Knowing The Way Through San Jose, Part 1

by Eduardo Maisonet, III / @edthesportsfan

There’s something dynamic that happens when you attend a session of games during opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Invariably, there will be a mix of teams that regionally will travel well and have the crowd on their side along with the teams that potentially surprise while gunning for an upset, thus gaining the crowd’s approval in the process.

There’s also something that’s awesome to experience when you just know you’re watching a good game. A buzz takes over the crowd, everyone’s on pins and needles (and Twitter/Facebook), and everyone’s high-fiving each other blindly. There’s also a feeling of terribleness when you’ve got a scrum of a game on your hands or a straight up blowout. People will begin slandering fans of the opposing team, everyone’s now on their phones (checking Twitter/Facebook) and thinking about how to escape the potential onslaught of traffic.

I say all that to say, if you haven’t taken your talents to an NCAA Tournament session, do it. It’s money well spent, you get to hang around (mostly) cool people, and it’s a better reason to take off of work (because you actually paid for tickets) than just faking sick. Here are my thoughts on what transpired in San Jose in day one:

Saint Louis Gets Big On New Mexico State

While many were captivated by the intrigue of the 7-5, 360-pound Indian (Canadian-born) sensation that is Sim Bhullar, the folks at the HP Pavilion probably had no idea what they were really getting themselves into as the New Mexico State Aggies took on the Saint Louis Billikens. What started off as a slow game in San Jose’s opening game of the second round, one where nerves and jitters needed to be worked out, the second half showed us why STL’s hometown school could make run deep into the Tourney.

Saint Louis was well-aware of the 7-5 big man in the middle, and their defensive effort would’ve made their former head coach, recently passed coaching legend Rick Majerus, quite proud. With two players bracketing Bhullar at all times, Saint Louis shut down the Aggie offense to a halt, shooting just 28 percent from the field all game. And the Billiken defense also closed out well on the long-range shot, as the Aggies converted on just two of their 16 three-point attempts. With staunch defense and Billikens’ forward Dwayne Evans carrying the offensive load with 24 points, the second half served as a statement for interim head coach Jim Crews’ team, and the 64-44 win will officially put everyone else in the Midwest region on notice.

The Billikens are not to be overlooked, even if you are 7-5.

Random: Jordair Jett easily has the coolest name in college basketball.

Planting The Seed: Oregon Uproots Oklahoma State

For many of my fellow bracketeers, the Thursday clash between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Oregon Ducks was one easily circled as an “upset special” for their bracket’s dismal chances. Why? Well, because…there’s no way Oregon should be a 12-seed, why…they made it to the Pac-12 championship game! Why…look at their record! (27-8, 12-6) Why…those uniforms will make up for 5 points by themselves! (OK, maybe with a chrome helmet on, but that would be prohibitive to playing basketball in…nevermind.)

Whatever. Once the game tipped and the two sides began to do battle, it was hard to tell which team was the 5-seed and which one was the 12-seed, because the Oklahoma State Cowboys clearly didn’t receive the memo that the game started at 2 p.m. PST. In the Ducks 68-55 victory over the Cowboys, Oregon proved to be the quicker, craftier and smarter than Oklahoma State on Thursday. Players like Damyean Dotson (17 points) and Arsalan Kazemi (17 rebounds) continued to make plays, the result seemed inevitable for the Cowboys.

Oregon was just simply better than Oklahoma State.

Markel Brown (16 points) and Marcus Smart (14 points) were unable to get easy shots and shot just 11-29 from the field on Thursday, and the Oklahoma State frontcourt simply got manhandled on the boards 44-30 by Oregon. It’s a tough way for Smart to leave Stillwater, and maybe his poor performance will have him consider coming back for a sophomore year. (It’s not happening.)

Random: Marcus Smart has a game that reminds me of James Harden. Draws a ton of fouls, crafty and strong around the rim. Smart’s projected for the lottery this year and I wonder how (if) his game will blossom at the next level.

