Sunday March 23rd, 2008

Five things we learned while watching referee Curtis Shaw go on a one-man look-at-me spree (whoops, he just T'd us up too!):

Kevin Love and Darren Collison came of age on Saturday. In a slow-paced game against Texas A&M, UCLA's 10-point second-half deficit felt more like 18. But this UCLA team never, ever panics, and Love (seven blocks, 19 points, 11 boards) and Collison (21 points, five treys) showed as much poise as John Wooden's greatest teams always had down the stretch for the Bruins. Make no mistake: Love and Collison are the emotional center of a UCLA team that sometimes struggles to put away its opponents but always seems to perform when it counts. Did you ever think the Bruins would lose this game? Me neither. (But who knew the ground-bound Love would turn into a shot-swatting monster?)

This tournament has turned into a gunslingers' extravaganza. The shootout between Stanford's Brook Lopez (30 points) and Marquette's Jerel McNeal (30) in a pulsating 82-81 OT win by the Cardinal was a thing of beauty --and only the latest example in a tourney that Pete Maravich would have loved. As my old college hallmate Drew would have said, you've got to love 30-plus: Davidson's Stephen Curry (40 points), Miami's Jack McClinton (38), Western Kentucky's Tyrone Brazelton (33), Siena's Kenny Hasbrouck (30), Mississippi State's Charles Rhodes (34), Arkansas' Sonny Weems (31), Kentucky's Joe Crawford (35) and Cal State-Fullerton's Josh Akognon (31). All but McNeal, Crawford and Akognon did so in winning efforts, by the way.

Curtis (Inspector Javert) Shaw is out of control. No referee in the country had more than two ejections during the entire season -- except for Shaw, who has now tossed five players or coaches after his shockingly wrong-headed ejection of Stanford coach Trent Johnson in an OT Cardinal win against Marquette. Johnson probably deserved one technical foul when he came out onto the court to argue with the zebras following a disputed foul call. But two in five seconds? No way. Common sense should dictate whether you make such a drastic call, not some nonsense about following the letter of the overly uptight new bench-decorum rules. If Shaw isn't himself "ejected" from the rest of the tournament, organizers will deserve their own red card for rewarding embarrassing refereeing. (And if this basketball thing doesn't work out, Shaw could no doubt have a thriving career refereeing soccer matches in CONCACAF.)

Shaw also looked way too satisfied when he handed Marquette's Lawrence Blackledge another dubious T later in the game. He's the worst kind of ref, one who doesn't understand that respect is won by communicating with coaches and players, not T'ing them up at the earliest possible moment.

Ignore the hype: the ACC just wasn't that good this season. In less than 24 hours, two mid-level Big East teams (West Virginia and Villanova) took out the second- and third-best teams in the ACC (Duke and Clemson). It would be one thing if that were a fluke, but it wasn't. The Big East is that good, and the ACC just didn't pass the eye test all season long. Too many people cited the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the ACC's No. 1 conference rating in the RPI as reasons for the ACC's preeminence, but the ACC-Big Ten Challenge took place in November (i.e., who cares?) and I think we've learned by now that the RPI isn't a credible tool for measuring much of anything, especially conference strength. Over the years, the ACC has proven itself as the nation's best basketball league, but that just wasn't the case this season. (Now watch North Carolina and Miami make the Final Four.)

More evidence that what passes through my mind during games isn't entirely normal. Nice to see Arkansas center Steven Hill spending his off-day doing double-duty as West Virginia's gun-toting mascot ... Did I really see Kansas fans giving K-State's Michael Beasley a standing ovation as he left what will likely be his final collegiate game? Classy stuff, Jayhawks. Classy stuff ... One thing I still can't figure out about Indiana: If the Hoosiers could find the mental fortitude to take out Michigan State and Purdue during Kelvin Sampson's Dead Man Walking Week, why couldn't they do the same thing under Dan Dakich? ... If I'm a fan of a young Purdue team, I'm feeling a lot better about the future than I would if I were the fan of a young Kansas State team ... Trent Johnson is one taciturn hombre, which is why we would have given anything to have been in the room with him when Brook Lopez's game-winner went in to beat Marquette ... I don't always buy the East Coast media bias argument, but one annual rite of the New York-centric media is to overhype the champ of the Big East tournament, and Pittsburgh (Bob Knight's pick to win it all) was no different this time around. That said, give Jamie Dixon's injury-plagued outfit a ton of credit for making an unexpected end-of-season run after it could have given up in late December ... With so many teams living and dying by the three-pointer, we can't wait to see what happens next year when the line gets moved a foot farther from the basket.

Enjoy the games!

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