Minnesota very well all season long, and I certainly will not be counting them out in the championship if they get there. It may even look better on us if Illinois goes on to take the auto-bid. At least then it won’t be as bad of a loss.

I don’t think you can truly call it a horrendous loss. Wofford was a horrendous loss. Missouri, since they did very little in the Big 12, was a bad loss. So was Iowa State. Losing a 3-point tournament game to a talented, but underachieving team we had already beaten twice isn’t that bad. I think we can learn a lot from it. Pending our draw tomorrow we will have plenty of time to rectify it. My goal for this team is still the sweet 16. That will set things up quite next year, and it is not unreasonable.

So we now sit and wait. Our fate has already been decided. We are in the tournament barring a shocking snub. Tomorrow night at 6pm we will find out what we need to do, and I think it will be refreshing to play a non-Big Ten team after 19 straight in the conference. That will be beneficial since whoever we play likely will not have seen us much this year. We know what we need to work on, so we have a week to work on it in practice. I am fully confident coach Painter will have us ready.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Boilers tip-off Big Ten Tourney play

It is very difficult to defeat any team three times in a season. That being said, I was very disappointed when Penn State could not finish off Illinois yesterday afternoon. I felt that Purdue had better matchups with the Nittany Lions than we do with the Illini. Illinois has a couple of experienced big men and some guards that can shoot. That's good enough to be dangerous against any team in the country, and they have played some good teams this year. Also, we beat Penn State by 22 and 14, while we only beat Illinois by 7 and 8, the last of which came during E'Twaun Moore's coming out party. I have long said that Illinois is the most dangerous first day team in the Big Ten Tournament. They also have the added motivation of a third shot at Indiana in the semifinals if they get past us. That has to be a tempting target for them, but it is for us as well.

Since we last saw the Illini:

It hasn't been a great season, but the Illini have played a little bit better down the stretch by winning three of their last four games. The one loss came at home to Michigan State, but it was only by 8 points as their close game problems continued. In a bad loss at Michigan and a win at Iowa Brian Randle missed both games with an injured shoulder. There were rumors he would be out for the season. He only played 10 minutes against Michigan State, but yesterday against Penn State he had his best game in more than a month with 17 points. The last time he was in double figures was when he had 21 in the second Purdue game. Randle has had a very up and down season for a senior who has had much expected of him, so it is no coincidence that Illinois has struggled.

The leading scorer continues to be Shaun Pruitt. Pruitt caused severe matchup problems for us in both games this season, but it is his appalling free throw shooting that almost makes him a liability in the clutch. For the season he is shooting 57% from the line, but he is a player that once he starts to miss from the line he usually doesn't stop. The same is true for Illinois as a team. They had one of their better days against us the second time around hitting 73% from the line, but we still won by 8. The team average is just below 62% for the season, and that has actually improved recently. Should that trend continue Illinois has a chance against us.

Perhaps the player that scares me the most is Demetri McCamey. Since scoring 31 against Indiana in the fateful double overtime he has been rather quiet, but he did have 18 against Wisconsin and 11 yesterday. He is a very streaky shooter from 3-point land, but the Indiana game proved he can get hot. He hit 7 of 13 from long range in that game and would have sparked the upset if Pruitt had been able to just hit his free throws. It will be imperative that we don't let him get hot. If he does it makes Illinois a very dangerous team to deal with because of their size discrepancy in the paint.

I am worried about this game because it took a fantastic second half by all involved, especially E'Twaun Moore, to beat them in Champaign. Pruitt (18), Randle (21), McCamey (15), and Trent Meacham (14) each had outstanding games. Their one weakness in that game was 3 of 16 3-point shooting. We also shot 49% from the field, which has been difficult for us to reach all season. We out-rebounded them in that game and hit our free throws. In retrospect, it was one of our best outings of the season. We will need to repeat that if we are going to make it to Saturday.

In looking at all the numbers I have a difficult time seeing how Illinois has struggled so much this season outside of their free throw problems. They hold their opponents to just below 41% shooting from the field, they generally take care of the basketball, they aren't a terrible shooting team, and they rebound well. They rank near the bottom of the conference in 3-point shooting percentage, but when they have big guys like Randle and Pruitt they don't need to shoot the lights out. We should be concerned if coach Weber realizes this and starts pounding the ball inside against our smaller lineup. They had success against us this year from inside, so they know it can work again.

