Archive for March, 2006

Some random thoughts for your Final Four weekend:

1) Bucky Survives and Advances – Forget about Presidential elections. What terrifies me about the voting patterns of the Red States is that Bucky Covington could very well be our next American Idol. If you've watched this season at all and have any discernible taste in music (or just an appreciation of proper intonation), you know exactly what I'm talking about. Not only did he not finish in the bottom 3 this week, but next week everyone has to sing country songs (looks like I'll be just tuning in for the results show), which plays right into Bucky's Southern Strategy. We can't let this happen. Vote or die, people!

2) The Pink Line – I seriously thought the Chicago Tribune was pulling an early April Fool's joke on us with this morning's front page article. Unfortunately, every time I set the bar lower for the CTA, they manage to limbo right under there.

3) Kelvin Sampson Hired at IU – The only thing more surprising than the announcement of Sampson's hiring at Indiana is the tepid response of Hoosier fans. As I said before, IU fans were expecting Coach K to drop everything, move to Bloomington, and bring along Phil Jackson and Pat Riley as his assistants. Notwithstanding the ignorance of its fan base, I believe that Indiana made a great hire and he was certainly as close to the top of the coaching mountain as the school could reasonably attain.

Take this from an Illini guy who was hoping that IU would screw up and bow to nepotistic pressure to hire within the “Indiana Family” a la Steve Alford (or the gold standard of Isiah Thomas): anyone that argues that Indiana should have hired Alford over Sampson is insane. Sampson has proven he can win lots of games and recruit great talent at the basketball backwaters of Pullman and Norman. It's interesting to note that the Hoosier fans that are most critical of the baggage regarding Sampson's calls to recruits are pretty much the same people that vehemently defended a coach that choked his players. Seems just a little bit hypocritical for them to pull out the "integrity" card, no?

All in all, Kelvin Sampson is a great fit for Indiana and is going to provide some tough competition on the floor and on the recruiting trails in the Big Ten. Indiana fans ought to thank their lucky stars they got this good of a coach.

4) Final Four Predictions – I'm not betting against George Mason anymore – I'm a believer. So, I'm going with George Mason over Florida and UCLA over LSU in the semifinals.

Have a great weekend!

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Yesterday it was the American League. Today, let's check out the Senior Circuit. I'll have my predictions for the baseball postseason next week.

NL EAST

1) Atlanta Braves – The conventional wisdom was that the Mets would overtake the Braves last year, but the Atlanta rookies proved to be pretty much all studs. Even though they've only won one World Series during this unprecedented 16-year division winning streak the Braves organization and, in particular, manager Bobby Cox have proven that this is the premier franchise in baseball. Pretty much every key player is back, so I see no reason why they won't win the East again.

2) New York Mets – The Mets excel at making splashy signings to grab some New York tabloid headlines from the Yankees every winter (this season, enter in Billy Wagner), but they seem to be baseball's version of the Washington Redskins: they've got stars all around, yet the lack of chemistry and continuity from season-to-season means they spend the first couple of months of the year underachieving. By the time they turn it around, it's usually too late. Expect some lackluster results from the Mets again.

3) Washington Nationals – This is what happens when a team is actually run by Major League Baseball A.K.A. Bud Selig: they trade for by far and away the best offensive second baseman in baseball, yet decide to stick him in left field, where power hitters are a dime a dozen. Alfonso Soriano might have acquiesed to the switch for now, but how happy would you be if your new employer essentially slashed your salary potential by 20% by moving you to a different position? This isn't a good situation. Still, there's enough talent here for the Nats to make a decent showing. I wouldn't be surprised if this team ends up finishing ahead of the Mets.

4) Philadelphia Phillies – The over/under on the number of games before Philly fans start throwing batteries on the field is 3. They had their window of opportunity the last few years and they blew it. It's going to almost as ugly as…

5) Florida Marlins – … the Marlins' cicada-like cycle of destroying their team within 2 years of winning the World Series. Can you believe that only the Yankees have been more successful in the postseason over the past decade than this sorry-ass excuse for a franchise? The Yankees' spending doesn't make me sick, but the crap that the Marlins have pulled twice does.

