Lawson’s toe seems fine, Tar Heels advance

When I filled out my bracket, I felt that North Carolina’s chances were tied to the health of Ty Lawson’s toe. And I still think so.

The ACC POY had to sit out the ACC tournament to allow the swelling to go down. And this wasn’t just any swelling; Dick Vitale said that the toe was “cartoonishly” swollen (and I think he just made that word up). This is obviously a huge concern for North Carolina.

He injured the toe on March 6 and played two days later against Duke, scoring 13 points (on 2 of 7 shooting) and dishing out nine assists. He sat out both of North Carolina’s ACC tournament games, and the Tar Heels lost to Florida State. They aren’t the same team without him.

I think that UNC can get past the first two rounds even if Ty Lawson isn’t 100%. But I’m not sure that they can get by Gonzaga without him playing at a high level. This is probably the biggest “IF” of the entire tournament. If Lawson can play at 90-95%, then the Tar Heels are probably the tournament favorite. If he can’t, then they could easily lose before the Final Four.

So how do we handle this? Well, for the purposes of a single bracket, I’m going to wager that a “cartoonishly” swollen toe isn’t going to be 90-95% healed in time for the tournament. I don’t particularly like Oklahoma or Syracuse to beat them unless Lawson is out or very limited, so I am going to put the Tar Heels through to the Final Four. If I were in two or more brackets, I’d have one where North Carolina loses in the Final Four semis, and one where they lose to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. The bottom line is that I’m betting that Lawson’s toe is not good enough for him to play at a high level for six games over the next three weeks.

If Lawson had been healthy heading into the tournament, I would have picked the Tar Heels over Connecticut for the title. I haven’t seen a guy play this well on a bum toe, so either it wasn’t ever as bad as it seemed, or Lawson has a tremendous ability to play with pain. I’m bummed about my bracket blowing up in my face (thanks, Pitt), but I feel like my original take sans health issues — UNC & UConn — was spot on, but I couldn’t in good conscience pick a team whose best player was gimpy with a bum toe. Simply stated, I guessed wrong on Lawson’s toe.

I think we’ll see a UNC-UConn final, but Michigan State and Villanova are both playing their best basketball of the season. It should be an interesting Final Four.

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TSR’s running diary of March Madness: Let’s play in the Sandbox

These March Madness diaries have turned into something of a tour of the sports bars of Orange County. Last Thursday it was Rudy’s in Newport Beach (still my favorite), yesterday it was the Costa Mesa Hooters, and tonight it’s Sandbox, a relatively new sports bar/lounge on Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. The setup is nice – but no wifi, so this diary is going up in one fell swoop – with a number of HD flatscreens positioned around the restaurant. At night, it turns into more of a lounge/dance club for the well-dressed. Our server’s name is Jessie and she’s looking sharp in her little black dress. We’ll see if I can get a picture of her for you.

I’m watching the games with LaRusso and his co-worker/buddy Kevin, who is from Foxboro, so he’s a big Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox fan. We got into a minor spat last year over whether or not the Celtics would have beat the Lakers had Andrew Bynum been healthy – he thought a Boston win would have been a sure thing while I thought it would have thrown the series on its ear, but we’re way past that now.

5:14 PM: Louisville is spanking Arizona (not a huge surprise) and Oklahoma is up eight or ten on Syracuse (a bit of a surprise). I think the Orangemen have a shot at pulling this one out, though it’s not looking particularly good right now.

5:20 PM: What is the deal with these Howie Long commercials where he mocks anyone who has a truck that’s not a Chevy? This probably brings back memories of high school for Howie. Is there any chance that he wasn’t stuffing freshman in lockers on a regular basis? He reminds me of a meaner “Big John” from “Can’t Buy Me Love.” He was the one who stuck his butt out the window of a house party and farted in the face of a young Seth Green. For those that haven’t seen the flick, it’s one of my favorites from the ’80s — McDreamy plays a McLoser who pays a girl to date him so he can be popular. Hilarity (and surprisingly touching social commentary) ensues. Anyway, I’m waiting for one of these guys in these commercials to tell Howie to go f*ck himself. Do we really need a washed up NFLer mocking a fellow truck owner because it has a convenient “man step” or gets two fewer miles to the gallon? Give me a break.

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Ty Lawson plans to play on Friday

It looks like Ty Lawson’s toe is good enough to play against Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday.

“It’s getting better,” Lawson said Tuesday. “I’m walking on it better. Hopefully in a couple of days, it’ll be back to 100 percent.”

He participated in the team’s shootaround Monday and expected to go through some drills during practice this week. But the team has been cautious, keeping him out of practice for almost two weeks, in addition to missing both of the Tar Heels’ ACC tournament games and their NCAA opener against Radford.

[Roy] Williams said the injury will linger.

“It’s here,” he said. “It’s going to be here. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to hurt the whole rest of the season until he can take that time off.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be 100 percent,” Williams said. “But we’ll take whatever we can get, especially if it’s like that performance Saturday. That’s about as good as I’ve had a point guard play in 21 years as a head coach. I even told him that I was thinking of calling him ‘Rambo’ instead of ‘Dennis the Menace.”

All right, so he’s going to play. After performing well (though looking a little gimpy) against LSU, that’s no surprise. But is 80% or 90% of Ty Lawson enough to get the Tar Heels past a good Gonzaga team? That question will be answered on Friday.

