Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Ice Breaks: Gay to Arizona

After more than a fortnight of free agency, everything was quiet in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had tendered offers to their RFAs, and none of the UFAs had signed elsewhere. But now, as most of the premier talent has inked deals, teams are trying to fill some holes and some of the Steelers UFA's have been drawing some interest.

By the way, how awesome of a word is "fortnight"?

Aside from the general fear-mongering that everyone and their mother was going to take a run at Mike Wallace, then that Wallace wanted too much money, nothing much was going on.

Last week, William Gay visited Tennessee, Denver, and Arizona and news broke on Sunday that Gay will be heading out to Pittsburgh West next season. Honestly, this is a bit of a loss for the Steelers as Gay had developed into a solid slot corner that was capable of playing on the outside in the regular package then sliding inside when the Steelers went to their nickel set. This means the Steelers will likely do what they can to re-sign Keenan Lewis, who had the best year of his career last year. Hopefully Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen (last year's 3rd and 4th round picks) are fully recovered from their injuries and studying the playbook this offseason, because they will see increased roles in the defense next year.

For William Gay, thanks for the time and effort you put in with the Black and Gold. Gay was often bashed for bad play, and he did have games where he was downright awful. On the other side of the coin, he showed some flashes of stellar play and made a few game-changing plays to seal up victories (namely last year in Cincinnati) for us. Hopefully the fans out in Arizona won't be as hard on him as Steelers fans were (particularly after the loss to the Ravens last year).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

2012 NCAA Tournament Bracket Prediction

With the Selection Show mere hours away, here's a look at how I see the bracket as of right now.

UPDATE: With Michigan State beating Ohio State, they move up to the top line.

To start with, the #1 overall seed in the Tournament is...

Really no surprise here. UK has been the best team all season and their loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship doesn't change that. The rest of the #1 seeds are:

Head-to-head, Michigan State and Kansas had very even resumes, but Michigan State won their conference tournament, giving them the edge for the top line. To be honest, the difference between the 4th #1 seed and the top #2 seed is very slim in my book. Here's how my bracket looks:

Midwest Region
1. Kentucky vs 16. Norfolk State/Vermont
8. Kansas State vs 9. Connecticut
5. UNLV vs 12. Colorado
4. Wisconsin vs 13. Virginia Commonwealth
6. Wichita State vs 11. Texas
3. Marquette vs 14. New Mexico State
7. St Mary's (CA) vs 10. Colorado State
2. Duke vs 15. Loyola (MD)

East Region
1. Syracuse vs 16. Lamar
8. Memphis vs 9. Harvard
5. Vanderbilt vs 12. BYU/North Carolina State
4. Indiana vs 13. Long Beach State
6. Temple vs 11. California
3. Baylor vs 14. Montana
7. Cincinnati vs 10. Virginia
2. Ohio State vs 15. Detroit

South Region
1. North Carolina vs 16. Western Kentucky/Mississippi Valley State
8. Iowa State vs 9. Purdue
5. Florida vs 12. South Florida/Marshall
4. Louisville vs 13. South Dakota State
6. San Diego State vs 11. Xavier
3. Michigan vs 14. Belmont
7. Gonzaga vs 10. West Virginia
2. Missouri vs 15. Lehigh

West Region
1. Michigan State vs 16. UNC-Asheville
8. Notre Dame vs 9. Alabama
5. Creighton vs 12. St Bonaventure
4. Florida State vs 13. Ohio
6. Murray State vs 11. Southern Mississippi
3. Georgetown vs 14. Davidson
7. New Mexico vs 10. St Louis
2. Kansas vs 15. Long Island

To speak to the bubble for a moment, obviously my "Last 4 In" were BYU, South Florida, North Carolina State, and Marshall. The "First Five Out" were Iona, Seton Hall, Mississippi State, Drexel, and Miami. Here's a look at their resumes:

(click to enlarge)

While all of the teams (except Miami) had multiple bad losses against teams with 100+ RPIs, the Committee has given good wins more weight than bad losses in the past. South Florida, NC State, and Marshall all had strong computer numbers, including excellent Non-Conference Strength of Schedule numbers. While Seton Hall and Mississippi State had the most Top 100 wins (7) of any teams in the group, their RPIs were prohibitively high (67+) and their Non-Conference SOS numbers were both over 125. On the other hand, Marshall had a similar number of Top 100 wins (6) but more Top 50 wins (4 to 3 for Seton Hall and 2 for Mississippi State). Marshall's more wins against the Top 50 gave them an edge in my book for the last spot. Iona's 0-2 record against the Top 50 was what kept them out, and Drexel's horrendous Non-Conference SOS number was a scar on their resume. Additionally, Marshall's top wins (#19 Southern Miss twice, #40 Cincinnati, and #41 Iona) were better than Iona or Drexel's best wins. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Conference Tournament Preview Part 2

With less than a week to go until Selection Sunday, a handful of schools have already punched their ticket to the Big Dance. As the week moves forward, major conference tournaments will get rolling and the bubble picture will either get clearer or become more distorted - such is the nature of Champ Week. While most of the top teams in major conferences have their At-Large bids secured, it's important to note that 5 of the last 6 National Champions have also won their conference tournaments. The only team that did not was North Carolina in 2009. So if you're looking for a safe bet on a team to advance all the way through your bracket next week, keep a close eye on the conference championship games.

