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Archive for March, 2010

The 2010 college lacrosse season has begun, and with it came huge expectations for the Spartans of Michigan State University. Led by 2nd year coach Duane Hicks, All-America goaltender Dean Hall, and a well-balanced attack, State started the year in the top 20 of the national rankings and have not looked back.

The Spartans made a trip to Tallahassee to start the season. They won games against Georgia and Boston College in convincing fashion before losing in the finale to host Florida State 8-5. This was only a minor setback for this young team, as they looked to bounce back from the loss with wins against ranked opponents Simon Fraser and Oregon.

The Spartans found their game back at home in East Lansing playing Simon Fraser and won 12-9, setting up a crucial game against the #7 ranked Ducks of Oregon.  The Ducks had just lost to the #1 ranked Wolverines of the University of Michigan, in a hard fought overtime thriller 5-4, and were not ready to lose back to back games after such a long trip. State entered the game ranked 13th nationally, but were ready for the challenge Oregon presented.

The Ducks jumped out to a 4-0 lead early in the first, and it looked as though the Spartans would be fighting for respect the rest of the way. They did not score until the end of the quarter, and still the game seemed out of reach. The second quarter was a different story as the Spartans completely outplayed and outhustled their opponents, and capitalized on scoring chances with goals from Junior captain Connor Bush and Freshman Michael Baily. The game was now up for grabs and the Spartans had the ducks reeling going into the half.

Senior Captain Dean Hall was an Honorable Mention All-American last season

The third quarter didn’t offer much scoring and the teams entered the 4th and final quarter tied at 5 apiece. The 4th quarter was very intense and started getting chippy between the teams. Michigan State did a great job of possessing the ball, working for ground balls, and protecting their net. Michael Baily finished his great game with 2 more goals and Patrick Nemes and Mike Degenhardt each added a goal of their own, as the Spartans defeated the Ducks 9-7. Michigan State outscored Oregon 9-3 after going down 4-0 to start the game. When asked about what the victory meant for his team, Senior attacker Michael Manetta said, “we really came together as a team, and it was a huge confidence builder. This win will definitely secure a spot for us in the national tournament, and give us a step in the right direction as we enter league play”. Michael Baily and Connor Bush were the stars of the game leading the team in goals and assists, but there were many key contributors to this comeback victory. Led by Senior captain Derek Baynton, State won over 65% of the faceoffs and also picked up seven more ground balls than Oregon. Josh Nemes, Mike Degenhardt, Spencer Martin, Tom Haubenreich and Patrick Nemes all did a great job of controlling the ball in the offensive zone, eating up the clock and generating scoring opportunities. The Defense was anchored by Senior captains Dean Hall and Matt LaCasse. LaCasse stifled any attacker’s chances at getting to the goal, and if they did, Hall was there to make the save. He posted a 63.2% save percentage against one of the top teams in the country and generated numerous breakouts with his excellent passing ability and field vision. Coach Hicks was happy with the win, but knows their work is not done. “A lot of people look at the rankings. The only ranking I’m worried about is the one at the end of the year,” Hicks said, “We have some tough games coming up and teams are hoping to make a name for themselves by beating Michigan State. No matter who we play, ranked or unranked, we have a huge target on our chest. Now, we’ll have to be more focused than ever.”

Saturday the Spartans easily defeated league opponent Central Michigan 16-8 to up their overall record to 5-1 and their league record to 1-0. They are currently ranked #8 nationally and are primed for a stellar finish to the young season. Their next game will be against the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, Saturday April 3rd. The win against Oregon was huge for the Spartans as they try and make their way into the national tournament in Colorado. If they can play the way they did against the Ducks, I like their chances.

Matthew Benedetto © 2010

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The 2010 NCAA tournament is upon us, and it is again time to print off a bracket and make your picks. I always have fun filling out a tourney bracket, but rarely make the right picks in the end. Even though this happens, I always glance over my bracket after I have completed it, and convince myself that it is actually the way it will happen. Why wouldn’t I, though? I mean I’m not going to pick the team I think will lose. So, after finishing, I am thoroughly convinced that I have the winner and may miss a game or two. Tops. This is the beauty of the NCAA tournament and is where the madness comes from “March Madness”. Year in and year out there are upsets. The mighty will fall. So who will be this years George Mason? Let’s take a look at each region with some picks, sleepers, and upsets as well. You can take this as advice if you want, but you may be better off having your girlfriend or mother filling out your bracket blindly, because most of the time, you and I won’t be right. That’s what makes these next few weeks so great.

