Monday, 23 March 2015

Sweet 16 Preview: ACC dominance

After the first mad weekend of March Madness, where all teams play two games in three days over the second and third round before the semi-finals of the regions that we call the Sweet 16.  Numerous things occur including shocks and surprises aplenty culminating in the removal of 48 teams since Thursday.  Here are my thoughts along with the prediction of the Sweet 16

Izzo and Pitino stand firm
Following regular season campaigns that brought all manner of inconsistency, it is telling that some teams can be relied upon come the tournament when parity is established by only playing what is in front of you.  In terms of Michigan State who had a problem with depth and talent, come the tournament they have a coach in Tom Izzo who now has more Sweet 16 appearances than first weekend eliminations. 

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Tom Izzo - Michigan State

Izzo out-coached Virginia's Tony Bennett for the second season in succession schooling them in a 60-54 victory helped by a breakout by Travis Trice who had 23 points as they held the Cavaliers to under 30% shooting.  Michigan now play Oklahoma, for the right to play either Louisville or NC State; again this is a tough one to call, but as Rick Pitino has showed, he is capable of fitting in a system that benefits the nervy tension of tournament play as they stifle offenses and allow their own dynamic players such as Montrezl Harrell to be explosive in transition.

Can we play you every year?
Rock Chalk Wichita Shock. Kansas Jayhawks are the big noise in Kansas, the blue chip program but it shares a state with Wichita State Shockers who have now had the better tournament resume than the Jayhawks in the last three years now.  The Shockers keep asking to play Kansas year in, year out in a non-conference match that will help both programs. Kansas refuse and Wichita State feel disrespected and feel Kansas are scared to play them on the road or at a neutral site.  Sunday in the third round in Omaha held court for this in-state battle and the Shockers swept aside Bill Self's side in a convincing 78-65 win.  They now play Notre Dame on Friday with the prospect of facing Kentucky in the regional final.

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Ron Baker - Wichita State
The Shockers are a tight unit who hustle and can score from deep led by Ron Baker in points and helped by Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton.  The defeat makes sure that Kansas will likely not play Wichita State again until they absolutely need to again.  As for Kansas, they need to come back next year - hopefully reloaded with talent as no-one looks likely to leave for the NBA - but return with a scorer possibly Clint Alexander who was suspended for academic reasons.

Duke have the answer
Watching Duke's dominant performance over San Diego State on Sunday, their play showed the answer to possibly to defeating the Kentucky Wildcats who they can only meet in the National Championship.  That is my selection for the title game and whilst I think Kentucky are too battle hardened for this tournament, perhaps Duke remain the best team to combat the Wildcats procession to historical perfection.
In Jahlil Okafor they have one of the best three players in the nation, his size and scoring prowess can combat Towns and Cauley-Stein in the paint.

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Justice Winslow - Duke
 Yet it was the tempo of Duke's play in transition that made me stand up and take notice; led by Tyus Jones dishing it out to Quinn Cook and sometimes you will get a breakout game like you had from Justice Winslow (26pts, 6rbs) did on Sunday to help matters.  Duke will be happy with the match up versus Utah this weekend and then probably Gonzaga who have been impressive thus far, but you get the sense that Duke are aware of the possibility of their own run to the Final Four.

ACC is the best conference
All regular season it was touted that the Big 12 was the best conference in the nation due to the possibility of 8 teams - only 7 got selected - making the dance, yet that was due to the fact that so many teams beat each other that no team separated itself from the rest as Wisconsin did in the Big 10.  The first day eliminations of Baylor, Texas and Iowa State left the Big 12 sheepish at best, and now the presence of five ACC teams in the sweet 16 (ND, NC, LOU, NC State, Duke) means that the argument is dead, the ACC is best league because it is the toughest game and makes players ready for the tournament due to the high intensity and close matches they experience in the regular season.

Sweet 16 predictions (selection in bold)
Kentucky v West Virginia                                   NC State v Louisville
Notre Dame v Wichita State                              Oklahoma v Michigan State
Wisconsin v North Carolina                               Duke v Utah
Xavier v Arizona                                                UCLA v Gonzaga

Elite 8:
Kentucky v Notre Dame - Wisconsin v Arizona - Louisville v Michigan State - Duke v Gonzaga

That leaves your NextToTheAisle Final Four of Kentucky v Wisconsin and Louisville v Duke
What an amazing line-up of talent, teams and legendary coaches going head to head in Indianapolis. The Louisville-Michigan State match-up should it materialise is a toss-up and too close to call. For me it remains there for Kentucky to lose, although the possible matches versus the Fighting Irish and Badgers will be as true a test as they have faced all season.

