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CSTV Inside Points (plus picks)

I thought this would be a good time to deviate from the norm. I’ll still take a look at this weekend’s Final Four (one of the best in recent memory), as well as offer my picks (for what their worth) for these truly pick em games. But let’s face it, I’m not going to offer much in the way of original and informed insight. Not with all the media, insiders, and writers converging on Atlanta this week while I sit in front of my laptop in Brooklyn. And no, I’m not bitter at all…

I did get thinking though about the fact that I just spent the better part of four weeks inhabiting CSTV, the right arm of CBS for all things March basketball. This was CSTV’s second year with the CBS affiliation. Might as well have been the difference between night and day. Last year was such a cyclone it felt like at best we were controlling the chaos. When it was over there was a distinct and pervasive feeling of accomplishment buzzing around the network. It was a feeling, however, accompanied by a comparable sense of relief.

This year was more of a tropical storm. There were some heavy winds, but the foundation of the network remained solid. The preparation was impeccable. The coordination between working parts was consistent and succinct. The final product was nearly flawless. And the side stories were unforgettable.

First, let me introduce myself. I’m the teleprompter guy. The guy whose job it is to quite literally make the script of the show go. While our anchors, Adam Zucker and Greg Amsinger, aren’t as dependent on the prompter as, say Ron Burgundy, it nonetheless makes their lives much easier when their scripts are running in the right place, at the right time. The duty of the teleprompter is very basic, yet integral to the overall operation of the show. Chances are if you receive any recognition on prompter it’s because you suck and are screwing everything up. That said, as long as you’re not prone to slipping into uncontrollable catatonic states, prompting is quite the manageable task.

So that was my principle duty throughout the tournament. Needless to say CSTV has a variety of programming just for hoops. Among the shows are Gametracker Live, a highlights and analysis show; Full Court Press, which brings live press conferences from players and coaches, along with in-studio analysis; Tourney Talk, a call-in show dedicated to shootin’ the breeze about the tournament, and March Madness Highlights.

We also have a rotation of in-studio analysts. Since I spent my waking life hanging around these guys the last month, allow me to now introduce the most notable coaches and personalities who helped turn the wheels of CSTV this past March.

Seth Greenberg: Current coach of Virginia Tech. He’s ushered in a basketball renaissance in Blacksburg, a notorious college football town. With his recruiting and leadership the Hokies have quickly become a force in the ACC, arguably the nation’s most storied basketball conference. He’s also a great TV personality. After Virginia Tech lost to Southern Illinois in the second round of the tournament, he naturally became the Salukis’ biggest advocate, deeming them the “junkyard dogs”. Put simply, an ego armed with a catch phrase makes for excellent television.

Dereck Whittenburg: Current coach of Fordham. He inherited the remnants of a basketball program in 2004 after Bob Hill finished reaping his path of destruction at Rose Hill. In three short years Whittenburg has morphed Fordham hoops from an utter embarrassment into an 18 win team. Just how embarrassing were they? The Rams were 2-26 Hill’s final season. Then the St. Bonaventure program became engulfed in a recruiting scandal and one of its sanctions was to forfeit every conference win, including its two victories over Fordham. That made Fordham the first team to win more conference games (three) than overall games (two). “3-13 in the A-10, 2-26 overall,” I told the coach. “Talk about embarrassment.” I then told him he’d be hearing from me soon enough to write the whole story. Takers? CSTV.com?

Brian Curtis: CSTV’s basketball insider and a regular contributor both in-studio and out in the field. He’s knowledgeable and witty, but sometimes adopts a little too much of a “holier than thou” approach to his business. Given his diminutive stature and propensity for speaking in the third person through a distinctly nasal voice, it’s difficult not to crack a smile when he’s up to his antics. He’s also the host of his own show, aptly named, Taking Issue with Brian Curtis. If CSTV could just allocate a camera crew to follow him around 24-7, I swear Taking Issue would make for great reality television.