March 18-21

This is the first weekend of the tourney and is one you do not want to miss. Although the games will get more and more intense as the tourney goes on, some of the best games are played on Thursday and Friday afternoon in the first round. Some examples are #13 Vermont taking down #4 Syracuse in 2005, Bryce Drew and #13 Valparaiso shocking #4 Mississippi at the buzzer, and #15 Hampton sending #2 Iowa State home packing before their tourney run was even under way. These are games that you do not want to miss. They will provide excitement and an intensity that may be surprising, as all of the lower seeds are out to prove that they belong with the big boys. Some even make a long run. George Mason anyone?

Midwest Region (DEATH)

So Kansas is the #1 overall seed. Ok. They had a great season and won the Big 12 regular season and tournament. It makes sense. So why are they in the hardest region I have seen since I started filling out brackets in the 2nd grade? And why don’t they have the winner of the play-in game? I am all about the Rock Chalk Jayhawk jazz, and have probably picked Kansas to win it all about 5 times, but if you are thinking about picking a team to win it all from this region, you may want to think again. This region is loaded with talent. That college in Ohio has the 2 seed, Georgetown is the 3, Maryland is the 4, Michigan State is the 5, and Tennessee is the 6. Why? I do not know. Obviously I am biased towards Michigan State, but why would they get a 5 seed being ranked #12 in the final polls and without ever slipping below #15 nationally? I understand they lost their last game to Minnesota, but Purdue lost to them by 20! Where is the respect for MSU and Tom Izzo? Do they not realize what they do in the tournament? They win. And I think they will pull it together and do the same in the sweet 16 against Kansas, just like last year. Maybe I’m being a homer on this one, but MSU beat the Jayhawks twice last year. They basically have the same teams. I know Kansas added Xavier Henry and MSU lost Walton and Suton, but I think Izzo has their number (enough of my MSU rant, Greivis Vasquez could send the Spartans home early).

Tennessee is the only team in the country that knocked off two of the number one seeds (Kanas & Kentucky), Georgetown is loaded with talent, and Maryland shared the ACC regular season title with Duke (also the team from Ohio won the Big Ten). This makes for a region with no easy games (and one that makes no sense).

UPSET SPECIAL: (10) Georgia Tech over (7) Oklahoma State

Not much of an upset being the 10-7 game, but an upset nonetheless. Derrick Favors is a physical Freshman that can create his own shot and bang down low with the big men. If Georgia Tech can look to isolate him more, they will win this game.

SLEEPER:  (5) Michigan State

Not much of a sleeper when you spend the season in the top 15, but they are a 5 seed. The Spartans have the talent to make a long tourney run, and I think a matchup with the Buckeyes in the elite 8 would benefit them greatly having played in their conference. Look for MSU to make a longer run than most may think.

Players to Watch:

Greivis Vasquez (Maryland): Vasquez is the ACC player of the year and has all the tools to lead the Terps to a solid tourney run. He has a great inside and outside game, able to post up and hit the trey ball. Definitely someone you will want to take a look at in this first weekend.

Greg Monroe (Georgetown): Monroe led the Hoyas to a 3 seed in his Sophomore season and is a presence down low. Not many players can hang with him on the block, especially in this region. A matchup with Ohio State in the sweet 16 would be fun to watch.

Draymond Green (Michigan State): Green is the heart and soul of this Spartan team and has the ability to post up, hit the open jumper, and rebound the ball with the best of them. He is also probably the best passing big man in the country averaging 3.1 apg. He always finds the open man and is very fundamentally sound.

Evan Turner (Ohio State): One of the top players in the country, Turner is a coaches’ dream. He can hit from long distance and slash to the inside. He also leads his teams in points, rebounds, assists, and steals (led big ten in points and rebounds). Turner can do it all and is worth watching even if he plays for the Buckeyes.

Final 4 Team: Michigan State

I know this is a bold pick, but I think that the Spartans can make a run at this thing. They did it last year, and have the same core players. I could be wrong on this, but being a Michigan State senior, it sure would be great to be right.

West Region

This region seems to be the exact opposite of the Midwest. Where is the competition for Syracuse? They might as well not play until the elite 8, where they would face Kansas State or Pittsburgh, and I don’t see them having a problem with them. Gonzaga is a formidable 8 seed and may prove to test the Orange and push them to the brink, but I think they will come out on top. Pitt and Vanderbilt are weak 3 and 4 seeds. I thought that the tournament directors would have realized this after Pittsburgh’s early exit last year and Vanderbilt losing to Siena in the first round as a 4 seed a couple years back. Although this region doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the others, this may provide for some upsets and great first round games. Let’s hope.