NL CENTRAL

1) Chicago Cubs – No, this is not a typo by your favorite White Sox fan. The biggest thing here is that I love Juan Pierre. This guy is going to change the face of this offense for the better. Imagine what Derrick Lee's numbers are going to look like when he doesn't come up to the plate with the bases empty due to Corey Patterson's lack of anything. The Cubs would have done themselves a whole lot of good by signing Kevin Millwood or someone else comparable instead of continuing to chase the Healthy Wood and Prior Urban Legend, but the bullpen is vastly improved. Plus, this division won't be as strong this year.

2) Milwaukee Brewers – Not only do I believe that the Brew Crew is going to finish second in the division, but they're going to take the Wild Card as well (partly because the NL compared to the AL looks like the NFC compared to the AFC in the NFL right now). The Brewers have the most pitching depth in the division and premier power hitters in Carlos “El Caballo” Lee and Richie Sexson (UPDATE: I'm a dumb-ass; Sexson is with the Mariners now; substitute Geoff Jenkins' name here). This will be the team that makes the leap in baseball this season.

3) St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards had the best team in baseball on paper the last two seasons but weren't able to come up with a World Series win. I foresee a significant reduction in victories this season for an aging team, even if they do carry the best individual hitter in the NL in Albert Pujols and the best individual pitcher in the NL in Cris Carpenter.

4) Houston Astros – If Roger Clemens comes back, the Astros will grab the Wild Card. His presence gives them the premier starting rotation in the league. The offense is brutal, though, so if he doesn't come back to Houston, which is what I'm betting on, the Astros won't have enough strength to overcome their traditionally slow starts to the season.

5) Cincinnati Reds – Will Grant Hill, er, Ken Griffey Jr. be healthy all season? It won't matter, because this team really sucks.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates – Arrrrrrgh, me booty's the booty of the NL Central! Arrrrrrrrrrgh!!!

NL WEST

1) The Real World: San Francisco Giants – Coming up this season on the Barry Bonds reality show: With a halfway healthy Barry and Jason Schmidt, the Giants take this pathetic division with 82 wins. However, Barry has a steroid-induced fit with his 2005 replacement Pedro (Feliz) before the All Star break. In response, the members of the team vote to let Barry stay on the team but decide to take away his keys to the clubhouse.

2) The Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles – I picked the rest of these teams…

3) Colorado Rockies – … based on…

4) San Diego Padres – … how much…

5) Arizona Diamondbacks – … I like their uniforms.

Notwithstanding the NL West, I'm so ready for baseball!

With all of the craziness in the NCAA Tournament, let's not forget that the baseball season is starting on Sunday with no less than our Chicago White Sox unveiling their World Championship banner. Minnesota Red Sox has provided a spectacular in-depth look at all of the baseball teams at his Siberian Baseball site, so I highly recommend checking that out. Here are my quick predictions for the American League this season (with the National League and playoff predictions coming up within the next few days):

AL EAST

1) New York Yankees – With a true leadoff man back in the fray with the Yanks again in Johnny Damon, this team is going to slug its way to the top of the division again. The lack of improvement in the starting rotation is going to kill them again in the playoffs, though.

2) Toronto Blue Jays – The crazy Canucks were tipsy in giving B.J. Ryan such an exorbinant contract, but A.J. Burnett is going to thrive under Roy Halladay (Burnett made a wise choice in picking a place where he wouldn't be the #1 starter). This team is going to leapfrog the Red Sox by virtue of having the best pitching staff in the division.

3) Boston Red Sox – The "Josh Beckett/Curt Schilling DL Watch" is a spinoff of the Chicago original of the "Kerry Wood/Mark Prior DL Watch." If Beckett and Schilling were guaranteed to be healthy all season, I would pick the Bosox to win this division. I'm not betting on that happening, though. Plus, the loss of Johnny Damon is going to hurt this offense more than Red Sox fans care to admit.

4) Tampa Bay Devil Rays – Honestly, the collection of young talent on this team reminds me of the Indians from last year. I would not be shocked if this team makes a quantum leap over the Red Sox and Blue Jays this season. Seriously – anyone that runs a fantasy baseball team knows that the Rays have some good talent on that roster.