Follow me @JamieGarwood

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The NFL: Head over Heart

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Chris Borland - San Francisco - Retired at 24
Sunday night and Monday morning is usually the time during the NFL season when decisions and reactions are made after the quota of NFL games and you reflect upon the week ahead and what changes are your teams going to make.

For the San Francisco 49ers, the season does not start for another six months and already they probably want the season to end. Having lost head coach John Harbaugh to the University of Michigan, and last week the retirement of linebacker Patrick Willis, the defense lost another player to retirement.  In this instance, it was all the more shocking as it came from rookie linebacker, Chris Borland, who retired from the game at the age of the 24.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland told "Outside the Lines (on ESPN)." "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Borland has left the decision until now as he wanted to talk at length to his family, doctors and some team-mates before telling the team.  He stated it was nothing to do with the franchise itself, this was a decision based on his health.  Borland, who earned a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, said he plans to return to school and possibly pursue a career in sports management. He had a four-year contract with the 49ers worth just under $3 million, which included a signing bonus of $617,436.

Borland becomes the fourth player under the age of 30 to retire. Along with Willis who was placed on injured reserve in November, you have Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, who wanted to pursue other interests. And Tennessee Titans quarterback, Jake Locker, 26, said he had "lost the burning desire necessary to play for a living".

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Patrick Willis - San Francisco - Retired at 30

The NFL is going to have a serious problem on its hands within the next three to five years.  The turnover of talent exists always, due to the quality of the draft, yet the worries and fears of concussion research is having a profound effect on young men who play the more dangerous positions, such as the linebackers with their sheer force and power in big hits delivered in the pursuit of injury.

Borland was referring to former NFL greats who were diagnosed with the devastating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, after their deaths. Duerson and Easterling committed suicide. And do not forget the impact of Junior Seau's suicide, irrespective of his soon to be Hall of Fame induction, the fact that Seau ended his life after a 17 year career had more impact than the deaths of Duerson or Easterling.

The fact that more information is becoming available to these young men, who are learning that the physical wellbeing is not worth the financial reward and the threat of serious brain damage in later years is not worth the trouble.

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Jason Worilds - Pittsburgh - Retired at 27

That is where the NFL have to come to the fore of the research, firstly pay these former players, put better procedures in order for physical assessment - you tell me Julian Edelman did not finish the Super Bowl with a concussion, and you are not a doctor - and put financial punishments at the teams who do not allow independent doctors to do these assessments.

The product of the NFL is at its height of popularity currently, but it needs to look after its stars and journeyman by equal measure as they are to some extents being treated like disposable assets that are easily replaceable due to the college conveyor belt of talent; yet four retirements is worrying and will only go up.  The game is getting played faster and harder with hits replayed constantly on media outlets and perfect for this Instagram/Vine age of social media with its cache of impact and bravado.

Chris Borland should be applauded for his conduct and taking the time over a very serious decision, he should be happy that he has done the right thing for his personal safety and long term health.  Borland convincingly has used his head to rule over his love for the game, it is not about the money it is about playing well and without fear of damage to your health.

My Frozen review is actually Tangled

Like coming to a party when the lights are coming up, I was treated to a viewing of Disney's Frozen in the company of my wonderful girlfriend who has seen it on numerous occasions.

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Now, I don't want to rock the boat nor be controversial but the film Frozen is okay. However, it is not the most amazing animated film of all time (that remains Toy Story 2 or the opening of Up). I can though see why the film has made near to £1 billion worldwide.  Strong female characters who hold our attention and are independent without the influence of their parents, the allure of royalty and the most Marmite of songs since Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' from Titanic, another chick flick. If you get the girls in the cinema you get box office for sure.

Yet, the film as a whole left me confused due to plot holes and convenient narrative twists.  Elsa leaves her homeland and in doing so freezes it in an eternal winter, yet creates a talking snowman without knowing. Anna chases her sister to make her return and break the spell, and builds her character creating her own true love without knowing.  