UPSET SPECIAL: (12) UTEP over (5) Butler

Butler has had a terrific season and have solid talent in Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, but they do not match up well with the speedy Miners. UTEP has held opponents to 38% shooting and 30% from three point range, which is Butler’s strength. I think that Derrick Caracter and Randy Culpepper will take over this game and send the Bulldogs packing.

(13) Murray State over (4) Vanderbilt

Murray State has a very balanced team and will be looking to upset the Commodores for their first NCAA tournament win since 1988. This may be a stretch, but don’t sleep on the Racers, they have the talent to compete with Vanderbilt and their SEC studs.

SLEEPER: (6) Xavier and (12) UTEP

Both of these teams have a chance to make it to the sweet 16 and can make a run at this region. Xavier had a big win late in the season over Richmond, and are led by Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford. Don’t think they can’t beat Pitt in the second round.

Players to Watch:

Wes Johnson (Syracuse): Johnson averages 16 points and 8.5 boards per game and has stepped up his game to lead Syracuse into the national title hunt after they were picked to be nearly last in the conference in the preseason. He is an athletic scorer who will make plays in crunch time and lead his team to victory.

Matt Bouldin (Gonzaga): Bouldin is not well-known in households throughout the country, but he should be. He does everything right and plays like a coach is on the floor. I was lucky enough to watch him play at the Breslin Center earlier this year. When you watch him on TV, take the time to watch him set screens off the ball and help on defense. His fundamentals are incredible and he knows how to lead a team.

Randy Culpepper (UTEP): Culpepper will be the reason UTEP is still dancing (or not) by the end of the weekend. He is a stellar guard and a pure scorer. Very fun to watch. Make sure not to miss the UTEP/Butler game, as it should be one of the best in the first round.

Jimmer Fredette (BYU): What a name, huh? Jimmer is an excellent scorer and distributor averaging 21 points and nearly 5 assists per game. he also has great range, shooting nearly 45% from 3 point range. Look for him to keep the Cougars in the game with the Miners, even though I think they will be on the losing end of that game.

Final 4 Team: Syracuse

The Orange have too much talent and not enough roadblocks. They should make it to the semifinals with ease, but will have a tough matchup with whoever comes out of the Midwest. Will the cakewalk make for an unprepared team come final 4 time? We will have to wait and see.

East Region

Not quite the Midwest, but full of solid teams and exciting games to come. A possible second round matchup of Kentucky and Texas, two teams that reached #1 in the polls, is very enticing. Also, a regional final between the Wildcats and Mountaineers of West Virginia. This region is loaded with talented players and should provide for great entertainment throughout the tournament. Bo Ryan will have his Badgers ready, and could have them making a run to another sweet 16. Don’t forget about Marquette. They pounded it out with the beasts of the Big East, and took hold of a 6 seed even though they lost Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for them, but Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler have kept them on the map.

UPSET SPECIAL: (12) Cornell over (5) Temple

Cornell is not just another team from the Ivy League. They are have played with the big boys. Earlier this season, they made the trip to Lawrence, Kansas to take on the #1 ranked Jayhawks and lost by 5 after leading much of the game. The Big Red were fighting till the end, and even caused Sherron Collins to hit his chest and say “this is my house” after an “And 1”. Any team that can make the star player on the #1 team in the nation do that is scary come March. Did Collins forget he was playing Cornell at home, or did he realize how good they really were?

SLEEPER: (4) Wisconsin and (6) Marquette

Two good teams with great coaching. Buzz Williams has shown he can hang in the Big East and Bo Ryan is one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the country. Both of these teams will be ready to play this weekend.

Players to Watch:

DeMarcus Cousins (Kentucky): A presence on the low-block, Cousins will battle with the best in the nation. He comes into the tournament averaging just over 15 points and 10 boards per game. Probably a lottery pick if he leaves after this year. Keep an eye on this load of talent.

Devin Ebanks (West Virginia): Ebanks is a lenky 6’7” forward that can change the complexion of a game. He is a matchup nightmare and has a smooth game despite his long frame. He uses his long wingspan to create turnovers on defense and to get to loose balls. Make sure to keep an eye on this up and coming superstar.

Lazar Hayward (Marquette): Hayward is the leader of this young team, and brings a polished game as well. Able to play inside and outside, even though he prefers to play on the perimeter. He has great range and coming into the tournament averaging 18 points per game is a pure scorer. Look for him to make some noise in the tourney.

Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest): Aminu has truly come on as a Sophomore averaging a double-double with 15.7 ppg and 10.7 rpg. He works hard on the boards and has the ability to blow past his defenders with his quick first step and long stride. Wake Forest’s tournament hopes rest on his shoulders.

Final 4 Team: West Virginia

I think that West Virginia is ready for the main stage and will beat the young and inexperienced Wildcats of Kentucky (should they get that far). This would be a great matchup and may decide the national champion. Kentucky has great talent, but I think the rough Big East schedule will prove invaluable to the Mountaineers and they will grind out a win to reach the semis.

South Region

Another tough region in my opinion (still nothing like the Midwest), even though analysts are saying Duke has an easy road to the semis. I believe Louisville is a possible second round opponent, coached by Rick Pittino, who beat Syracuse twice this season. The Cardinals have what it takes to win and I would not be surprised to see an upset there. Villanova, Baylor, and Purdue round out the top 4 seeds and bring a lot of athleticism to this region. Make sure to watch 13 seed Siena take on Purdue, and 10 seed Saint Mary’s battle it out with the 7th seeded Richmond Spiders (Spiders? Come on). Both of these games should be great and provide a little excitement in the first weekend ahead.

UPSET SPECIAL: (10) Saint Mary’s over (7) Richmond

A great matchup here, but I think the Gaels will beat the Spiders (how’s that for some school names). Although, Richmond has an RPI of 22, I think that Saint Mary’s will prevail. Their huge win against Gonzaga in the WCC final showed the tournament committee that they belonged and this first round matchup suits them perfectly.

(13) Siena over (4) Purdue

This is a great matchup and one that I myself probably will not pick until the last possible moment on Thursday (when brackets are due). Purdue is hurting with the loss of Robbie Hummel, but still has a solid team and a great coach in Matt Painter. Siena is as balanced as they come, but have not had the challenges that Purdue faces in the Big Ten. This will be a great game and since it is a tossup in my book, it has to be an UPSET ALERT.

SLEEPER: (13) Siena and (9) Louisville

Both of these teams can make a run for the reasons mentioned above. They have the talent and coaching to make things interesting in the South Region.

Players to Watch:

Scottie Reynolds (Villanova): Reynolds is as good as they come. He led the Wildcats in scoring averaging nearly 19 ppg and also in assists with 4.5 per game. He can connect from long range, and is the definition of a general on the floor. This team will go as far as he leads them.

Ekpe Udoh (Baylor): After transferring from Michigan, and sitting out last season, Udoh has matured into an athletic big man with no visible ceiling for his talent. He is averaging 14 ppg 10 rbg and 4 bpg. 4 blocks?! This guy can jump out of the gym and causes a big problem for any team in Baylor’s path.

JaJuan Johnson (Purdue): Johnson is Purdue’s best player in my opinion and he mans the low post better than anyone in the Big Ten. He averages 15 ppg and 7.3 rpg and connects on over 50% of his shots. He will be a big factor in the Siena game, and will have to show up to push the Boilermakers to the second round and beyond.

Ronald Moore (Siena): Moore is a scrappy guard and the leader of this Siena team. He only averages about 7 ppg, but leads the nation with just under 8 apg. He is a great passer and can make plays to get his teammates the ball. He doesn’t have the scoring of a guy like Scottie Reynolds, but he makes up for it with his play-maker ability and leadership.

Final 4 Team: Villanova

Scottie Reynolds leads this balanced team, and I think they will be able to make it out of this region. They stumbled down the stretch, but Jay Wright will have his team ready. I think the Wildcats still have what it takes to contend for the national title.

So here is my Final 4:

(5) Michigan State vs. (1) Syracuse

Winner: Syracuse

The Orange have enough talent and an easy road to the Final 4. I don’t doubt that the Spartans could win it all, but that’s saying they made it out of the tough Midwest, which isn’t guaranteed.

(2) West Virginia vs. (2) Villanova

Winner: West Virginia

A Big East showdown in this national semi loaded with talent and great coaching. Both teams are very balanced and have what it takes to win games down the stretch. Should be a great game if these two do actually meet to advance to the national championship.

National Championship

(2) West Virginia vs. (1) Syracuse

Winner: West Virginia     73-68

West Virginia has what it takes to make this national title run, and if they can put it all together, I think they will be cutting down the nets in a few weeks. Bob Huggins is known for having problems leading talented teams deep into the tourney, but I think this year will be different.

