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NCAA Tourney Madness

   by Al McMordie - 03/22/2010

If you didn't get enough madness this weekend, or were out of town, don't sweat it. You get to go mad all over again! The wildness that is March tournament play rolls on. One of the great parts of March tournament play is the amount of sidebars that can pop up with respect to handicapping. That is, tournament play offers bettors many different factors to analyze and digest.

With the games meaning so much, this is a great time to mention how important defense is. Strong defense requires all out effort from players, and we are now reaching that point in the year where the meaning of games is far more intense. Win or go home is far different than the regular season, when you have a chance to play again. Lose one game and no matter how great your season might have been, it is over (just ask Kansas).

Don't be surprised to see a lot more fierce defensive games with so much on the line now. The big story this weekend was Northern Iowa upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas, 69-67. Kansas is the first No.1 seed to lose before the Sweet 16 since Kentucky and Stanford both accomplished the feat in 2004. How did Northern Iowa do it? It held Kansas to 44% shooting and just 26% from beyond the arc. That may be something new for Kansas, but it's nothing new for Northern Iowa, one of the top defensive teams in the country. They stayed fairly even on the boards and were able to win despite shooting just 40%. How? DE-FENSE!

That was the third lowest scoring total all season for the Jayhawks, and it's no surprise they went 0-3 ATS in those games. Offense requires timing, practice and even rhythm, with so much passing and cutting involved. It's not that difficult for defenses to put in new wrinkles to upset the opponent's timing or attack the shooter. With so much at stake in March, it's not surprising coaches will stress the importance of defense and demand it, many times on every possession.

So what happened with No. 2 seed Villanova? The Wildcats got upset by St. Mary's because they scored 68 points, far below their average, and shot 36%. They had to face 6-foot-11 Omar Samhan, who took the floor for the Gaels and the Villanova frontcourt defenders were either undersized or under experienced. They couldn't do much to stop him.

Styles of play can even change during tournament action, usually the slower-paced or better defensive team can take charge of pacing. Think back to the 2008 tournament run by Florida and Ohio State. The Gators had a reputation of a run-and-gun offense, yet in the first tourney game they shut down Georgia, 74-57, in an SEC tournament game that went under the total. In the SEC title game, the Florida defense rose up again holding Arkansas to 56 points in a game that went under the total.

Ohio State, with then-freshman Greg Oden, also went 2-1 under the total in the Big 10 tournament, holding Purdue to 52 and Wisconsin to 49 in the final two games. Even uptempo teams can bring a fierce defensive effort that oddsmakers and bettors might not expect. The Conference USA championship a few years ago pitted Memphis and UAB, two strong running teams. Yet, they played lights out defense in a 57-46 Memphis win. That game went under the total by 41 points! That same season uptempo Florida beat South Carolina for the SEC title, 49-47, in a game going under the total of 130. It's common to see close games and fierce defensive battles.

Northern Iowa is currently on a 19-8 run under the total, St. Mary's is on a 10-3 run under, and even uptempo Tennessee is on a 13-6-1 under the total. With no go-to scorer, the Vols rely on a balanced offense and sturdy, active defense. Tennessee held Ohio to 37.9 percent shooting Saturday, blanketing Bobcats guards D.J. Cooper and Armon Bassett. Bassett made just two of 10 shots and scored only seven points.

Six years ago, UConn went 2-1 under the total in the Big East tournament, holding Notre Dame to 58, Villanova to 67 and Pitt to 58, one that started a 5-1 under the total run the rest of March. That same season Wisconsin turned on the defense, going 2-1 under the total in the tourney, knocking off Illinois 70-58 as a one-point dog in the title game. Over the next few weeks you will see upsets, fantastic finishes and plenty of rugged defense. Because March is money time, the time of the year for intense defense! Good luck, as always...Big Al McMordie.

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