5) Baltimore Orioles – This team has picked up both Corey Patterson and Latroy Hawkins. I foresee supreme suckage.

AL CENTRAL

1) Chicago White Sox – When the world champs have gotten deeper in both hitting and pitching, that spells a repeat. I've already gone in depth on how much I loved the offseason moves by the Sox. This is going to be another fun year on the South Side. The only area that concerns me is closer – I still don't have faith that Bobby Jenks is going to be as consistent as we need him to be.

2) Cleveland Indians – This team is a little bit weaker without Kevin Millwood, but that will be balanced by the growth of their phenomenal young players by the end of the year. This is my bet for the Wild Card team.

3) Detroit Tigers – They haven't improved at all, it's just that…

4) Minnesota Twins – … this is the year that the Twins fall off the table. Notwithstanding Johan Santana, who is the best pitcher in baseball right now, this team regressed substantially last year and they haven't made any improvements.

5) Kansas City Royals – Transaction wire yesterday: “The Kansas City Royals have been optioned to the Pacific Coast League. The Portland Beavers have been called up as replacements.”

AL WEST

1) The Los Angeles Angels of the Town Up the Road from Laguna Beach and Other O.C. Cities Cooler Than Anaheim – Still an incredibly balanced team. The only way the Angels don't win this division is if Bartolo Colon gets too hungry one day and eats Vladimir Guerrero and Mike Scoscia suspends Colon indefinitely for not leaving any scraps. Anyway, the Angels are really good.

2) Oakland A's – Moneyball continues to allow this team to compete, but the Angels have surged clearly ahead of Oaktown and the Wild Card is getting out of reach with the AL East teams and the rise of the Indians. I'm still a big Barry Zito fan, though.

3) Seattle Mariners – The pitcher everyone compares phenom Felix Hernandez to is Dwight Gooden, as if that was a good thing. Funny, a pitcher that became coked up to the point where the zenith of his career was at age 19 doesn't conjure up a positive image. Let's hope he doesn't go down this road. Ichiro continues to kick ass, but the rest of the lineup is pretty lackluster.

4) Texas Rangers – W's old team will once again lead the league (a) in batters that hit 30 homeruns with only 60 RBI and a OBA under .300 and (b) pitchers that strikeout more cameramen than hitters. This is a higher-rent older version of the Devil Rays.

Pound for pound, the NCAA Tournament is the best event in all of sports – there's nothing even close to it. Super Bowls are more often than not pretty disappointing from a fan's perspective, there have been plently of lackluster baseball postseasons (although the last three seasons with the White Sox, Red Sox, and Cubs involved have been spectacular), the NBA and NHL Stanley Cup playoffs drag on for two months each, and don't even get me started on the BCS in college football. Meanwhile, the NCAA Tournament delivers improbable games and stories every single year in a one-and-done format. Does anyone ever remember there being a boring NCAA Tournament? It just doesn't happen. That's why I look forward to March Madness more than any other item on the sports calendar.

However, I've always thought the the Cinderella aspect of the NCAA Tournament was overblown. Sure, you'll see a number of low seeds upset superior teams on paper in the first round and a handful of midmajors get to the Sweet Sixteen on an annual basis. Every once in a while, teams like Gonzaga (who you can't call a midmajor anymore – they are the Duke of the non-BCS teams) or Kent State squeeze through to the Elite Eight. This is what makes picking brackets so fun. But when it comes down to where the stakes were highest – the Final Four – college basketball has been as stacked in favor of the powers-that-be as any pro or college sport.

History bears this out. Since the BCS was formed for the 1998 football season and until yesterday, only 2 teams, Marquette and Louisville, have made the Final Four that were not members of BCS conferences at the time of their runs and both of those teams are now BCS schools after having joined the Big East this season. At the same time, until yesterday, the last midmajor teams to make the Final Four were Indiana State and my sister's alma mater, Penn, in 1979. However, Indiana State had a guy named Larry Bird and came into the tournament that year as the #1-ranked team in the nation, so they were anything but a Cinderella story (in fact, they were an uber-Gonzaga). Penn was a bit of a surprise that year as a #9-seed, but the Quakers were well known as a historically significant program and their homecourt was and continues to be the Palestra, which is college basketball's equivalent of Wrigley Field (so the Ivy Leaguers weren't really outsiders). Considering this track record, it's interesting that the conventional wisdom is that college basketball gives everyone a chance to win it all while sports fans continually criticize the payroll disparities in baseball as being unfair to small-market teams even though the Florida Marlins have won two World Series championships in the last decade.