March 8-11 

Top Seeds: UNC, Duke, Florida St, Virginia

Tournament Format: 12 teams, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: NC State

The Outlook: UNC beat Duke the last game of the regular season to clinch the top seed in the tournament, but that doesn't necessarily make it a given that these two schools are a lock to meet again in the title game. Both Miami and NC State are talented teams that are hanging right on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble and are desperate to string some wins together and prove to the Committee that they deserve inclusion into the field of 68. Florida State plays some of the best defense in the league and it wouldn't be surprising to see them in the championship game. But really, everyone is rooting for Duke-Carolina III. Or maybe that's just me because I love the rivalry. Incredibly, Duke has won 10 of the last 13 ACC Championships.

March 6, 9-10, 12 
First-round at campus sites, Atlantic City

Top Seeds: Temple, St Louis

Tournament Format: Top 12 teams qualify, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Dayton

The Outlook: Temple is a lock for the NCAA tournament and if they bring home the title from Atlantic City might just find their name with a 4 or 5 next to it on Selection Sunday. The Owls have 2 of the top 3 scorers in the league in Ramone Moore (17.8 PPG) and Khalif Wyatt (17.1 PPG). St. Louis possesses a very mediocre resume, but this team plays a lot better than they look on paper. Xavier is hanging right on the bubble and really hasn't been the same team since "The Fight" in Cincinnati and could use a win or two to help their at large hopes. Don't sleep on the Dayton Flyers, one of the most inconsistent teams in the nation. They finished 6th in the league but have wins over each of the top 3 teams. 

March 6-10 
New York

Top Seeds: Syracuse, Marquette, Notre Dame, Cincinnati

Tournament Format: 16 teams, Seeds 5-8 get byes to 2nd round, top 4 get "double bye" to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Georgetown

The Outlook: Last year, Connecticut stormed through the tournament on the back of Kemba Walker, winning 5 games in 5 days to claim the title. This propelled them into the NCAA tournament where they kept riding the wave, all the way to a National Championship. This year's UConn team finds themselves in a similar predicament and would do well to avoid an opening round loss to DePaul. Syracuse has a #1 seed in the Big Dance all but locked up, with a staggering 30-1 overall record. Marquette is an exciting team to watch when they're hot but they could just as easily fail to show up in New York and get upset. Seton Hall and South Florida are hanging around the bubble looking for a win or two to help their weak resumes. As always, this is an incredibly deep league that could send as many as 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, which means this is a wide open field that anyone could win. 

BIG 10 
March 8-11 

Top Seeds: Michigan St, Michigan, Ohio St

Tournament Format: 12 teams, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Indiana

The Outlook: Is this Northwestern's year? The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA tournament, and with the rest of the league either safely in or pretty far out, Northwestern is the only bubble team playing for their life. The Wildcats lack any kind of inside presence that would give them a shot to topple Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State in succession to get the automatic bid, but are a terrific shooting team from the outside. Indiana has been one of the hottest teams in the nation lately, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them make a deep run in the tournament. At the top, Sparty, Big Blue, and the Buckeyes all tied for the regular season conference title, and it's anyone's guess who comes out on top. We'd love to see tOSU's Jared Sullinger and Michigan State's Draymond Green go at it again in the title game, but Michigan's lineup led by some stellar young guards is fun to watch and could make some noise in the Big Dance.

BIG 12 
March 7-10 
Kansas City

Top Seeds: Kansas, Missouri

Tournament Format: 10 teams, 7/10 and 8/9 Play-in Games

Upset Special: Iowa State

The Outlook: Kansas is all but locked in to a #1 seed in the Big Dance, but they are the defending champs and have cut down the nets 5 of the last 6 years. Missouri is a talented team that will most certainly be a top 3 seed and Baylor has the talent to make some noise in March. Iowa State and Kansas State will be going dancing as well. Texas is really the only team on the bubble and they need a deep run in the Big 12 tournament to solidify their position in the field. The Kansas-Missouri game at the end of the regular season was a classic with Kansas storming back from 19 points down to eventually win in overtime. We can only hope the two meet again in the championship game for Round III.