Matthew Benedetto © 2010

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Not more than 2 years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the Seattle Supersonics, a floundering franchise longing for the glory days of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Schrempf (yes, Detlef Schrempf). The team was sold and moved to Oklahoma City, but it seemed as if more than just a change of scenery was necessary. 2007 draft picks Kevin Durant and Jeff Green brought hope to the fans of Seattle and laid the foundation for a team that was lacking direction and leadership. One year later, Russell Westbrook was drafted and Thunder fans were realizing that their team had a chance to compete in the star-studded Western Conference.

Now, after failing to win 30 games in either of the past two seasons, the Thunder have 41 wins with 17 games still to go. Since January 27, they are 17-3 and have taken over the number 5 seed in the Western Conference playoff race, just one game back of the Utah Jazz. Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and Kevin Durant have led this team past any expectations people had for them in the preseason. People thought that they would be good, but this soon? I’m not sure if anyone outside of that locker room had any faith that the Thunder could contend. Westbrook, a second year player out of UCLA, has turned into a solid point gaurd who can score and distribute averaging 16.8 ppg and 8.0 apg. Green has been a major part of the turnaround and is starting to come on strong, averaging 14.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg. He is contributing with his scoring, but his defense is the real story. He is a versatile defender who can handle the 1, 2, or 3 on most teams, providing the lockdown D that is necessary to make a long playoff run.

The man at the center of this franchise’s turnaround, is none other than Kevin Durant. Green and Westbrook have been solid sidekicks and are integral parts to the Thunder’s success, but Durant is the bees knees. This guy can flat out play. In his third season out of Texas, Durant is beginning to take over the NBA, seemingly scoring at will and leading his team to victory after vicory. And playing in the Western Conference, wins do not come easily. The Thunder do not have a market fit for a superstar, but Durant is making due. He is not playing in LA like Kobe (or Shaq did). He isn’t playing on Eastern Time like Michael Jordan or Lebron James. He isn’t playing in sunny South Beach like Dwyane Wade. He is playing in Oklahoma City, where college football and baseball take center stage. Sure, Durant gets his highlights on Sportscenter, but you never catch the full game. It is hard to truly appreciate his complete game when all you see are a few jumpers and some dazzling dunks.

Durant has led his team from cellar dwellers to title contenders, and that, along with other reasons, is why I think he should be the frontrunner for the MVP award. Statistically Durant is averaging 29.8 ppg 7.5 rpg and 2.8 apg. He is a scoring machine. Earlier this season, Durant had a streak of 29 straight games with at least 25 points, the longest since Michael Jordan had a streak of 40 during the 1986-87 season. There are guys in the NBA that don’t even score 25 points in one game in a season, but to do it 29 straight times? That is amazing. Durant is so special because of the way that he scores, not just how much he scores. He is listed at 6’9’’ and has the wingspan of somewhere between 7’3’’ and 7’4’’ putting him in the company of most centers. This wouldn’t seem odd if Durant was posted up on the block all game and played in the paint. Instead, Durant takes defenders smaller than him off the dribble for pull up jumpers, drives to the hoop with the ease of Lebron, and comes off screens shooting 3-pointers like Ray Allen (well, maybe not just like Ray Allen). How is anyone supposed to defend that? He has the body of a power forward and is shooting 38% from 3-point land. This unique talent, coupled with Westbrook, Green, and James Harden are why the Thunder are surging in the West.

Statistically, Durant is having a spectacular season, but there are more than just statistics when looking for an MVP (Most Valuable Player). Obviously Lebron is hard to argue with. He is a walking triple double, and has put the Cavs on his back since his first game in the league. He does however have a better supporting cast than Durant, which is the same with nearly every superstar in the league. Let’s take a look at some MVP candidates and the rest of their teams. Lebron has Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, and Shaq. Kobe has a dream supporting cast consisting of All-Star Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest. Dirk has Caron Butler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion. Dwight Howard has Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson. Carmelo has Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, Nene, and Kenyon Martin. All of these MVP caliber players have an amazing support system, much better than Durant’s in OKC. This isn’t to take away from the talent and strength of Westbrook and Green, but honestly who would you rather have? Durant is doing more with less, than any player in the league. He has become a leader, put his team on his back, and has shown he has what it takes to take over a game. He truly is the Most Valuable Player on his team and in the NBA. I wonder if Portland fans are kicking themselves thinking about a threesome of Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant, and LaMarcus Aldridge. But hey, it’s not their fault they drafted Greg Oden. Who knew he was going to get hurt and miss almost 2 full seasons? He did say he was a chameleon and wanted to win like 15 championships or something too…

Matthew Benedetto © 2010

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