That's why I believe George Mason's breakthrough to the Final Four is the most shocking sports event that I've witnessed in my lifetime (I was alive for the Miracle on Ice in 1980, but since I was 2-years old at the time, I obviously don't remember that firsthand). Improbable comebacks, such as the Illinois eradication of a 15-point deficit to Arizona with 4 minutes to go in the game to make the Final Four last year (by the way, I popped in a tape of that game to watch that sequence again last night and I still can't believe how the Illini were able to do that. Even in the wake of the crazy White Sox postseason run, the 2005 Chicago Regional Final was personally the best sports moment of my life. Unless the Illini essentially do the same thing in a national championship game, the sea change from outright dejection to pure exhiliration in the span of a few minutes is something that probably will never be topped) or the Red Sox coming back from a 3 games-to-none hole against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS are at one level, but the teams who make the comebacks usually are at least expected to be competitive (for instance, the Illini had only lost one game all year and were the #1 overall seed in 2005, while the Red Sox had the second-highest payroll in baseball next to the Yankees in 2004).

What George Mason has done is simply beyond comprehension to me. The road that they took to the Final Four went through Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut – teams that have a combined 4 national championships and 8 Final Four appearances in the 7 years since the aforementioned beginning of the BCS. What's even more amazing to me is that this isn't a fluky team jacking up three-pointers and draining crazy shots, which is typically how most underdogs win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Anyone who watched the game yesterday noticed that George Mason controlled the tempo of the game by taking the time get a good pass into one of their two big men in the post on almost every possession, who would then either take it to the rim if there was a one-on-one matchup or kick it out for an open three-pointer or short jumpshot if there was a double-team. Simple in theory, yet not very many teams are able to do this consistently (for example, this is what I've been screaming at Illinois to do all season). At the same time, the Patriots played great man-to-man defense on UConn – even though there were few turnovers, the Huskies got few wide open looks and did a great job of boxing out to grab key rebounds.

The point is that George Mason doesn't look like a midmajor on the court. When Bucknell beat Kansas last year, the Bisons seriously looked like they were half the size of their Jayhawk counterparts. Same thing with Northwestern State compared to Iowa this year. The Patriots, on the other hand, play and look like a team from a power conference. They've already ousted the most athletically gifted team in country in UConn, a team with 3 starters from the 2005 Final Four in Michigan State, and the club with the best freshmen in the country in North Carolina. I'll be the first to admit to having a huge bias toward the major conferences as an alum of Big Ten and Big East schools. However, conferences don't win championships – teams win championships and GMU has proven that it is as great of a team as anyone out there. Maybe Cinderella does exist, after all.

Incredible night of basketball, folks! I was ready print a mea culpa and admit that Gonzaga was for real after they were steamrolling over UCLA for most of last night’s game, but the Bulldogs’ terrible defense finally reared its ugly head by allowing the Bruins to score the last 11 points in the game and secure a thrilling 73-71 victory. Gonzaga was yet another case of the general public getting swept up in offensive firepower while forgetting about what really matters – defensive intensity. The Bulldogs, Dallas Mavericks, and Indianapolis Colts might be fun to watch in the regular season, but none of those teams are going to win the whole thing in their respective sports unless they get real on defense.

If it wasn’t for the stunning UCLA comeback, the Texas – West Virginia game would have been the top instant classic from this year’s tournament. With the Longhorns as my pick for the national championship, I thought Kevin Pittsnogle’s three-pointer to tie the game with 5 seconds left was going to be the death-knell for my bracket (granted, it’s already on life-sustaining equipment). There’s no way that Texas could pick itself up in overtime, right? Well, Kenton Paulino flipped the prospect of overtime the bird and nailed his own improbable three-pointer at the buzzer to clinch an Elite Eight appearance for Texas.