March 8-10 

Top Seeds: Long Beach St, Cal St Fullerton

Tournament Format: 8 teams, normal bracket. Cal St Northridge ineligible for tournament based on failure to meet NCAA academic requirements

Upset Special: UC-Santa Barbara

The Outlook: The Beach was the dominant team in the league all year, running through conference play until they stumbled against Cal St Fullerton in the last game of the season. Still, a 15-1 conference record to go along with the most brutal non-conference slate in the nation makes the Beach a serious contender for an At-Large bid should they fail to win the Big West crown. Nevertheless, they would do well not to tempt fate and leave their destiny up to the Committee. The Beach plays aggressive defense with 3 players averaging over 1.5 steals per game. UC-Santa Barbara pulled the upset over LBSU in last year's conference title game and possess the league's leading scorer Orlando Johnson (20 PPG, 17th in the nation).

March 7-10 

Top Seeds: Memphis, Southern Miss

Tournament Format: 12 teams, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Marshall

The Outlook: While Memphis and Southern Miss should feel pretty comfortable heading into Selection Sunday, a slew of other Conference USA teams have flirted with the bubble this year. UCF and Marshall are hovering with RPIs in the 60s, which still keeps them on the outside of the bubble looking in, but both are capable of making deep runs in the tournament. UCF has the best defense in the league, holding opponents to under 63 points per game. Memphis boasts the league's best offense (75 PPG) and the league's leading scorer (Will Barton, 18.7 PPG) and is the clear favorite to win the Conference USA crown.

5, 7-10 

Top Seeds: Akron, Buffalo

Tournament Format: 12 teams, 3 & 4 seeds byes to Quarterfinals, 1 & 2 seeds byes to Semi-Finals

Upset Special: Ohio

The Outlook: The East Division dominated the MAC this year with its top 4 teams (Akron, Buffalo, Ohio, and Kent St) finishing with the 4 best records in the conference. Buffalo boasts two stellar big men that have dominated the league this year. Senior Michael Watt (16.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Sophomore Javon McCrea (14.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG) are both in the top 5 in the conference in points and rebounds. Akron doesn't have any individual players with statistically significant stats (only 2 players averaging over 10 points per game) but their biggest attribute is their depth - the Zips have 9 players averaging at least 16 minutes per game. 

March 6-10 

Top Seeds: Savannah St, Norfolk St

Tournament Format: 13 teams, top 3 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Delaware St

The Outlook: Norfolk State was the early favorite in conference play, but Savannah State stormed down the stretch, winning their last 13 games and 16 of their last 17. Don't sleep on Delaware St or Bethune-Cookman who have played tight games against the top teams in the league this year. Delaware St might have the most exciting player in the league in guard Jay Threatt who leads the conference in assists (6.1 per game) and steals (3.1 per game). Don't expect to see the MEAC winner seeded well in the NCAA tournament - the Conference Champion has been seeded 15th or worse every year in the last decade. The MEAC may be best known for producing two of the biggest upsets in tournament history - 15-seed Hampton toppled 2-seed Iowa State in 2001 and 15-seeded Coppin State downed 2-seed South Carolina in 1997. The Coppin State upset was in the Civic Arena, the last time the NCAA Tournament was played in Pittsburgh.

March 8-10 
Las Vegas

Top Seeds: New Mexico, San Diego St, UNLV

Tournament Format: 8 teams, normal bracket

Upset Special: Colorado St

The Outlook: The top 3 teams have their bids to the NCAA tournament pretty much locked up while Colorado State, despite a great computer profile, is still looking for a signature win away from their home floor. This figures to be a wide open tournament out in Vegas as every team in the conference has played competitive ball all season. Even last place Boise State put together a 3-game winning streak this year that included a win over Colorado State. UNLV is an athletic team that beat North Carolina early in the season and has one of the best big men in the league, Mike Moser who averages a double-double (14 PPG, 10.7 RPG). The league's leading scorer is SDSU's Jamaal Franklin (17.1 PPG) who is also in the top 5 in the league in rebounds (8.0 RPG). 

March 7-10 
Los Angeles

Top Seeds: Washington, California

Tournament Format: 12 teams, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Colorado

The Outlook: When someone says that a Major conference had a "down year" they usually mean that the conference will likely only get 3 teams into the tournament and that a lot of the programs were going through a rebuilding process. What's happening in the Pac-12 is almost unprecedented mediocrity for a Power 6 conference. This year, the Pac-12 ranks 10th in Conference RPI, below the A-10, Conference USA, and Missouri Valley Conference and barely above the West Coast Conference. That's not surprising. Washington won the league title by losing their season finale to UCLA then watching Cal drop a game to 8th place Stanford. Yikes. Washington passes the "eye test" as a tournament team, but is fully capable of dropping a game here in the tournament. Cal seemed to have solid footing for At-Large consideration until dropping their last 2 games to Colorado and Stanford. While the league is filled with parity, it's because all the teams are sufficiently mediocre and no one stands out from the Pac(k)....haha yes, I know, that was terrible.