Game Outlook:

Illinois' history his season suggests that they are not long for this tournament. Even though they had a ton of advantages yesterday against Penn State they barely snuck by on a basket in the final 10 seconds. Because of Penn State's injury losses it is the type of game Illinois should have won by 10 points, but once again they had trouble closing the deal. It is at the point where it has clearly become a mental struggle for them to finish these games. Purdue is a much better team than Penn State, so Illinois will be forced to step up and play their best game of the season in order to win tonight. I am not expecting it.

There can be something said, however, for the issue of confidence. They have strung together a couple of wins here at the end of the season, and a win like yesterday's win is the type that can build that confidence. The key will be how we respond inside against Randle and Pruitt. If they get going early, raising Illinois' confidence level in the process, it will open things up for Meacham and McCamey. If they, too, get going from the outside as they are certainly capable of doing we will be in for a very long night. As we proved in Champaign though, even if all those things happen we can still beat them.

I am encouraged by the fact we have had a few days off to heal up some injuries. Against Ohio State last week we looked a little tired and beaten up in the overtime session. Since then we have only played one game in 10 days. This has allowed guys like Kramer and Grant to heal up some nagging injuries. We have also done well in Conseco Fieldhouse house this, as one of our better wins came over Louisville in the Wooden tradition on that floor.

It is because of our layoff that I expect to play well. After losing to Indiana a few weeks ago we had a week off and played a very solid game against Minnesota. We've tended to play very well after breaks, and the prospect of having at least a 4 seed is certainly worth playing for. We can kiss that goodbye with a loss, but with a win we also get another shot at Indiana. Assuming the Hoosiers do their part, it is something all Purdue fans have been waiting for since the loss in Bloomington. I think we will get that shot. Purdue 65, Illinois 60

Other Big Ten Thoughts

As I sit and write this Michigan State and Ohio State have just gone to the half tied at 30. If the night games go as they are expected that means the Spartans and Buckeyes are playing the last game with Bubble implications in the league. Here are some very brief thoughts on Big Ten play so far, and on today's action.

Michigan 55, Iowa 47

Maize N' Brew said it best with CRIPPLE FIGHT!!! You really cannot add to that.

Illinois 64, Penn State 63

This was actually a very exciting game. I am a big fan of Penn State now after the way they fought through so much this season. It's a shame they are not going to play in the NIT now. They deserve SOMETHING for their efforts.

Minnesota 55, Northwestern 52

Did someone just tell Northwestern they were Northwestern at the half? They looked like a real, live Big Ten team in the first half. It's almost like they got scared in the second and weren't able to close things out.

Wisconsin 51, Michigan 34

I saw the end of this game at lunch and it looked just as ugly as the score. Michael Flowers guarded Manny Harris so closely I'd be surprised if Harris could hit the urinal during his post-game leak. Wisconsin just dismantled the Wolverines.

Michigan State-Ohio State

Ohio State is fighting to stay alive. If the Spartans can win I like their chances against Wisconsin tomorrow.

Minnesota-Indiana

I know Minnesota can play with Indiana. They have a huge advantage in coaching, but Indiana has a huge advantage in overall talent. Big Ten officials desperately want an IU-Purdue rematch. I'd also like a Michigan State-Wisconsin rematch for a great day of basketball tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Big Ten Tournament Primer

Today I curse my own malaise and ebay. I was late in getting tickets for this weekend's Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. They have already sold out of the allotment of cheap seats for both Friday and Saturday night's games. I guess the allure of seeing both Indiana and Purdue play at the same time was just too much to overcome. As a result, the gougers are out in full force on both Ebay and Stubhub. Any other ticket brokering site will just be worse so I am forced to scramble now if I want to see the Boilers play on Saturday. It's time to pray for a major early round upset so some disgruntled Indiana or Wisconsin fans will be selling tons of tickets as they leave town in droves. Ironically there are some good deals available for the championship game on Sunday, but with that there is the risk the Boilers won't be playing.