The evening was already going really well for me after witnessing LSU pummel Duke and J.J. Redick. Not only do I have LSU in the Final Four in one of my brackets, but it came at the expense of the most evil team in the all of sports (college or pro). If you don’t believe Coach K and his minions are the Team of the Antichrist, check out this proof that Minneapolis Red Sox sent me.

Those three thrillers more than made up for the Memphis – Bradley yawner. I didn’t put much faith in Memphis before the tournament not because of their talent – I’ve known that the Tigers’ athletes are as good as any in college basketball this year – but because of their weak conference. The lesson here once again is that I’m an idiot. I’ve got to give Memphis props for playing a hellacious non-conference schedule to compensate for the subpar Conference USA games (UCLA, Duke, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Texas, Cincinnati, plus 4 other BCS schools and UW-Milwaukee, to boot). Compare that to UConn’s line of preseason cupcakes. Remember this if they end up meeting in the championship game.

Quick predictions for tonight’s games: Boston College over Villanova (power usually beats speed in the tournament), Georgetown over Florida (just a gut feeling), George Mason over Wichita State (homecourt advantage for George Mason in DC), UConn over Washington (55% chance of a blowout by UConn or a 45% chance of a close stunning upset by Washington – there won’t be anything in between).

Enjoy the games and your weekend!

My quick picks for tonight’s NCAA Tournament games are all chalk: Memphis over Bradley (although I’m proud of the Braves, the Tigers have too much firepower), Duke over LSU (probably will be a really close game), Texas over West Virginia (no longer will “Pittsnogle” be used as a verb in basketball), UCLA over Gonzaga (I will continue to pick Gonzaga to lose and call them overrated until the basketball gods rightfully bounce such an atrocious defensive team – they are the college version of the Dallas Mavericks).

Now, on to today’s links:

1) 2007 TV Rights Are On Big Ten’s Mind – Could Fox pay the Big Ten enough money to get the conference to abandon ESPN? I don’t care what the price is – leaving ESPN for more money would be fool’s gold for the Big Ten. The fact that no one outside of the Pacific time zone sees Pac-10 games has less to do with geography and more because none of their games are on ESPN. Plenty of hoops junkies have seen West Coast-based mid-major conferences such as the Mountain West, WCC, and Big West as a result of ESPN’s Big Monday. According to Teddy Greenstein, it looks like the Big Ten is going to do the right thing in the end and stay put.

2) Soap and the Campus: A Web-Site Spoof Succeeds – Have you ever met someone who went to Boston College? The old joke about them rings true: they think they’re Harvard in academics and Notre Dame in football. That’s a lot of bluster from a school that’s tied with our fair University of Illinois in the latest U.S. News rankings.

3) First Stadiums, Now Teams Take a Corporate Identity – If the MLS expands to Milwaukee, you know that the team must be called Milwaukee’s Best. There’s no other choice.

4) Chicago Parking Map – For those of you who can’t find a free parking space on the street and are willing to just give up and pay up, this should be a useful tool.

5) Signing New QB Should Have Been a Brees – I know that (a) Brian Griese isn’t exactly an addition to the Bears that makes my heart flutter and (b) complaining that Jay Mariotti is nuts is sort of like complaining that Chicago has corrupt politicians – it sucks but it’s never going to change. Still, what exactly were people expecting out of the Bears? It was a reasonable demand for the Bears to go out and get a solid backup quarterback, which is what they did in this situation by signing Griese. The Bears had as much of a chance of nabbing Drew Brees or Daunte Culpepper as the White Sox and Cubs had of trading for A-Rod a couple of years ago. Maybe I’m so happy to see that the Bears were proactive on the QB front for once that it’s coloring my thought process, but my gut reaction is that Mariotti needs to stop whining.

The fact that Illinois failed to get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after falling to Washington on Saturday was disappointing but not surprising. All this season, the Illini have been inconsistent on a game-to-game basis. It certainly wasn’t shocking to see us have an up-and-down game against a talented Washington team.