Ty Lawson toe injury update (3/24)

From UNC Basketball, a quote from UNC assistant coach, Joe Holladay, commenting on North Carolina’s practice on Monday.

“I saw him today. We didn’t do a whole lot today, but we put up a lot of shots. He participated in everything we did [in practice today]. He’s sore, but he always moves around like an old man … He’s moving around a little cautiously and is able to shoot the basketball, which is a good sign because there for a week he couldn’t even come up on his toe to shoot. So I think he is doing as well as can be expected.”

It’s a good sign (for Tar Heel fans) that he was able to shoot after hearing a “popping” sound in his toe against LSU on Saturday.

Filling out your bracket? I’m here to help. (Updated 3/18)

3/18 Update: I’ve modified a few picks with the news that Ty Lawson may not be able to go tomorrow because of the injury to his toe. This news casts serious doubt about just how healthy he can get over the next three weeks, and I no longer see North Carolina as a Final Four team. I have modified my picks so that North Carolina loses to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. I project the Bulldogs to go on and beat Syracuse in the Elite Eight, which means that Gonzaga is now one of my Final Four teams. (I know, I can’t believe it either.)

This column is dedicated to the millions of Americans that will be filling out their March Madness brackets over the next few days.

You might be thinking — why should I bother listening to this joker?

Well, this is the third time that I’ve written this column and in the previous two seasons (2007, 2008), I successfully picked the winner both times.*

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

I’m still tweaking my method, but the crux of it is simple: Start with Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings and go from there. Over the past two seasons, teams that had a 2+ point advantage in Sagarin’s “Predictor” category went a combined 82-15 (85%). That’s a good place to start. Even when the teams are closely seeded (within 1-3 seeds), Sagarin’s ratings are solid. Last year, in games that were closely seeded, teams with a 2+ point Sagarin advantage went 14-2 (88%). In 2007, they went 8-4 (67%). So over the last two seasons, that’s a combined 22-6 (79%). Not bad.

LOCATION

Last year, there were five games where tight (< 2 point) Sagarin matchups were won by teams with a distinct location advantage. Davidson beat Gonzaga in Raleigh, Mississipi State beat Oregon in Little Rock, Kansas State beat USC in Omaha, Stanford beat Marquette in Anaheim and Texas beat Stanford in Houston. In fact, there weren’t any tight matchups that were won by the team that was at a distinct geographical disadvantage. This year, I am going to make this my first tiebraker for tight Sagarin matchups.

SEED DIFFERENTIAL

Seed differential is also a consideration, as teams with a four- to nine-seed advantage win at about a 75% clip. The data for the previous 16 seasons was compiled by BostonSportsHub, but since they are no longer updating their site, I added the seed records for the 2008 tournament. Here is a summary of the 17 years worth of data.

So if Sagarin calculates that the teams are within two points, and there are no geographical considerations, then the next thing I look at is seed. If the differential is four or more, I am going with the better-seeded team barring some overriding factor. In 2008, this methodology was 2-1, winning the Oklahoma/St. Joseph and Purdue/Baylor matchups, while losing the USC/Kansas St. matchup. (Interestingly, all three winners had a slight advantage according to Sagarin, even #11-seed KSU.) Had I gone with KSU’s location advantage, this part of the system would have gone 2-0.

POMEROY RATINGS

Last season, I used Points Per Shot (PPS) to pick seven games and went 3-4. I still believe that PPS is a vital stat, but it doesn’t take into account turnovers, which is key when trying to determine just how good a team is. Ken Pomeroy has offensive and defensive efficiency stats that take into account pace and strength of schedule, and those are compiled to calculate his Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Here’s how the last few winners were ranked at the end of the tournament in this statistic: Kansas (1), Florida (2), Florida (1), North Carolina (1) and Connecticut (2). Clearly, when picking the overall winner, we don’t want to stray too far from this ranking.

Let’s take a look at the Final Four participants for the last five years and see how they finished, keeping in mind that their final ranking does take into account how they performed during the tournament.

2008: Kansas (1), Memphis (2), UCLA (3), North Carolina (4)
2007: Florida (2), Ohio St. (4), Georgetown (5), UCLA (6)
2006: Florida (1), UCLA (3), LSU (10), George Mason (23)
2005: North Carolina (1), Illinois (2), Louisville (5), Michigan State (7)
2004: UConn (2), Georgia Tech (7), Duke (1), Oklahoma St. (3)

So, excluding the outlier (George Mason), the average Pythagorean ranking for Final Four teams over the last five years has been 3.6. I wish the site showed the pre-tourney rankings, because it would be helpful to know where these teams were ranked when they started the tournament. Since all we have to go by is where they stand now, it would seem unwise to pick a team outside of the top 10 to reach the Final Four.

I used the Pythagorean method back in 2007, and through the second round of the tournament, it had picked 37 of 48 winners. I stopped using it at that point, and I’m not sure why. This year, I’ll keep track of its accuracy throughout the end of the tourney, though I think it’s important to use the static, pre-tourney rankings because that’s all we have to go by when we fill out our bracket.

We’ll see how much I use this statistic as we dig into the bracket.

So, without further ado…

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