Coming into the tournament the Big Ten is pretty cut and dry when it comes to the NCAA's. Unless there is a surprise tournament winner four schools are already considered solid locks. Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are all playing to make a good impression for a better seed come Sunday afternoon. Only Ohio State is on the bubble, and with an opening round win over Michigan State they will likely be in. Minnesota had plenty of chances, but will not dance without four wins in four days. They might have a very small chance if they beat Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue and play a close one in the final, but if they do get to the final they had better win it to be sure. Penn State still has a shot at making one of the lesser tournaments, but must beat Illinois in the opener. Beating Purdue wouldn't hurt. For Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern it is auto-bid or bust. Those four will be ending their seasons in Indianapolis unless one of them shocks everyone by winning the tournament.

It seems as if every year there is at least one surprise team that at least makes it to Saturday from the Thursday games. One team, Iowa in 2001, even parlayed their #6 seed into a tournament championship. The next year they made a run to the final as a nine seed before falling to Ohio State in the final. Once again the Hawkeyes find themselves in the opening 8/9 game, so can they do it again? It's unlikely, but what follows in ascending order is each team's chances of winning the Big Ten Tournament, their potential for being upset, and how far I expect each team to go.

Northwestern
Upset Potential: You can't upset a last place team
Chance to win tourney: See snowball in hell
Projection: 1st round loss

The Wildcats would be a fantastic story if they backdoored their way to a Big Ten Tournament title and first ever NCAA bid. In reality it has been years since they have even won four straight regular season Big Ten games, let alone in the amped-up environment of the tournament. The closest I could find was a three game streak over #10 Wisconsin, Purdue, and Penn State in 2004. They may be able to surprise Minnesota and even an ever more disinterested Indiana team, but it would be a big stretch to consider even that much. The Cats are likely one and done.

Michigan
Upset Potential: Beating a 9 seed is not an upset
Chance to win tourney: Like a home town business taking on a Wal-Mart
Projection: 1st round loss


Michigan has some talent, but that talent is very limited. They are a team that likes to shoot itself in the foot, but there is a ton of potential there for growth. They are facing the other team in the tournament that also has a new coach and the fans have accepted this year as a losing season as long as the trend goes up next year. Over the course of the entire year, however, Iowa has played better than Michigan. The Wolverines have a shot in any game if Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims both just go off, but they still lost to Northwestern at home. I can't pick them because of that.

Penn State
Upset Potential: As a 7 missing its two best players it is strong against the 10 seed
Chance to win tourney: They have moxie, but moxie only goes so far
Projection: Tight first round game, second round loss if they win it

Penn State has proven they are not going to be an easy out as they have done more with less than any team in the conference. The sheer fact that they will at least finish at .500 with a first round win is a testament to their tenacity. I love that these guys did not quit even in the face of losing their top two players. They need to get one more win and hopefully one of the two minor tournaments will reward them with a postseason game.

Iowa
Upset Potential: There are no upsets in an 8/9 game
Chance to win tourney: It's Iowa, so you never know
Projection: First round win, loss to Wisconsin in round two

The Iowa-Michigan game should be a very good one as both teams split their meetings this season. Early on I was very impressed by how hard Iowa played, but in the end they just did not have enough talent to be taken seriously as a contender. They floundered pretty badly down the stretch, beating Northwestern twice for their only two wins in the last eight games. Logic says they are due for a good game and Michigan isn't playing well themselves, but logic means squat most of time.

Illinois
Upset Potential: If they hit free throws, they can beat anyone
Chance to win tourney: All they need to do is figure out how to win close games
Projection: The most dangerous first day team. Either a first round loss or deep run

It is no coincidence that Illinois is the worst free throw shooting team in the league and 15 of their 18 losses were by 10 points or less. Eight of those losses were by 6 points or less, or in overtime. Clearly this team has closing issues, and that is the result of poor free throw shooting. Teams are better of fouling Shaun Pruitt and sending him to the line as bad as he is. Illinois has the talent to go crazy in Indy, but they have not shown it all year. They could be the surprise team I mentioned, but I doubt it.