Steve Lappas: To sum it up, Lappas is the man. Formerly the head guy at Villanova then UMass, Lapp is a bundle of energy and information with great presentation. He’s one of those few coaches that when you see him doing his thing, you just know he’s cut out for TV. And he’s Greek! So he obviously took all the producers and talent out for a nice Greek meal between shows one night. They dined on the likes of avgolemono (egg-lemon soup), spanakopita (spinach pie), and octapothi (grilled octopus). The unique victuals were warmly received by all. Well, except for a few unwilling stomachs… Yasou Lapp!

Jonathan Coachman: A guest host for CSTV who makes his bread and butter working/wrestling within the ranks of the WWF/WWE. One day when I arrived at the studio and settled down at my station Coachman was in the middle of quite a doozy of a story. Recounting for anyone within earshot, he was detailing the typical revelries of professional wrestlers (like they need articulation). Let’s just say these guys love blizzards. The Coach, meanwhile, assumed the role of the overzealous weatherman, giving us a play by play of one such Noreaster. Classy. In a related story, be sure to check out “My Coke Fest”, part of CSTV’s killer Final Four lineup live from Atlanta!

(I’m serious, check it out: http://www.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/stories/032906aar.html)

So as you can see, all around wild and wacky fun times at CSTV this month. And there is much more to come (in addition to My Coke Fest, of course). This year the network is operating exclusively on-site in Atlanta, thus the whole CSTV-shabang has been transplanted to the Georgia Dome and its surroundings. Oh, and in case you were wondering, they won’t be requiring teleprompter services. However I did tell Amsinger if he found himself unable to exist without prompter to merely give me 18 hours notice and I’d hail a Greyhound. And NO, I’m not friggin bitter.

(Grinding teeth…)

Okay, maybe just a little bitter. Hey, it could be worse though. I could be a Kentucky fan. In case you missed it, a caller from Kentucky phoned into our live Tourney Talk show and summed up pretty accurately the state of bitterness:

“I just wanna say, f**k Tubby Smith.”

Duly noted sir, duly noted.

Onto the picks…

Florida over UCLA Gators are the champs, and in order to be defeated a team will have to line up, grab them by the throat, and not let go until there are quadruple zeros on the clock. If UCLA wants any shot of winning this game they should take a look at the 2007 AFC Championship Game or the 2004 NBA Finals. The Colts and Pistons both seized an opportunity to go for the jugular of a dynasty, and held on with the grip of an ironman. That’s the only way to topple the mighty. It’s just not going to happen to Florida until there’s a giant present to force the issue…

Ohio State over Georgetown No one had seen the real Greg Oden until Joey Dorsey checked himself into the Pantheon of Idiotic Statements before the Regional Final between Ohio State and Memphis. Dorsey might be a tree of a man, but Oden is a woodchopper. Dorsey called Oden overrated, and Oden in turn, chopped some wood. Steve Lappas didn’t exactly have to go out on a limb when he referenced the whole “sleeping giant” thing, but the point has been made. Not by Lapp. By Oden.

Take it away ATL!

Sweet 16 Points

As the ranking fanatic of March Madness I’ll admit that this year’s Thursday/Friday games in the first round were uncharacteristically dull. None worse than Cardinal-Cardinals. Stanford and the Lopez brothers (or as I like to call them, the twinny-twin-twins) got absolutely pasted by Louisville. This game was such a thrashing I wouldn’t be surprised if the NCAA selection committee received a case of Cristal courtesy of their counterparts over at the NIT. Thanks for givin us ‘Cuse suckers!

It wasn’t just Stanford, though. George Washington did its fair share in attempting to take the spotlight of embarrassment away the Cardinal, bowing to Vanderbilt by a trendy 33. Long Beach State (sans-Snoop-support) scored 86 and still lost by 35 (yes, that means Tennessee dropped 121 on the LBC). Marquette, meanwhile, didn’t score a point until the 10:00 mark of the first half against Michigan State.

