Thursday, March 17, 2016

Amida Brimah is UConn's Power Source

There are two versions of this year’s UConn team – the one with Amida Brimah and the one without. Guess which version can make another run at history?

amida brimah uconn
While much has been made of other, high-profile absences, like at Wichita State and Syracuse, the absence of Amida Brimah went largely unnoticed by the general basketball public. The committee clearly ignored it. If Bill Self were reading this, he’d be nodding.

Amida Brimah is a freak of nature. He is 7 feet tall, weighs a mere 230 pounds and runs the floor with speed. He grew up playing soccer, evident by his excellent footwork and less-than-excellent ball skills.

If you look at his stats, you must be questioning my sanity. How can a guy averaging 7 points, 5 boards and 3 blocks be UConn’s power source?

This is where stats don’t quite tell you everything. Amida Brimah is the quintessential example of a disruptor. They don’t keep stats for altered shots. They don’t keep stats for bad passes by guards in the paint. Most importantly, they don’t keep stats for confidence.

That is why Amida Brimah will determine how far UConn goes in this year’s NCAA Tournament, because his presence changes how every single UConn player views his role.

When Brimah was out, it bandied about as a blessing because the Huskies would develop into roles and Brimah’s return would only enhance that. Instead, the exact opposite took place. This year’s UConn team is void of true upperclassmen, as Coach Kevin Ollie cobbled together a talented roster from new recruits and graduate transfers to mask poor recruiting due to NCAA violations and a coaching change.

So instead of getting four months of the new guys – Shonn Miller, Sterling Gibbs and Jalen Adams – playing with Brimah, there was only a brief sprint during conference play to figure it out. Clearly, as UConn stumbled in the AAC, that process needed more time.

In the AAC Tournament, we saw the seeds of a team learning to play together. More specifically, this is a team that figured out how to play with Amida Brimah. Once they did, their confidence level soared.

Brimah is one of the most unique talents in college basketball, a fact bolstered by the dearth of agile 7-footers at this level. Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State are the three top favorites to win it all. They have a grand total of zero 7-footers.

It was very clear after watching UConn win the AAC Tournament that they are a more confident, more explosive basketball team with Brimah on the floor. On the defensive side, the impact is obvious. The guards can take more chances up top. The forwards can cheat more on passing lanes. The paint is, at times, a literal no-fly zone.

Let’s revisit the Cincinnati thriller, where the Bearcats front line appeared shell-shocked by the time overtime rolled around. If not for Troy Caupain’s mind-blowing performance, UConn wins that game in four fewer overtimes. Against Temple, the Owls never got into any sort of offensive flow. Against Memphis, Brimah made a couple big defensive plays early and the game never really felt in doubt, though Memphis did make a run when UConn let its foot off the accelerator.

UConn, though, is a great defensive team with or without Brimah. UConn becomes a great offensive team when the center who doesn’t average double digits is in the game.

After the Temple win, Fran Dunphy said of Daniel Hamilton, “I think he’s the best lob passer I’ve ever seen in college basketball.”

While Hamilton is a stud, he is aided greatly by the fact Brimah is a safety blanket. When in doubt, toss it near the rim and the tallest player on the court will usually find it.

This is where the confidence aspect comes from, because UConn has a number of players who can create off the dribble. With a painful lack of outside shooting, a collapsing defense means a lot of open three-pointers that clang off the iron. UConn desperately could use a Rashad Anderson, who could sit at the three-point line and drill open three’s all night.

Without that option, UConn needs to get creative. Now, when Hamilton or Adams drive, they don’t automatically kick it out for the three – they look for Brimah down low for the lob. One or two of those early in a game and the defense has to adjust. It leads to a defense that can’t leave Brimah, which opens up the mid-range game for Hamilton and Adams and that’s their strength.

If you rewatch the overtime thriller, you’ll see that most of UConn’s big shots down the stretch came from the mid-range, just outside the paint. Hamilton or Adams would drive and, faced with man-to-man defense, would stop and pop. Cincinnati couldn’t help with other bigs because they couldn’t give up easy dunks – it was up to Hamilton and Adams to hit those 15-footers. They did. UConn won.

Earlier this year, I asked what had happened to the Hungry Huskies and the fire that the 2014 National Champs played with down the stretch of every game. How could that team win every close game while this team seemed to lose every close game?

It turns out my ire was misdirected. They were still hungry. They were simply missing their most important piece.