Early gut-feeling on Saint Louis vs Oregon: I can’t see Saint Louis playing as poorly for 40 minutes (even if the Billikens did sleepwalk through the first half versus NM State) as Oklahoma State did on Thursday vs Oregon, and I’m not sure Oregon can count on the ball bouncing their way as much as it did on Thursday, either. Physically, the Ducks matchup well with the Billikens, but Saint Louis has earned their 4-seed, and I think they’ll advance to the Sweet 16. SLU 69, Ducks 65.

Allen Crabbe Trumps Anthony Bennett, Cal Squeeks By UNLV

Allow me a moment of transparency with you, the people. I’ve heard of this fellow Anthony Bennett, the big man who plays for UNLV who may or may not be rated as the No. 1 power forward in the upcoming 2013 NBA Draft. Mind you, I’ve heard of him. I’ve never seen the man play basketball a day in my life, so feel free to slander me to no end because I haven’t active watched Mountain West basketball this season. But hey, that’s what the Big Dance is for right? To see the biggest stars on the biggest stage, show up and prove their worth, right?

Evidently, UNLV wasn’t trying to allow that to happen for the fans in attendance in the HP Pavilion.

The California Golden Bears fans chanted their chants and sang their songs at the end of the game, albeit with an ending full of angst and trepidation as Cal seemingly forgot how to make free throws. Nevertheless, the Bears were able to execute and defend down the stretch to eek out a 64-61 victory and advance to the next round. Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12’s player of the year, showed why he was worthy of the honor with a rock-solid 19-point, 9-rebound performance that included some clutch shooting from the field and from the line.

Bennett’s final stat line of 15 points and 11 rebounds will be misleading to many who only see the box score in Friday’s (like digital) publication of choice, as Bennett was largely devoid of the offense until late in the second half, as the Rebels’ offense tried to lean on him in a half-court set and he failed to deliver. Other Rebel teammates like Bryce Dejean-Jones (15 points) and Katin Reinhardt (11 points) tried to pick up the slack, but overall the team shot just 32 percent from the field (19-59) and largely failed to keep any momentum going offensively.

UNLV will feel like this was a missed opportunity, as all those missed free throws from Cal, those empty possessions that were devoid of their star player, and a lack of overall execution will weigh on the minds of Rebels’ fans for an entire offseason.

Random: UNLV’s Dejean-Jones wore the Air Jordan XII’s (black upper/white bottom) tonight, I immediately became his biggest fan in the arena.

Even Tony Montana Couldn’t Help Montana Beat Syracuse

During the halftime of each of the games, the jumbotron inside the arena will show a package of highlights for both teams to recap the first half. One particular sequence of plays made me chuckle.

Montana highlight: A made free throw, making the score 8-3 for Syracuse.

Syracuse highlight: Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas dunks the ball with two hands literally on some poor guy’s neck from Montana.

In college, if you were down 20+ points in the first half of a basketball video game, you had to “pass the sticks.” By the end of the half, Syracuse was up on Montana 38-15 and the score wasn’t even that close. The game was essentially over and everyone knew it. Yes, there’s always a possibility for a comeback, but it wasn’t happening this time for the Grizzlies.

Brandon Triche and CJ Fair led the way for Syracuse offensively with 20 and 13 points, respectively. The Orange’s defense held the Griz to just 20.4 percent shooting on the night, and forced 17 turnovers. Montana had four players who lead the team in scoring with just 5 points each.

Syracuse will now face the Pac-12 player of the year in Allen Crabbe, one of the best shooters in college basketball. Can the best shooter crack college basketball’s best zone? We’ll find out on Saturday.

Random: Syracuse has the oddest collection of talent ever. They’ve either got 4-5 legitimate NBA pros who’ll play on a roster for 10-plus years or they’ve got a bunch of guys who will flame out, and that includes Michael Carter-Williams. I can’t figure them out.

Early gut-feeling on California Vs Syracuse: I’ve talked to a scout about Cal’s Allen Crabbe and the word on the street is that folks think he isn’t assertive enough. Sure, Crabbe put up his usually strong numbers on Thursday, but seeing how he is the best shooter on the squad, they might need him to get 30+ points against Syracuse’s stifling zone defense. Some people say “zone is for cowards,” which is something I generally agree with, but unless you have the proper chess pieces to beat a zone, its hard to checkmate Syracuse. I’m not sure Cal’s got those pieces. Cuse 81, Cal 71