But…

The first round was still a bundle of fun, for one glaring reason. Duke lost!!! It’s always fun watching Mike Krzyzewski get bounced from the tournament. It’s even more fun when it’s in the first round against a school (VCU) whose acronym Coach K probably can’t even decipher. And it’s downright satiric when the kid he gets beat by turns out to be a North Carolina-product who got no recruiting love from Tobacco Road. Throw in the priceless look on the face of that flopper Josh McRoberts, and you have yourself a recipe for one game saving an entire round. Well that, and the fact that amid all the yawning Gus Johnson still found a way to have multiple coronaries. So you see, it wasn’t really all that bad.

And it certainly got better. Saturday was fantastic, and made up for the let down of the first two days. Pitt-VCU, Lousiville-Texas A&M, Vanderbilt-Washington State, and BC-Georgetown were all classics. VCU clawed back from 19 down in the second half to take the Panthers to overtime. A freshman from the Cardinals made 15 straight free throws and owned the game against A&M before losing the Midas-touch in the waning seconds. The free-spirit-Cougars went two OT’s with Vandy before falling. And Eagles-Hoyas was just a backyard brawl.

Now, with 16 still standing, let’s take a glance at what’s to come…

East Region

North Carolina-USC I’ll tackle this one first but I really have little ground to stand on. The Longhorns needed something from D.J. Augustin and got nada (6 points, 6 turnovers) against USC. So much for my national champs, as the Kevin Durant era (I hope) has come to a close at UT. Looking ahead to this matchup I just can’t envision USC having the legs or the bodies to run with Carolina. Tyler Hansbrough tore off that mask and tore Michigan State apart in the second round. With Ty Lawson sustaining his current level of play the Heels take this one relatively comfortably.

Vanderbilt-Georgetown After GT-BC I can’t honestly say you’re going to see a grittier game in the round of sixteen, but Vandy is at the very least resilient, and won’t be swayed by Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green in the trenches. These two teams met at the very beginning of the season (an 86-70 Hoyas win) so there will be no aspect of unfamiliarity. For the Commodores, Derrick Byars has emerged this tournament as that senior leader who has refused to let his team go down. Don’t expect this game to move higher than the 60s. Georgetown is one of the best closing teams in the country. This will be a tightly contested match but the Hoyas will prevail late.

South Region

Ohio State-Tennessee Indisputable fact about March Madness: every would-be champion has a scare. You can say what you want about Greg Oden’s controversial mauling of Xavier’s Justin Cage that was not deemed an intentional foul. Cage still had a chance to ice the game but missed a free throw. And the Musketeers failed to defend the three point line on the Buckeyes’ last possession, allowing Ron Lewis to get a great look and tie the game at the buzzer. There’s something reassuring about surviving in the face of imminent demise. So much about this tournament is believing, and I think Ohio State finally believes. Good run, Vols.

Texas A&M-Memphis The Aggies have been a chic Final Four pick, while the Tigers have almost been an afterthought as the two seed. No one really gave them a chance last year, and yet they got within a win of the Final Four. A&M on the other hand, really did struggle against pesky-Penn. In the end it was the Aggies’ athleticism that won out over the Quakers’ SAT scores. As the tournament progresses and the talent gap between opponents diminishes, coaching becomes more of a focal point. In my opinion the edge in that category swings to John Calipari. Tigers advance.

Midwest Region

Florida-Butler Ho-hum, the Gators are in the Sweet 16. Now if someone can please wake up Joakim Noah, that would greeeeat. While Florida’s hoop-when-necessary approach has suited them well enough through the first two games, they better watch out. The Bulldogs are full of life right now and could build an early lead in this game. Regardless, at some point the Gators will take a big bite outta the dogs and send them home with their tails in between their legs. Another formidable run for Butler.

Oregon-UNLV All I know is that the winner of this game will have THE best after-party on campus…

West Region

Pittsburgh-UCLA I’m certainly not the first, but I’ll go right ahead and declare it myself: this will be the ugliest basketball game you’ve ever seen. Yes, I did watch the UCLA-Indiana game. While that was the most horrid first half of basketball you’d ever want to see, the last ten minutes were pretty thrilling. This game will be played on more of an equilibrium of ugliness. Ben Howland coaches UCLA, where he has trademarked Ugly Hoops Inc.. In case you forgot, he started the enterprise as an entrepreneurial endeavor at…none other than Pitt! His disciple there? None other than Jamie Dixon, current head coach of the Panthers! Let’s just hope the winner of this one cracks 40.

