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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Don't Ask Us

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It's time for the yearly blow to U.S. economic productivity known as the NCAA basketball tournament, with the entire nation fixated on filling out brackets and sneaking workplace peeks at the opening games. Forecasts are flying, expertise is everywhere... or perhaps not.

 

Artie: Let the overthinking begin!

Frank: But we refuse to be a part of it.

A: The whole thing is such a crapshoot. Just look at the last handful of years: Wichita State getting to the Final Four as a 9 seed last spring; Butler doing it in 2010 and '11, and joined by VCU the second time...

F: Davidson and Steph Curry reaching the Elite Eight in '08, George Mason getting to the national semifinals in '06...

A: And also last year, that Florida Gulf Atlantic Sunoco or whatever...

F: That was Florida Gulf Coast, reaching the Sweet Sixteen as a 15 seed.

A: Which is just what the Badgers are opening against at the Bradley Center. Beware!

F: Not that it's likely they'll lose to American University, but...

A: I don't see why there wouldn't be some early surprises. These low-seeded teams, a lot of times they don't get to play anybody big because nobody schedules them, so they can surprise people in the tournament. But take a team like Stephen F. Austin—I don't care what conference you're in, if you go 31-2 you've gotta be good!

F: The Lumberjacks have won 28 straight. But they're opening against a team that knows all about dangerous underdogs, namely VCU.

A: The Badgers know about 'em too because they've had their share of slip-ups. They were among Butler's victims in '11, Davidson's in '08...

F: And they got smoked by Cornell in the second round in '10.

A: Generally these smaller schools don't have “one and dones,” they have guys with experience. So how do they get to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond? Well, they're good and they've learned to play together. Sort of like Florida this year; they're senior-heavy and have a great coach.

F: Billy Donovan, a fine Long Island guy with two NCAA rings on his resume. The Gators are the overall 1 seed, but really, does seeding matter all that much at the top? Isn't it more about how teams match up?

A: Look at the 1 through 4s in every region. Michigan State is a 4, that's meaningless after what they did to UW and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.

F: The selectors, as we were told on CBS, look at the “body of work,” and the Spartans were missing some key players during the regular season.

A: And now they're healthy, so watch out. And the defending champs, Louisville, are a 4, but they've been crushing teams lately.

F: But wow, the Cardinals are in a tough Midwest regional with unbeaten Wichita State, Michigan and Duke. The Blue Devils are the only one in that group that didn't reach the final weekend last year.

A: On paper, the Badgers might have an easier path to the Final Four in the West Regional, but the other top seeds are no slouches: Arizona, Creighton and San Diego State, with Oklahoma and Baylor lurking at 5 and 6. And it won't be easy getting past the presumed Saturday opponent, Oregon.

F: The Ducks split with both Arizona and UCLA in the regular season, and they'd won eight straight before losing to the Bruins in the Pac-12 quarterfinals.

A: West Coast teams can be unfamiliar because they play so late. But I'll bet Bo Ryan knows all about the Ducks.

F: Meanwhile, “Milwaukee,” as UWM is now known, is on the other side of the 2 vs. 15 thing, facing Villanova.

A: Unfortunately for the Panthers, 'Nova had an eye-opening stumble against Seton Hall in the Big East tourney. So they're unlikely to be complacent.

F: There was a lot of lamenting on CBS over UW-Green Bay getting ignored by the selectors.

A: The Phoenix definitely deserved to be in! They were 14-2 in the Horizon League, seven games better than UWM, but because automatic bids go to the conference tournament champs, the Phoenix's 24-6 season somehow was only NIT-worthy.

F: As we said last week, good for the Panthers in beating Green Bay for the title, but if the NCAA really cares about “bodies of work,” the season-long champs should get the automatic bids.

A: And if the tourney champs are different, they should go into the “bubble pool.”

F: It was tough that Marquette's body of work didn't impress the NIT enough for a bid, but not wildly surprising.

A: Not with a 17-15 bottom line and a crummy RPI ranking. Better luck next time, Buzz.

F: Of course the Panthers have a “puncher's chance” against Villanova, with the punch being three-point shooting. Anyone can get really hot or cold on a given day...

A: As the Badgers know from some of their NCAA losses. But this year they don't rely on treys nearly as much as in the past, so that's encouraging. Hey, somebody's got to win six straight.

F: We just have no idea who.

 

THOMPSON PEPPERS THINGS UP

F: Last week we talked about Ted Thompson emulating Bill Polian with his cautious approach to signing “outside” free agents. Now it looks like Thompson was emulating the Brewers' Doug Melvin penchant for surprises—“Nothing going on, nothing going on... Oh yeah, we signed Matt Garza.”

A: In Ted's case it was Julius Peppers, and I like the move. He obviously thinks Peppers has something left.

F: He also thought that about Jeff Saturday, and it proved not to be true.

A: But before that it was Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, and it definitely WAS true.

F: I guess the Peppers deal is structured so that Thompson can get out of it after a year...

A: And the salary cap “hit” for next season is only about $3 million, so financially it's excellent.

F: I'd ask you how they calculate the cap hit, but I know that only a few supercomputers in the world know that formula.

A: One criticism of Peppers apparently is that he doesn't seem to have his “motor” going at all times, that he “takes plays off.” Well, the guy is 34 and the Bears played him constantly, so of course he was going to ease up here and there.

F: He still had seven sacks in a really crummy defense.

A: I think the Packers will be smarter and use him more situationally. They've been talking about having more different looks on defense, moving guys around, and Peppers should fit right in. The guy is quite an athlete; he also played basketball at North Carolina.

F: Now, the Packers find themselves needing a new center again after Evan Dietrich-Smith's departure for Tampa Bay.

A: They think they might have a good option in JC Tretter, who missed his rookie season with a broken leg but was able to practice in December and apparently showed something. He's out of Cornell so you know he's a smart guy, which you need because the center calls out the blocking schemes.

F: I guess they'll find out if Tretter's the guy in the upcoming OTAs—”organized team activities.”

A: That sounds so old-fashioned, like one day they all dance around a Maypole, one day they play croquet... It's like a 1930s, private girl-school thing.

F: Working up a “glow.”

A: But not to the point of being consumed by “the vapors.” I can visualize the locker room filled with fainting couches...

F: Besides landing Peppers, Thompson made sure he kept Mike Neal for the defense. He was injury-plagued at first but after moving to linebacker last season he played well.

A: He's still young and he's probably better than anyone else they would have signed.

F: But the Packers let safety M.D. Jennings go out the door.

A: Which was fine, even if he wound up with the Bears. Jennings wasn't getting it done, which means they'd be drafting a safety relatively high anyway.

F: The Packers also retained B.J. Raji for the D-line, and he'll have some incentive playing on a one-year contract after having turned down a long-term deal last year. Add in cornerback Sam Shields, tight end Andrew Quarless and linebacker Jamari Lattimore and Thompson has had success in keeping the main guys he wanted to keep.

A: With some salary-cap “space” still left to go after Pickett, James Jones, John Kuhn and James Starks.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek laminates his brackets.