Illini head to the Dance, undeservedly

While I thought we would get a bid to the Big Dance, I don't think we were deserving. Especially when you consider some of the teams that were left out, like Syracuse, Florida State, and Oklahoma State. The Big East didn't get as much love as I expected, which is surprising considering that I think it's the best basketball conference in the nation. Top to near bottom, it's a bitch. When you compare us to Syracuse, you can see why Jim Boeheim might have a good argument. SU beat Penn, 'Nova, Marquette, and G'Town, all teams in the Tourney. I think they're big two wins, over Marquette (on the road) and Georgetown (a game I watched) stand up much better than our two marquee wins over Indiana (at home and neutral). Then there's Oklahoma State, who has two elite college players, and beat Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and lost by just two to Tennessee. Florida State beat Florida, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Duke, and North Carolina State.

We're damn lucky to be dancing, methinks. And I think we'll get bounced in the first round by Virginia Tech, ruining the possible Weber-SIU matchup the tourney folks set up for round two. Here's what I know about the Hokies:

1) A Hokie is not a turkey, as their mascot would lead you to believe. It's actually an old-timey, sorta made-up word that basically means "hooray." True story.

2) They're beatable, as they proved in their non-conference season, beginning the year 4-3 with losses to Western Michigan, Southern Illinois, and George Washington. They dropped another game in surprising fashion when they lost at Marshall (by one). Other than that, their remaining losses were all to good teams within conference.

3) They're also damn good, as evidenced by their two wins over North Carolina. The Hokies can put the ball in the bucket. They scored 90+ points this season twice in ACC play, including a win over the Tarheels. They're led by guard Zabian Dowdell, who is averaging 18.0 points per game and hits 39 percent of his threes; Deron Washington, a 6-foot-7 wing with mad hops; point guard Jamon Gordon, a talented distributor and defender; and swingman A.D. Vassallo, their best three-point shooter. In general, they shoot fairly well from both inside and outside the arc, but like us can struggle at the line. They force a good number of turnovers and create havoc on defense with their athleticism. They remind me in many ways of a poor man's Ohio State -- poor in the sense that they're lacking a Greg Oden.

Our best bet to win: we take a sudden liking to feeding the post, hit a majority of what open looks we can get from beyond the arc, and better our season average at the charity stripe. My prediction: VaTech 61, Illinois 54.


10 random thoughts the morning after watching some incredible NCAA hoops

1) You can assume from the title of this post that I was not watching Big Ten basketball, because there's been far too few Big 10 games that would fall under the headline "incredible". (Even though the end of the Penn State-Iowa tilt was entertaining, at least.) No, the hoops I refer to was Texas A&M versus Texas in Austin. This game has been on my calendar for weeks, and unlike the teams' previous meeting @ A&M, this one was all it was billed to be -- tons of lead changes, and a close, well-paced game throughout. Kevin Durant, the best "big man" in college ball, versus Acie Law, the best guard in college ball. It did not disappoint. If you missed the game (eventually won by Texas by two points in double OT), then allow me a brief recap of the game's single-most defining moment. First, the set up: Durant drilled a three with around 20 seconds left in regulation to put Texas up by three. That set the stage for Law, who has earned his rep this year time and time again as the NCAA's best performer with the game on the line. With time winding down, Law dribbled to the wing past a screen, causing Durant -- he of the ninety-foot wingspan -- to switch onto him. Law needed a three to tie the game and send it into overtime. He had to shoot with Durant in his face, so he released a three-pointer that somehow arced over Durant's outstretched arm and, after dusting off the rafters while in orbit, swished through the hoop. Best shot of the year. No doubt. Law hit another three to send the game into a second overtime. But by that point, the Aggies, with two of their starters long-since fouled out, were dead-tired and just couldn't quite get it done on the road. To think that Law isn't being mentioned as a lock for a lottery pick just yet is sad. Yes, this year's draft is deep. But if Brandon Roy can go in the lottery and put up good numbers as a rookie, then Law is a lock to make some NBA team very happy. He'll be a great scoring-dishing PG in the pros. As for Durant, there's no doubt he's the best player in the country. He dominates games in a way that Greg Oden was supposed to, but never has.