Kansas-Southern Illinois The Salukis’ grind-it-out approach has become well-documented, and America has met another Falker, who goes by the name of Randal. All and all a heck of season for a school from the Valley, which is a conference that has undoubtedly shed the “mid-major” tag after the last two tournaments. Unfortunately, going up against a team as talented as Kansas, well, there’s only so much a Falker can do…

Enjoy the games.

Tourney Preview

Talk about a wide open tournament. Florida could capture it because it begins its title defense with the same crew from last year. UCLA is championship caliber because the Bruins are better than the national runner-up squad they fielded last April. Wisconsin could win it with gritty defense and Alando Tucker. Kansas is scary. So is North Carolina. Ohio State has Greg Oden. Texas has Kevin Durant. Texas A&M has Acie Law IV. Georgetown is white hot. Memphis has won 22 in a row.

That’s ten teams. Ten teams that if I had to play devil’s advocate I would wholeheartedly endorse as the next national champions.

But I’m not here for that. I’m here to be decisive. To be brash. I’m here to tell you the crazy s**t that I think is going to transpire in this tournament. So without further ado here is a region by region breakdown with notes, upsets, and picks.


Midwest Region

Notes: Bad news everyone. Florida is baaaaack!! The Gators had a few snooze sessions this season, but have regained that Gator-pride and appear poised to defend their crown. If Florida loses it will be early and shocking (see: Arizona, second round). Still, doubtful that’s going to happen, and whoever emerges from the bottom half of the bracket (likely Wisconsin or Oregon) will find itself overmatched against a seasoned group of hungry Gators.

Upset Special: Winthrop. The Eagles are a senior-laden team that has lost only four games this year. Oh yeah, and those four L’s were to North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Texas A&M. Of those games they only got blown out by A&M. They ate their conference alive and are no strangers to the tournament out of the Big South. Don’t be fooled: Winthrop just might find itself standing between Florida and the Final Four.

Final Four Pick: Florida. It’s immensely difficult to repeat as national champs because of the structure of the tournament and the fact that elite teams usually matriculate stars to the NBA. The Gators are intact, and have a more than manageable trek to Atlanta. Winning the first four is doable for the champs. But that’s still only two thirds of the way to two in a row…

West Region

Notes: The West has the best slate of projected second round games and subplots. Kansas and Kentucky is the most notable, as the Jayhawks have made early exits the last two years, and Tubby Smith’s Wildcats won’t be an easy out. On the bottom half of the bracket is a potential rematch of the best regional game from last year, between UCLA and Gonzaga. Win or lose, Adam Morrison won’t be there to bawl at midcourt, but the Zags will certainly have revenge on their minds.

Upset Special: Holy Cross. In 2002 the Crusaders almost changed history. As a sixteen seed, they took Kansas, a one seed, down to the wire. They haven’t won a tournament game since 1953 but have been a formidable opponent in clashing with the likes of the Jayhawks, Marquette, and Kentucky in the recent past. Southern Illinois, a cinderella of the past, is currently sitting on a four seed. Like Gonzaga, the Salukis have always done their best work as a long shot. This year my bet is Southern Illinois will hear chants of “Welcome tah Woostaah!”, and have no clue what they mean.

Final Four Pick: Kansas. The Jayhawks have a strong sophomore nucleus that has felt first hand the unpredictability of the tournament. Kansas was stunned in the first round by Bradley last year. Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Julian Wright won’t let that happen again. And history would indicate that once Kansas gets rolling, regional finals are all but a sure thing.

East Region

Notes: Without a doubt the most stacked region in my opinion. North Carolina was rewarded with a number one seed and short travel distances, but the Tar Heels have a tough road ahead. Marquette and Michigan State are far from gimmes in the second round. With this bracket featuring the likes of Texas, Georgetown, and Washington State, there are many potential speed bumps for the very deep, but very young Heels.

