Best of America V.3 - Best of March Madness
I'm going light on the entertainment and pop culture stuff this week, because, who are we kidding, it's March Madness. College basketball reigns supreme this week.
Here's the best of the NCAA Tournament through Round 3...
Best NBA prospect: Kyrie Irving (PG, Duke)
I was living under a rock called the NBA for the first half of the college season, so Sunday was the first time I saw Kyrie Irving play. Needless to say, I was really impressed.
Irving has the talent of a John Calipari point guard mixed with the discipline of Coach K. Even as a freshman, he's a legitimate two-way threat: smart and dynamic on offense, fluid and tough on defense. He has all the makings to be a difference-maker at the next level.
There are a few question marks -- Irving has had the benefit of coming off the bench since returning from injury and taking breaks off the ball thanks to the presence of Nolan Smith -- but this kid has no end of talent or intelligence for the game. The way he switches off screens on defense is incredible. His first step is explosive. He's creative when he needs to be, cautious when he doesn't.
He's as polished as Coach K's dentures.
Okay, Bobby Knight's dentures.
His outside shot needs work (he tends to fall slightly backward on release), but his technique is far better than Derrick Rose's or Russell Westbrook's at the same age.
As highly as I thought of John Wall last season and D-Rose in 2007, Irving is better. He has the size, IQ and skill to be a superstar in the NBA. If he's not the first overall pick in the draft this year, I'll be really surprised.
Admit it, you thought this Butler team was washed up. I know I did. 13-5 in the Horizon League. Losses to Evansville and Milwaukee. No Gordon Hayward. Their Tournament chances looked hopeless. Yet somehow they turned their season around, secured a top 10 seed and took care of business against Old Dominion in Round 1, setting the stage for a wild takedown of Pitt on Saturday.
Granted, it was luck more than skill that led to the win over Pitt -- no one could have imagined Nasir Robinson was going to foul Matt Howard like that on the missed free throw at the end -- but isn't that Butler's calling card? The inexplicable, we didn't deserve this one but we ended up on top anyway win? Wasn't that how they nearly won an NCAA championship last year?
The events that unfolded in the final nine seconds of this game were like Asher Roth sampling SNL's "More Cowbell" sketch and actually turning it into a decent song: It had to be seen to be believed.
No matter how far Butler advances this year, this game will go down as one of the all-time great finishes in Tournament history.
Best individual performance: Kemba Walker vs. Cincinnati
Thirty-three points, six rebounds, five assists and four game-sealing free throws. All with a hurt wrist against one of the top 20 defenses in the nation, according to kenpom.com. That's how Kemba Walker rolls.
Even as his team was crumbling around him (just two other players, Jeremy Lamb and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, cracked six points for the Huskies), Walker remained cool, fighting off the Bearcats with 16 points in the final 10 minutes to give UConn a 69-58 win.
It's not often you'll see me praise a player who shoots 8-for-20 from the field when no one else on his team takes more than seven shots, but in this case it was justified. Walker literally had nothing going on around him.
Alex Oriakhi was a black hole inside (he shot 0-for-6 for the game). Tyler Olander had all but disappeared (0 points in 10 minutes of play). And Lamb and Coombs-McDaniel scored the majority of their points on breakaway opportunities and perimeter looks.
They didn't create. Walker created for them.
Without Walker's virtuoso performance, UConn would have been face down in the water, struggling for breath. Even a hard foul from Justin Jackson that sent him crashing onto his wrist couldn't stop him. He just taped it up and went back to work.
I have UConn going all the way this year. After the Huskies' performance against Cincy, I don't feel too good about that pick. But I do know this: If there's one player this year who can single-handedly take a team to the championship and win it, it's Kemba Walker.
He proved that Saturday.
I can't wait to see what he has in store for San Diego State this week.
Best pre-game speech: Jim Larranaga
Have you heard the George Mason coach's pep talks? Holy cow. If I had this guy in my corner, I would have finished my thesis three months ago, I would have found a job already, and I'd be dating Brooklyn Decker's hotter younger sister Manhattan Decker.
Larranaga doesn't talk to his players so much as he injects caffeine directly into their blood stream with his words.
Underneath all that makeup, I'm convinced he's really Tony Robbins. He's the best.
If Luke Hancock hadn't gotten sick, we'd get to see more of him, too. As it is, George Mason lost and we'll be watching Ohio State instead.
It's cool, though. I'm sure Coach L had a wicked post-game pick-me-up prepared. Either that or a Billy Mays-sized pile of cocaine. (Hey, you never know.)
Best bracketology strategy I'll never use again: Picking four Final Four teams from one conference
Everyone agrees that the Big East was the best conference in college basketball this year, right? Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame, UConn, West Virginia, Louisville. They sent 11 teams to the Tournament (a new record). I think it's fair to assume they're the best.
It's not so crazy to imagine, then, that four of those 11 teams would advance to the Final Four, right? I mean, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, UConn. Those are veteran teams with good coaches. If ever there was a chance for four teams from one conference to make the Final Four, this would be it.
As it turns out, that's been far from the case. Thanks to upset losses to Morehead State, Butler and Marquette my bracket's busted worse than Ronnie's lip after Sammi slugged him on the Shore house porch.
Three Final Four teams down (Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville) and it's not even the Elite Eight yet. I may as well have stamped "dumbass" across my forehead and wandered into incoming traffic.
Let this be a lesson to you, kids. Don't make NCAA picks at 4 a.m. in Cancun.
Best team: Ohio State
Granted, we knew the Buckeyes were good heading into the Tournament. They were undefeated well into February and only lost two games this season -- to Wisconsin and Purdue, both very good teams. But there's something about seeing them steam roll teams in March that adds a new air of legitimacy to their dominance.
As we saw in blowout wins against UT-San Antonio and George Mason, this is the most balanced team in the nation.
Jared Sullinger is rolling (not a fat joke, I swear). William Buford is rolling. Jon Diebler is rolling. Hell, even Dallas Lauderdale is rolling (and that guy's built like Suge Knight).
The Buckeyes' inside-outside game is unmatched. They've shot over 50 percent from the field in three consecutive games -- and the game before that they shot 46 percent against Michigan, a team that took Duke to the wire Sunday -- and have two starters (Buford and David Lighty) shooting over 40 percent from three.
They're also a top 10 defensive team, according to kenpom.com.
Nine straight wins (seven of them against NCAA Tournament teams) don't lie. Barring a catastrophic injury or a major mental collapse (which you should never count out when Thad Motta is involved), the Buckeyes are championship bound.
As good as Duke and Kansas have looked, there's no doubt Ohio State is the team to beat right now. It's going to take a Tyson in his prime-like performance to knock them out.
Best way to give back this week: Japanese Red Cross efforts
The column is "Best of America," but I'm willing to make an exception on this one and go international for the sake of helping Japan. Nobody needs assistance more than they do right now. 12,000 people missing. 8,805 confirmed dead. And a power plant situation so intense you'd think a Bond villain dreamed it up.
Long story short, the people of Japan could really use whatever extra money you're willing to give.
Ichiro donated $1.2 million, but I'm sure your $15-20 will be appreciated just as much.
To donate to Red Cross relief efforts in Japan, go to their donations page and select either the "online" or "mail" option, or start your own fundraising campaign by clearing it with the Red Cross here.
Enjoy the Sweet 16 everybody!
Until next week...