2) In general, I've seen more memorable, entertaining NCAA games this year than in any year in recent memory, save for possibly the '04 Illini's run to St. Louis. The influx of freshman talent has had an astounding influence on the NCAA, and if you've been missing out, please pull your head out of your ass and try to catch a game or two before the tourney starts, especially if Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Wisconsin, North Carolina, UCLA, or Florida are on. One of those teams will win the title this year. That's not saying much, I realize, except that I don't think there will be any surprises in the final field of four this year. The cream of the crop is too good. My two darkhorses to make the Final 4: Pitt and Georgetown.

3) Enough NCAA discussion, let's talk pro ball. (Enter collective moan.) I was a bit shocked that the Bulls didn't pull the trigger to get Pau Gasol of the Grizzlies, as was widely rumored. But in the end, I'm still glad that Paxson didn't break up the nucleus. It's true that he also didn't improve the team's most glaring weakness -- interior scoring -- but I like the roll of the dice he's taking. He's got a talented team that defends relatively well and, if their shots are falling, will win at least one playoff round this year in the mediocre East. The Bulls hold a likely Top 10 (probably somewhere between 8-12) pick in the draft, and with that pick its still very likely they can get a very good big man who can step in next year and contribute offensively, say Al Horford, Spencer Hawes, Brook Lopez, or Aaron Gray.

4) My trip to Louisville with M proved rewarding, at least on the record-shopping end of things. The city in general isn't all that interesting on the surface. There's the Louisville Slugger Museum (pics from that later), which was interesting if you're a baseball fanatic but no so much otherwise, the Ali Museum (didn't go), some theater and art, and a variety of restaurants and locally-owned shops. However, we didn't get to experience much of that in the time we were there. There's one mile-plus strip -- Bardstown Road -- where a majority of those shops and restaurants are located, but it's a non-walkable, heavy traffic strip, which makes it difficult to discover much in one day. I concentrated on record stores, and found just two worth visiting: 1) Ear X-tacy, a truly great independent with massive selection and back catalog, but unfortunately no used vinyl, which is what I was after; and 2) Underground Sounds, which had some used vinyl but also a fairly decent '60s collection of new records from Sundazed and the like. I found a couple rarities of note there which I'll post about later on Good Moanin'. Certainly the town had more to offer in terms of music stores than Champaign, but that ain't saying much, of course. I was disappointed. Highlight of the trip: the fried pickle I ate at The Pub, a British pub knock-off. (They also had a diverse and plentiful selection of draft beers, but they were pricey.)

5) I can't wait for my first taste of baseball on TV this year. Wainwright -- remember him, Mets fans? Tigers fans? -- started our first game yesterday, tossing three scoreless innings against the Fish. Rick Ankiel -- remember him, baseball fans? -- went 2-for-2 at the plate. Today, Carpenter faces Glavine. Woo-hoo!

6) Al Green has one of the best voices, ever.

7) Would you read a well-written book on America's introduction of baseball to East Asia, their cultivation of the sport into a distinct style with their own branding, and then East Asia's come-full-circle influence on MLB? I'm gunning for such a book.

8) I've basically stopped taking this multivitamin that M tried to get me to start taking a while ago. I've had this huge bottle of 'em for some time. As foolish as this sounds, taking a daily vitamin makes me feel old, or at least older than I am. I suck at taking vitamins. Always have.

9) The Oscars suck. How did Jennifer Hudson ever defeat Adriana Barraza for an acting award? Of course, I was pitiful once again at picking the winners at this year's Oscars Party. I failed to finish in last, though. For the second year running, I was basically next-to-last, after winning last in my first try three years ago.

10) I like Rice Krispies treats -- a lot. There were some at the Oscars Party, and I enjoyed several. Maybe if I could just place a multivitamin inside a Rice Krispie treat...