Upset Special: Boston College. For the first time in a handful of years, the Eagles have no expectations. Zero. Since Sean Williams was dismissed from the team, BC has been nothing short of a train wreck. So why do I like them? Matchups. A first round tilt with Bobby Knight and Texas Tech will bring out the best from ACC Player of the Year, Jared Dudley, who struggled through the latter half of the conference schedule. And mark my words: Georgetown wants no part of an old Big East rival playing with nothing to lose.

Final Four Pick: Texas. Two words: Kevin Durant. He’s the best player in the country. He’s the best player in college hoops since Carmelo Anthony. And he’s on a mission. More on that in a sec…

South Region

Notes: Florida may be the top overall seed, but Ohio State has the easiest overall path to Atlanta. Texas A&M is probably the Buckeyes’ most serious competition, but will have to knock off Louisville in Lexington, KY before entertaining any notions of Ohio State. The rest of the region is full of sleepers. Virginia could make a run with its exceptional backcourt duo of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. Nevada is led by an All-American, Nick Fazekas. John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers just finished colonizing Conference USA, and have an element of mystery to complement a 30-3 record.

Upset Special: Penn. Between nomadic Quaker fans and the partisan-Kentucky crowd in Lexington, Penn should have a decent support contingent. On the court Ibrahim Jaaber is one of the top point guards in the country, and can control a game by himself. Penn isn’t a big team, but is disciplined and can shoot the ball. Look for the Quakers to frustrate A&M, win the crowd as the perennial underdog, and have a chance to steal the game late.

Final Four Pick: Ohio State. Impossible to pick against the Buckeyes. Greg Oden has elevated his play of late, which is another way of saying he is gaining use of his dominant hand. He had a couple of monster games in the Big Ten Tournament, and should be eager to prove some naysayers wrong (even if he is the consensus number one pick and wears the expression of a trash collector). And don’t forget about Ohio State’s other fab freshman, Mike Conley Jr. This kid has proven he has the ability and the rocks to take and make big-time shots.

And the Winner is…

Texas. Here’s a quick story: I was at the 2003 Big East Tournament, and watched as Connecticut, led by Ben Gordon, disqualified Syracuse in the semifinals. After watching Carmelo Anthony throughout that tournament I had already determined he was the greatest college baller I had ever seen in person. What struck me at the time was watching him walk off the court at Madison Square Garden, defeated. He had a look plastered on his face. It was a combination of contained anger and silent resolve. I felt it. And I thought to myself, wow this kid looks like he’s about to make a stand. That inkling was enough for me to pencil in Syracuse as the national champs. And Melo handled the rest.

I believe Kevin Durant is about to pull a Melo of his own. He knows he’s the best. He’s shown he’s the best. And last weekend he took the proverbial sucker punch from Kansas in the Big 12 Championship. In that game he tied a career-high with 37 points, but Texas blew a huge lead and lost in overtime, 88-84. Durant didn’t score and took only two shots in the extra session. The facts are clear. No player or defensive scheme can deal with Durant. When he takes the ball, he finds a way to put it in the basket. When he has failed, it has been because the ball didn’t find him. In this tournament, not only will the ball find Durant, but when it becomes necessary, Durant will TAKE THAT ROCK.

And Texas will cut down the nets in ’07.

Bracket Points

I say it every year but it warrants an annual mention: the NCAA Basketball Tournament is the best three weeks in American sports. March Madness is the one sporting event that blurs the boundaries between work and play; between personal and professional. For three weeks straight it invades lives and environments, crosses cultures, while continually dominating the moment.

The common thread? Brackets. For anyone working in an office, going to a school, frequenting a bar, or generally not living in a hole, brackets are waiting to be filled out.

Within a specific populace, the ensuing conglomeration of completed brackets gives way to “the pool”. This pre-tournament ritual helps jump start the madness before the ball even goes up. Since the field of teams is set a full three days before the competition begins, this limbo period allows “the bracketer” ample time to abandon normal activities and research teams with the intention of locating potential sleepers and duds. Sometime within this process comes the moment of conception: a vision of the outcomes of 63 basketball games, unique unto the bracketer.