March 8-11 
New Orleans

Top Seeds: Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida

Tournament Format: 12 teams, top 4 get byes to Quarterfinals

Upset Special: Tennessee

The Outlook: Tennessee has come out of nowhere to have a serious shot at bubble consideration, thanks to a 8-1 run over the last 9 games. Kentucky is the best team in the nation led by National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis who is an absolute athletic freak on the inside. As can be expected with a John Calipari-coached team, Kentucky is loaded with stars all over the court. Watching this team is like a "who's-who" for the first round of next year's NBA Draft. Vanderbilt and Florida are teams capable of going to the Final 4 or losing in the first round - both rely heavily on 3-point shooting. Alabama has overcome a lot of adversity this year, from players getting suspended or kicked off the team, to solidify a good At-Large resume. Mississippi State is still hovering around the bubble and could use a deep run in the SEC Tournament to keep them on the right side of the cut line.

March 6-10 
Katy, TX

Top Seeds: UT-Arlington, Stephen F. Austin

Tournament Format: Top 8 qualify, normal bracket

Upset Special: Lamar

The Outlook: Come on, you know you want Lamar to win this tournament. In case you were living under a rock, Lamar is coached by Bob Knight's son Pat, who obviously has the same fire as his old man. A few weeks ago, Pat and see:

All I can say is you know you want to see Pat Knight in the NCAA Tournament. UT-Arlington pretty much dominated this conference all season, going 15-1 in league play and winning the league title by 3 games.

March 7-10 
Garland, TX

Top Seeds: Mississippi Valley State, Texas Southern

Tournament Format: 8 teams, normal bracket, Southern and Grambling are ineligible based on failure to meet NCAA academic standards

Upset Special: Arkansas-Pine Bluff

The Outlook: The SWAC Tournament Champion has been given a 16-seed the last 9 years by the Committee and that isn't likely to change this year as they have the worst Conference RPI in the nation. The top-seeded Delta Devils started the year 1-11 in non-conference play then reeled off 17-straight victories in the SWAC before falling to defending champion Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the last game of the regular season. The SWAC might boast the biggest tragedy of Champ Week - the league's leading scorer and the #4 scorer in the nation, Grambling's Quincy Roberts (22.7 PPG), won't get to play in the tournament because his school is ineligible for postseason play.

March 7-10 
Las Vegas

Top Seeds: Nevada, New Mexico State

Tournament Format: 8 teams, normal bracket

Upset Special: Utah State

The Outlook: Nevada stormed through conference play, losing only once and winning the regular season title by 3 games. Their only conference loss was by 4 points to Idaho in early February. The Pack put together an impressive 16-game winning streak that lasted from Thanksgiving until the Idaho loss. If there is a team that can stand with them, it's New Mexico State who is led by senior Forward Wendell McKines who averages a double-double (18.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG). The Aggies boast the 14th best offense in the nation, averaging 78.3 points per game. Despite their lofty record, Nevada doesn't have the resume for an At-Large bid and will likely be NIT-bound if they fail to win the WAC Tournament.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Steelers Release Hines Ward

Let's face it, we all knew this day was coming. Hines had a big cap number and he became less and less a part of the Steelers offense as the season rolled on last year. Hines has had a great career in the black and gold. For a 3rd round pick out of Georgia, Hines became the greatest receiver in Steelers history. It's hard to even put his accomplishments into words for some Steelers fans. Even though we have moved to a pass-first offense now, for much of Hines' career the Steelers were still a run-oriented team. Despite that, Hines had 8 seasons with over 70 receptions, including a career high of 112 in the Tommy Gun offense of 2002. He had 6 1,000-yard seasons and shattered pretty much every receiving record in the Steelers history books. Only the 8th player in the history of the game to reach 1,000 catches. The 18th player with 12,000 receiving yards.

This was a business decision on the part of the Steelers. Releasing Hines freed up close to $3 million towards the salary cap. Even though Hines had offered to take a lower salary to play with the team, the powers that be obviously decided that they didn't think Hines was capable of helping the team win in 2012. Hines may go on to finish his NFL career with another team, like many great NFL legends have done over the years. Let's not forget that Franco Harris finished his career with the Seattle Seahawks, Jerry Rice spent a few years in Oakland and Seattle before finally hanging it up.

As fans, it would be hard for us to see Hines taking the field wearing another jersey. However, if Hines still feels he can play and another team is willing to give him a shot, we're not going to hold it against him. Hines is still our favorite player to ever wear the black and gold. He embodied everything this franchise was about for the last 14 years. He's gone now, but we'll always have some great memories of what he did for this team and this city.

At some point, we'll put together a list of some of our favorite Hines Ward memories. There certainly have been a lot over these last 14 years. Thanks for everything Hines. We'll still wear our 86 jerseys with pride.