Minnesota
Upset Potetnial: Against Indiana in round 2 they are potentially frisky
Chance to win tourney: If they make it to Saturday and there are upsets elsewhere, it's possible. Avoid Illinois
Projection: At least one win. Don't be surprised if they shock Indiana

I keep waiting for Goldy to break through and knock a top team off, but has not happened. Minnesota had a great chance at Indiana last week, but the Hoosiers finally muscled up enough pride to not lose on Senior Day. If the Gophers can get past Northwestern they will get a rematch Friday night, and as bad as Indiana is playing right now I like their chances. The Gophers don't have enough horses to go all the way, but with Tubby Smith they have a coaching advantage over a number of teams in the league. That is big in postseason play.

Indiana
Upset Potential: More likely to be upset than pull one
Chance to win tourney: worst among the five bye teams
Projection: Semi-final loss to Purdue

After Sunday's craptacular performance in State College is anyone confident about Indiana right now? I hate to say it, but if they could get vintage Bobby Knight in the locker room for the tournament they might be more dangerous. He wouldn't tolerate their self-moping and bullcrap right now. I am embarrassed for them even as a Purdue fan. Their collective attitude lately is making them easy to dislike once again. I can appreciate the talent they have, but their attitude is making them waste that talent. Players as good as D.J. White and Eric Gordon should not be such whiny head cases and just let themselves be coached.

Michigan State
Upset Potential: Very high if they get past Ohio State
Chance to win tourney: Good
Projection: opening round loss to Ohio State

I like Michigan State. I like their chances of winning this tournament if they get past Ohio State in the first round. It is that game with the Buckeyes, however, that is making me shy away from picking them to win the whole thing. Ohio State played like a team on a mission last week in beating Purdue and Michigan State. They suddenly look like they are playing to their talent level and they know one more win gets them in. I don't think they will blow it in a second straight game against the Spartans. Michigan State hasn't lost in its white unis all season though, and they will have them Friday.

Ohio State
Upset Potential: The highest among many teams in the tourney
Chance to win tourney: If they get to the final they may just coast knowing they are in.
Projection: opening win over MSU, close game with Wisconsin in semifinals

The Buckeyes are hot right now, but it is almost unfortunate they get Michigan State in round one after beating them Sunday. Even in East Lansing the Buckeyes played very well, giving me confidence behind this pick. They have seen a number of lower-level bubble teams bow out before them, and by the time they play on Friday even more could be out of the way. By tip off I expect Ohio State to be a "win and they are in" team. They should rise to the challenge.

Purdue
Upset Potential: The only upset would be beating Wisconsin a third time
Chance to win tourney: Good being in the worst half of the bracket
Projection: Finals loss to Wisconsin

I like this Boiler team and I like our chances of getting to Sunday. It's always tough to beat a team there times in one season, but that will be a requirement if we're to get out of round one. It is a little known fact that Purdue has the fewest wins (4) of any team in the Big Ten Tournament except Northwestern who also has four. Two of those came in the very first tournament back in 1998, so historically this has not been a good stage for us. I like us against an undermanned Penn State team or an underachieving Illinois team. I like us in a rematch with Indiana, but I we're not my pick to win.

Wisconsin
Upset Potential: None, they are the favorite
Chance to win tourney: Again, they are the favorite
Projection: They finally get past Purdue in the final

I am honestly very surprised Purdue beat this team twice with the way they handled everyone else in conference play. The Big Ten Tournament is a place for unfinished business. Michigan State beat every team in the conference at least once except for Wisconsin, but I don't think they will get a second chance. Purdue beat everyone but Indiana, and I think they will deny the Hoosiers a chance at their nemesis in Wisconsin. That sets up Purdue and Wisconsin in the final, where as good as we are I don't think we can pull off the trifecta.

Final NCAA seedings for the Big Ten after the tournament (barring a miracle run by another team):

Wisconsin low #2 or High #3
Purdue #4 (possibly a 3 if they win the tourney)
Michigan State #5 (A four if they win the tourney)
Indiana #5 (Can jump as high as a 3 with tourney win)
Ohio State #7
Minnesota (NIT), Penn State (NIT), Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern out of tourney