While a bracket will ultimately not sprout arms and legs, upon completion it without a doubt takes on a life of its own. There is a natural moment of pride associated with the first glance at a just-finished bracket. That feeling of satisfaction then shifts to one of angst, with the realization that the bracketer actually has no freaking clue what’s going to happen. However, confidence returns. The bracketer is by nature cocky. And defense of a bracket in hostile, divisive environments like offices or bars is a must.

You see, some brackets can be made or blown before the tournament even kicks into high gear. Due to the fact that nobody will ever produce a perfect bracket, defending one’s picks is almost as vital as picking the games themselves. Because of this notion the Madness can be divided into two phases: the first weekend of games, and the rest of the tournament.

There are 48 games the first weekend, and the bracketer has a vested interest in every one of them. Which is why over that four day period there are 48 battles to be won or lost, each frequently being decided by a single bounce of the ball. Ideally the bracketer emerges from that first weekend beaten, but not defeated; amazed, but not exhilarated.

While everyone wishes and believes that their picks could theoretically and miraculously all come to fruition, those first four days decisively extinguish that utopia. By this point the hope is that the bracketer’s Elite Eight and Final Four are still relatively intact. This is where the second phase takes over. After the cyclone that blows through the first two rounds, what’s left of one’s bracket becomes cherished. Highlighters, creases, and stains (not to mention buzzer beaters and upsets) have compromised its original crisp and flawless form.

Now there are 16 teams left. The bracketer in you has now become you. You start to see exactly what must happen for your bracket to prevail. Scenarios are playing out in your head. Questions are forming. The angst is returning. Inevitably each game in the Sweet 16 and beyond will become an individual showdown against one of your bracketing competitors. You will adopt schools, fan bases, and basketball traditions you couldn’t have cared less about in February.

After withstanding the whirlwind phase of the first weekend, you discover that from the remnants has emerged an agenda. It’s an agenda of hope, realism, and odds, all simmered together in a stew of March mayhem. And of course directly tied into the fates of the 16 remaining schools.

From this point on the basketball takes over. Teams still playing the second weekend of the tourney fall into two categories, contenders and cinderellas. Contenders are the national powers that found a way to escape the bedlam of the first round. Cinderellas are the little schools that pulled off a shocker or two. Both fall under the general heading of “smokin’ hot”. And any college team that is sizzling in March carries with it an air of invincibility.

Naturally, the level of basketball played is unrivaled. You’ll see guys hit threes from unfathomable distances. You’ll see others sacrifice their bodies, and leap five rows into the stands just to preserve a possession. With bigger venues, NCAA Regionals attract upwards of 25-30,000 spectators, all embodying the passion of their teams.

The Final Four? Only 50,000 people in a football stadium, layered on top of each other and surrounding a 94 foot hardwood court. They’ll be chanting in unison by the ten thousands. And there you’ll be, in front of your TV, crinkled bracket in hand, slippery highlighter in perspired palm, feeling the electricity of the moment, waiting for that one play that will advance that one team you need in order to beat that one friend who’s been pissing you off since fantasy football season ended.

Make no mistake about it, there’s something special about winning your pool; knowing that your bracket was the closest to the actual outcome of this utterly unpredictable, massive sporting sensation. And of course it’s always something special when your forecasting has given you the right to talk loads of smack to your friends and/or associates.

In that light, I’m introducing the first Ballgames Points Bracket Challenge. This will not be the conventional hoops pool. Since my readership is stretched far and wide (and evidently thin), I welcome anyone to submit their picks, and talk all the necessary trash throughout. There will be no blank bracket provided, so fill out your own and post all winners round by round, and attach whatever inflammatory hogwash you see fit throughout the tourney.

Three weeks, 63 do or die basketball games, and a whole lotta s**t talk. That’s what March Madness is all about.

***For more on s**t talk, check out the new CBS/CSTV March Madness promotional initiative. The New York Times summed it up (and legitimized it) best:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/28/business/media/28adco.html?ex=1173502800&en=1524d91f30a55a0c&ei=5070

Here’s my taped bit on the BC Eagles:

http://cstv.collegesports.com/postup/play.php?vid=7