Parity has turned the NCAA Tournament into a crapshoot that is usually won by a team with talented players and a great coach. The 2014 season is the perfect example – neither UConn or Kentucky were discussed as pre-tournament favorites, but they had NBA-level players and a coach that had the skills to win it all.

Upon Amida Brimah’s return, I said that UConn has the talent to beat any team in the country.

After the AAC Tournament, I say that UConn has the talent and confidence to beat any team in the country.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

One Easy Fix for the First Four: Only At-Large Teams

The First Four has ruined the integrity of the NCAA Tournament.

first four dayton
When the tournament expanded to 68 teams, more at-large teams were added. Yet, the First Four play-in games don’t feature only at-large teams. There are 4 #16 seeds battling it out for the right to get slaughtered by a #1 seed. These games are pointless, meaningless and have led to a plethora of matchups that should never happen because all the seeds are off.

A 64-team field or a 68-team field has the same number of automatic qualifiers. But the addition of two play-in games for the four worst teams has bumped teams from one-bid leagues down a spot on the seed line

Let’s look at the 12 worst teams in the tournament. In a 64-team field, those would be your #16, #15 and #14 seeds. However, a 68-team field has 6 #16 seeds. So of those 12 worst teams, you have 6 #16 seeds, 4 #15 seeds and only 2 #14 seeds.

That means in every bracket, there are 2 #16 seeds should actually be #15 seeds, 2 #15 seeds should actually be #14 seeds and so on and so forth.

Doesn’t it feel like there have been more upsets recently? Though parity is a driving factor, one cannot discount the incorrect seeding of Cinderella’s.

Let’s revisit the 2012 tournament, when two #15 seeds took down #2 seeds in the span of a few hours. In terms of overall seeding, Norfolk State was a true #15 seed when it defeated Missouri. However, Lehigh was the 9th worst team in the field. In a 64-team bracket, they would have been a #14 seed. Since there was a First Four, Lehigh and CJ McCollum was bumped down a line and ask Duke if that was a just reward for a great season.

The most maddening aspect of this bracket nonsense is the simplicity of the solution. It would benefit every single entity involved to remove the terrible 16 vs. 16 games and make the First Four feature only the last 8 at-large teams.

In my opinion, an automatic berth should get you an automatic berth to the proper NCAA Tournament. You can call these games in Dayton whatever you want, it’s not the same for a 16 seed to play one game against another small school as getting that one shot at North Carolina or Kansas.

In addition to unfairly punishing the athletes on these small schools, the First Four has become a landing spot for a HBCU on a near-annual basis. If you’ve followed the painful decline of HBCU athletics, you know how much a game for Southern against a #1 seed would mean.

From a television perspective, it makes zero sense to put out two teams with zero national awareness on a Tuesday night and expect people to watch. It has been proven on an annual basis that the early 16 vs. 16 game struggles to hit 1 million viewers, while the late game between at-large teams routinely doubles that number.

The last four at-large teams into the field were Temple, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and VCU. Does it take a rocket scientist to figure out people would rather watch Syracuse play on Tuesday night than Holy Cross?

Furthermore, the split between at-large play-in games and 16 vs. 16 games ruins the integrity of individual brackets compared to others. This year, for example, Virginia’s East region only has 16 teams. North Carolina’s East regional has 18 – even though UNC was a better overall seed.

The probability of winning a bracket goes down, even if slightly, by the addition of more teams. Why does UNC get a bracket with two potential 11 seeds to get hot while Virginia only has to deal with one?

Lastly, can we give the people of Dayton a better product? The city of Dayton is quite possibly the only city in America that would support the First Four as constructed. Telling you right now, if two 16 seeds were playing across the street in the Verizon Center, I doubt I’d make the walk. But Dayton sells 10,000 tickets every year and good for them. Still, maybe they’d be more interested in Syracuse/Michigan than FGCU/FDU?

In conclusion, the current First Four ruins the integrity of the bracket, produces awful television ratings and punishes the players on the smallest programs

The insane part is how easy the fix would be. If the four games were only limited to at-large bids, everything is fixed. I mean, it doesn’t fix the real problem that the tournament should be 64 teams, but that ship sailed long, long ago.

With an all-at-large First Four, the tournament gets off to a cracking start with more anticipation from the general sporting public. The integrity of the bracket is restored, and each regional bracket will again be equal. The TV ratings will surely increase, along with ticket sales. As an added bonus, the First Four would put more emphasis on the regular season, and by proxy the conference tournaments, because there would be an intense battle to avoid Dayton.

Unfortunately, this fix is too easy and too sensible for the NCAA to ever do it.

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