Anna is the optimistic sister, beguiling and hopeful that a new day will bring change and joy. Yet it is Elsa who gets the stand out track of independence - the song Let It Go, is about Elsa embracing her powers and not being bothered by what people think. The Broadway show tune is the sort of number to end the first act as the lead character reveals a change of perspective or intention, yet the message of the song proposes that she will face her detractors and yet she remains in a less than fully furnished ice castle with no nourishment, in essence she is Disney's first refugee.

The message of true act of love coming from one sister to another is one to be lauded in this day of selfishness and something I hope young viewers embrace in the cementing of familial ties in this day and age of vanity.

Frozen is good but it borrows a lot from another Disney film about a young princess banished from a kingdom who has to find her way home with the help of a young suitor and his trusted steed, I am talking about Tangled. A film that will be easily forgotten in the memory of cinephiles due to the overpowering juggernaut of Frozen

Tangled had better characters, better animation, a better set of songs albeit devoid of a smash hit Oscar winning song, and better comedy in the form of repartee between Eugene and his horse with good action set pieces.

Upon reflection, the addition of Olaf seems a last minute gamble and or risk as the dialogue between Anna and Christof would have been too telegraphed and perhaps reminded viewers of Tangled. Tangled was helped by the presence of a villain from the outset whereas here the narrative does not have a villain reveal himself until the last fifteen minutes, whereas we feel of Elsa as the villain. This makes our affection to her uneasy due to her self imposed exile and alienation from her sister, and all the more surprising that it is she who gets the stand out solo number.  And even more surprising that people want to be Elsa at parties and fancy dress, when Anna is the true star of the film learning about love, life and finding strength within herself she did not know she had, and rekindle the relationship with her sister when all was lost.

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Elsa and Anna
Perhaps the placing of two female characters at the heart of a film will conflict emotions for viewers, whereas in Tangled you had the one princess to root for.  

Last week it was announced there will be a sequel and Frozen 2 will be upon us. For me though, I'm going to let my hair down and watch Tangled again.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Case for...BYU

As we enter the madness of March and the current Championship week, there are still some teams being slighted or expected to be slighted by the committee come Selection Sunday.  The most obvious being Murray State who lost the OVC (Ohio Valley Championship) to Belmont at the weekend, and despite having 27 wins may well miss out.

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Whereas, you look at Brigham Young Cougars, currently 25-8 before this evening's WCC championship game versus Gonzaga; and the team have to win to be guaranteed an automatic bid  in case the resume comes up short for an at-large bid.

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This strikes me as silly, that a team that like BYU is even being considered to be left out of the tournament. The tournament needs teams like BYU who can mix it with the big boys of the powerhouse conferences and play without fear.

This season BYU are
- 2nd in the nation with points per game scored - 83.8
- 5th in the nation with assists per game - 17.0
- 16th in the nation with rebounds per game - 38.4

In contrast they are ranked 306th nationally on points allowed (72.0) but at least the game they are involved in will have points in it, making for more possessions, high tempo scoring and excitement during the early rounds of tournament play.

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Tyler Haws - 22.1ppg, 4.5rpg, 2.2apg

They have a great mixture of experience in senior Tyler Haws who is averaging 22.1ppg and junior Kyle Collinsworth the triple double machine who has had 6 for the season - 13.5ppg, 8.7rpg, 5.9apg.

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Kyle Collinsworth - 13.5ppg, 8.7rpg, 5.9apg

Yes they have 8 losses (twice to Pepperdine who went 10-8 in the WCC) but the first four were to at large teams in the tournament - San Diego, Purdue, Utah and the Zags. Following the second loss at Pepperdine on February 5th, they have reeled off 8 consecutive wins including the road win at Gonzaga by an average of 13.8 points.  The closest game was in the first round against Santa Clara which they won 78-76 but Tyler Haws stepped up with 30 points for the win.

They are winning by landslides but they are winning tight games which will be a regular occurence in the tournament, they have a desire to succeed and if they win the WCC they will be a team that people will want to avoid in the bracket due to the high possession, high percentage shot making and interior presence of Collinsworth.

The case for BYU is made.  The committee need to make it happen.

Follow me @JamieGarwood

Marvel's Daredevil

Out on Netflix from 10th April 2015, premiering thirteen (13) one hour episodes, Marvel Studios is pleased to announce the release of Daredevil.