The tough thing about the aftermath of this loss is that we’re going to have to seriously dial back our expectations next season. From the moment after we lost to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen 2 years ago, we believed immediately that we would be national championship contenders in 2004-05 (and that proved to be correct). Last year, we at least had the satisfaction of making the Final Four and the national championship game while we could look forward to a solid, if not dominating, season with Dee Brown and James Augustine coming back.

Now, however, with Brown and Augustine having played their last game with the Illini, we don’t really know what to expect (as the Chicago Tribune pointed out a couple of days ago). We know that 2007-08 is going to be a resurgent year for Illinois with a banner recruiting class already in place featuring Eric Gordon, Bill Cole, and Mike Tisdale (and hopefully Illinois state champion Simeon guard Derrick Rose will join them). But that’s two years down the line. What is next year going to look like?

The best case scenario would be a performance similar to this year’s Ohio State team. A lot of Buckeye fans were looking past this season toward the ridiculous recruiting class starting in 2006-07 led by superstar center Greg Oden. However, the 2005-06 Ohio State team gave their fan base a lot to cheer for immediately by winning the Big Ten title outright. Considering how well Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt, and Jamar Smith developed over the last 2 months of this season and the addition of another top big man in recruit Brian Carwell, the Illini could be pretty good shape to contend for the top of the Big Ten again.

Anyone who follows the Illini, however, can also envision the worst case scenario. The makeup of the Illinois team next season is going to be 180-degree turn from what we had in 2005. We’re going to have great size with Pruitt, Carwell, and Randle, which is positive. However, we’re also going to go from having three NBA-caliber guards that could all bring the ball up the court in 2005 to not knowing if we have anyone that can be counted on to be the primary ballhandler in 2006-07. When success in college basketball and, in particular, the NCAA Tournament is predicated on having strong guards, this is a scary situation for Illinois next season. Jamar Smith is as accurate of a jump-shooter as you’ll ever see, but he seems more suited to being a wing player that can spot up along the arc. The same thing can be said of Rich McBride. Chester Frazier received some playing time as a point guard this season, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can run the motion offense at the high level that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Champaign. With all of this in mind, merely making the NCAA Tournament won’t be a given with this team next year.

My feeling is that we’re going to be closer to the best case scenario than the worst case scenario because of one overriding factor: Bruce Weber. As a coach, he may not have the smooth recruiting skills of Bill Self or the endorsement potential of Mike Kryzewski, but when it comes to Xs-and-Os, Weber is as good as they come. There were plenty of preseason observers that didn’t think Illinois would make the NCAA Tournament this year after losing Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Roger Powell, but the Illini ended up having a solid season (even if it did end on a sour note). A lot of coaches are fine when they have their own system in place and have the personnel to fit into that system, yet are at a loss when the makeup of the team changes. What Weber proved he could do this season is that he could adjust his system to the players that he had. The motion offense last season relied on perimeter play from Williams, Head, and Brown. By the end of this season, Weber adjusted the system so that the big men Augustine and Pruitt would be the focus of the offense. This will become more important next season as Illinois will need to rely even more on its frontcourt players.

2007-08 is the beacon of light for the Illinois basketball program right now. Before we look too far ahead, however, here’s to hoping that next season gives us some unexpected positive surprises.

Tom Dienhart of the Sporting News wrote a post on his blog listing out all of the BCS conference schools and determining whether each one is a basketball school or a football school. He categorized Illinois as a basketball school, but said, “The Whiz Kid and Flyin’ Illini trump Butkus and Halas – barely.”

I note this because, for once, an observer that didn’t attend the University of Illinois actually nailed this right on the head – kudos to Dienhart for this. Most people outside of Illini Nation seem to automatically assume that Illinois is strictly a basketball school that doesn’t care about football. This isn’t an unreasonable premonition considering that Illinois has had one of most successful basketball programs in the country over the past decade while the football program has been correspondingly awful.

However, I’ve had to explain many times to others that Illinois isn’t anything like its Big Ten neighbor Indiana, where football season is considered a mild diversion until Midnight Madness. We do care about football and we do go to games. Is the passion for football in Champaign equal to what one would witness at Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame? Certainly not, but remember that there are only a handful of schools across the country that come anywhere close to the high levels of consistent football support seen at those schools.

