The last four teams in the NCAA Tournament East Regional converge on New York City to settle a Final Four berth between tonight and Sunday. Friday’s semifinals feature Iowa State-UConn (7:27 PM ET) and Michigan State-Virginia (9:57 PM ET), with both games carried by TBS.
Am I the only one who doesn’t like a start at almost 10 PM local time? From the standpoint of those of us at home, it’s fine—this is the standard tip time for the last game of the night in the Sweet 16 for years now. But it’s one thing when that game is on the West Coast and it’s only 7 PM local time. Even if you had it in the Central time zone for 9 PM would be tolerable.
I know they’re college kids and up this late all the time, but it has to play at least a little havoc with body clock, to have a highly competitive and emotional basketball game starting at 10 PM. Shouldn’t we want the season’s biggest games played under more optimum conditions?
The NCAA didn’t have a choice this year, with three regional sites—Indianapolis, Memphis and NYC—all being in the Eastern time zone. Although maybe that’s a reason to ensure that, in addition to the West Regional, either or the South or the Midwest has to be in a non-ET location.
Let’s move on with the games. Here’s the Notebook Nine, our nine talking points on the East Regional, drawn from betting odds, personnel and program history.
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*Virginia is the top seed in this regional, but Michigan State is the betting favorite. The team every analyst and President Obama himself jumped on as a national championship pick, is 9-2 to win the whole thing, just narrowly behind co-favorites Louisville and Florida. Virginia’s price isn’t bad, at 10-1. Iowa State and UConn are further down the chart, at 25-1 and 28-1 respectively. If you wanted to take a flyer on either of these teams, it’s probably better to do it at the regional level when you’re guaranteed one of them getting a chance on Sunday.
*This year has been sort of a blast from the past for Virginia, as their run to the ACC championship woke up the echoes of the Ralph Sampson era and their last outright league crown back in 1981. Virginia also made the Final Four that year. The Cavs also had a surprise appearance in 1984, one year after Ralph graduated. But they haven’t been back since, and they’ve only even played for it twice (1989, 1995), and haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 1995. In fact, this is the only the second appearance in March Madness itself in the last six years.
*It’s been all about defense for Virginia this year, but don’t overlook their ability to score from outside and off the dribble with both Malcom Brogdon and Joe Harris. A key to their future success will be whether Akil Mitchell is able to do damage inside on offense, and get easy points. Mitchell is a solid rebounder, but more iffy on scoring.
*Tom Izzo is looking to add yet another line to a fabulous resume in his tenure at Michigan State. He’s racked up five Final Four appearances, the last of which was 2010, and it includes the 2000 national championship. We’re living in the glory years of Spartan basketball, as the program’s only other runs at or near the top came in 1978 and 1979 when they had Magic Johnson and won the national title in the latter year. And Michigan State made the Final Four way back in 1957.
*Sparty has built its reputation on physical rebounding in the Izzo era, and this year’s team is no different. Once they got both Adriean Payne and Branden Dawson healthy at the same time, Michigan State regained its physicality. Gary Harris and Keith Appling are both very good scorers in the backcourt. The team does have all the pieces in place and it’s easy to understand why they became a trendy pick to win it all.
*Iowa State has never made a Final Four, and ironically, the only time they got really close was in 2000, when they lost to Michigan State. Is a rematch ahead on Sunday? The Cyclones also made the Sweet 16 in 1997 and lost a one-point heartbreaker to UCLA. Otherwise, while this program has been a respected and consistent team, they haven’t made a big impact, be it through conference championships or deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.
*The talent is there for this year’s Cyclone team to get blowing through. Melvin Ejim is a terrific scorer, the best that will be on hand in New York, and the small forward aggressively goes to the glass. DeAndre Kane can both ring up points and distribute the ball from his spot in the backcourt. But the most significant injury in the tournament this side of Joel Embid at Kansas came when Iowa State lost inside force Georges Niang, the third prong of what was a true Big Three that had won the Big 12 tournament. Iowa State survived North Carolina without Niang and got this far, but eventually that has to catch up to them.
*UConn is entering a new phase of its history. The history of the Huskies is two pretty clear chapters right now. The first one is pre-Jim Calhoun where they did nothing. The second is the Calhoun era where they won three national championships and made a fourth Final Four. At least the post-Calhoun era isn’t going to mean irrelevance, as the program makes only its fourth trip this deep into the field with a different head coach than the legend, and two of the previous three came prior to 1976.
*The Huskies should get the benefit of some home cookin’, with a strong nearby fan base and a lot of history at MSG from their time in the Big East. They also have the benefit of Shabazz Napier, an outstanding guard who’s playing at a very high level. UConn is certainly the weakest of the four teams in New York, but a friendly crowd and one great player is more than a lot of underdogs bring to the table.
I was on the Michigan State bandwagon, to at least reach the Final Four prior to the tournament, so that pick holds firm. In a somewhat shocking development, I was actually correct in forecasting an Iowa State-UConn regional semi-final. I had the Cyclones winning on Friday before falling on Sunday, so the pick also remains the same.