Blinded as a child, Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) fights injustice by day as a lawyer, and by night he hands out vigilante justice as the superhero Daredevil in modern day Hell's Kitchen, New York City.

Following on from the television success of Agents of SHIELD, the trailer shows us Murdoch as a little bit more conflicted in Cox's performance in contrast to the star billing acting of Ben Affleck in the feature length film from over 10 years ago.

For Cox, it is a real shot in the arm to be given this role, he has done solid work for a number of years starting with Stardust and more recently in Hello Carter where he played a variant of the Hugh Grant type and as the love interest of Jane Hawking in the Theory of Everything. Cox seems to pull off the feat of being an action hero whilst also displaying the inner torment so common in them.

Daredevil is available from Netflix on 10th April in all territories where available 

March Madness Preview

This is a March Madness preview from a College Basketball fan in the UK. Now it is important to state that the UK stands for the United Kingdom, not the University of Kentucky. Ironically, this year is the year that Kentucky Wildcats will be pursuing perfection and end the season 40-0   Winning the National championship and becoming the first perfect team since Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers team of 1976.
John Calipari has successfully navigated his platoon troops through a tricky non-conference schedule before a breezy SEC schedule that almost came unstuck in the first game against Texas A&M. They have fallen behind to some teams like they did on the road to Georgia on Tuesday night, and took the best shot of Florida, yet this team of mostly freshmen and sophomores have found abundance of character and desire to win.
Their defence is second to none, and now the offence is gaining traction and putting up numbers. The player turning heads though is Willie Cauley-Stein, a monster at both ends who has assumed the mantle of on court leader for the team. Think of Ralph Samson but taller.

Kentucky, even if they lose in the SEC tournament, will be the overall No 1 seed so who will be joining them at the top table. Remember a No1 seed has never lost an opening round game at the tournament. Chances are it will be Virginia and Duke, two ACC rivals who have played the best basketball in that division and in Jahlil Okafor, Duke have the prospective overall No1 pick in this years NBA draft. Duke have had to overcome some belief in their ability though the recent home win over North Carolina was one of fortitude and toughness embodied by Tyus Jones, a young point guard who is probably Duke's most important player.   

Virginia for me are an odd group, they have kept winning despite the absence of Justin Anderson who is having an appendectomy, so credit to Tony Bennett and his system and whilst they can rival Kentucky for the nation's best defence, they do not score enough offensively. If they were to meet a high possession offence team from the Big 10/12 they will be tested there.
So who will be the fourth No1 seed and have the chance to avoid Kentucky until the Final Four, it might be Villanova who benefited from Gonzaga losing at home to BYU. They sit 4th overall and if they win the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden they will cement it, however, lose and a team like Wisconsin with Frank 'The Tank' Kaminsky, Kansas Jayahwks or Arizona might get in. For geographical purposes they may well take Arizona, but they have to win the fast improving Pac 12 to convince the committee.
Who are the dark horses?
A lot has been made of which teams offer the best threat of going deep from a No7-10 seed like the current National champions Conneticut did. Will there be a Butler or VCU this year? Probably not as no team is leaping off the page when you do the eye test. 

Perhaps an Arkansas team led by Bobby Portis may well do, but you are most likely looking at a team like Iowa State or Ohio State to come to the dance, with George Niang and Dangelo Russell leading their squads respectively. 

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D'Angelo Russell 19.3ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2apg

A lot has been made of Maryland who in their debut Big 10 season have made some noise most notably by Dez Wells who is capable of shooting 30 points any night, but can their defence be disciplined enough to tournament action where turnovers must be minimised and chances taken. 

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Dez Wells 15.2ppg, 5.0rpg, 2.9apg

For that reason do not discount Louisville, who have that stifling defence but explosive offence which won them the title two years ago. And ACC rival Notre Dame (led by Jerian Grant) after a 20-2 opening are rebuilding momentum helped by a 71-59 win on the road at those same Louisville Cardinals this week.

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Jerian Grant 16.7ppg, 2.8rpg, 6.6apg

For all the talk about dark horses, cinderellas and bubble teams. There is only one bubble fit to burst during this tournament. If Kentucky do not win and go perfect 40-0, that will be a bigger story than the team that does cut down the nets eventually.

My final four prediction (before the actual bracket is drawn up is): Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Iowa State.

Follow me on twitter @JamieGarwood