My point is that no one should assume that Illinois is just a basketball school. We love the basketball program dearly and it’s definitely been the main generator of excitement for alums and those on campus for quite awhile. However, we also deeply want the football program to get back into the upper echelon of the Big Ten and finally win some Rose Bowls again. Unlike the Hoosiers, Jayhawks, or Blue Devils, it’s in the DNA of Illini Nation to truly care about the state of the football team. Hopefully, we’ll be rewarded with some gridiron success soon to match our prowess on the hardwood court.

That was a really weird scene at the beginning of the Illinois – Air Force game last night when there was hardly anyone besides the teams’ pep bands in the arena at tip-off because the game’s ticketholders hadn’t been let in yet. This was a result of a food cart that some bomb-sniffing dogs thought was suspicious. It looked like the Illini and Falcons were playing an intramural game at IMPE.

Anyway, when the crowd finally filed in, everyone was treated to Air Force’s Princeton offense that maddeningly produced wide open three-point shots for them. Fortunately, the Illini were able to counter with Jamar Smith’s own long-range capabilities to win 78-69 and advance to a tough second-round date with the Washington Huskies on Saturday. Some takes on last night’s game:

1) Big Ten Wonk – Noted that the score was particularly high considering that Air Force aims to slow down the game to where the score is as low as possible.

2) Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune) – Description of the weird circumstances all around with the game.

3) Jay Mariotti (Chicago Sun-Times) – Points out that the Illini need to get more scoring from their entire group if they want to advance.

4) Wayne Drehs (ESPN.com) – Nice ESPN review of Jamar Smith’s performance last night.

5) Bryan Burwell (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) – Illini Nation has reason to smile a little bit.

As for the rest of the NCAA Tournament field, I hope you listened to me regarding Syracuse – Texas A&M and ignored me on the Orange’s fellow Big East washouts Seton Hall and Marquette. San Diego State was hitting everything last night; fortunately for Indiana, the Aztecs couldn’t play defense. Out of all the upcoming second round matchups on Saturday, I’m most sure of the Hoosiers taking out Gonzaga. The Bulldogs’ struggles against Xavier yesterday weren’t an accident – Gonzaga is one of the most overrated teams I’ve seen in a long time.

Enjoy the games this weekend and GO ILLINI!

(3/12/07 UPDATE: If you’re looking for predictions for the 2007 NCAA Tournament, click here.) 

I fill out several brackets every year to cover my bases (including the obligatory “Delusional Illini Fan” bracket with Illinois going all the way for the championship), but here’s how I really think this season’s NCAA Tournament is going to shape up:

1) ATLANTA REGION

a) Teams With No Buzz That Can Surprise – Texas A&M, George Washington

b) Team With Lots of Buzz That Can Disappoint – Syracuse

c) Regional Final Prediction – Texas over Duke

2) OAKLAND REGION

a) Teams With No Buzz That Can Surprise – Indiana, Xavier, Marquette

b) Team With Lots of Buzz That Can Disappoint – Gonzaga

c) Regional Final Prediction – Kansas over Indiana (I can’t tell you how mortifying it is for me to pick such a matchup but I’ve got to put personal differences aside)

3) WASHINGTON REGION

a) Teams With No Buzz That Can Surprise – Illinois (before you call me a homer, we have the best shot to beat UConn of anyone in this region – I’m not saying that it will happen, as you can see in my Regional Final prediction below, but we’re going to be a tough out), Michigan State, Seton Hall

b) Team With Lots of Buzz That Can Disappoint – North Carolina

c) Regional Final Prediction – UConn over Michigan State

4) MINNEAPOLIS REGION

a) Teams With No Buzz That Can Surprise – Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin

b) Team With Lots of Buzz That Can Disappoint – Boston College

c) Regional Final Prediction – Ohio State over Villanova

5) FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Texas over Kansas, UConn over Ohio State

6) NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION

I predicted the Texas upset over USC in the Rose Bowl for the football national championship a few months ago, so I’m going all-in for the Longhorns this year. On top of that, remember that Texas also won the College World Series last June.  I’m calling Texas over UConn to cement the greatest sports year that any single school could possibly have.

The start of the first round is only a couple of hours away. Merry Christmas in March, everyone!