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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Four observations about the South Region

1. North Carolina has a tough road ahead.
With Ty Lawson at less than 100%, the Tar Heels could be in trouble as soon as Saturday. The LSU/Butler winner is capable of springing the upset, and if both teams advance, #4 Gonzaga could give UNC all it can handle in the Sweet Sixteen. Later on, potential matchups with Syracuse or Oklahoma loom large. With Lawson healthy, they shouldn’t have a problem, but if the ACC POY is gimpy, don’t be surprised if UNC goes down before the Final Four. In fact, expect it.

2. This might be Gonzaga’s best team yet.
Stat guru Ken Pomeroy has the Bulldogs pegged as the fifth best team heading into the tournament, ahead of bigger names like Pittsburgh and Duke. Gonzaga goes eight deep, but Mark Few relies mainly on six players who all average at least 9.2 points per game. Those six players are all legitimate three-point threats as well, with four shooting better than 39% from long range on the season. The Bulldogs are extremely efficient both offensively and defensively, which is why Pomeroy loves them so much.

3. Syracuse/Arizona State should be a doozy.
If they both manage to win their first round games, a second round Orangemen/Sun Devils matchup should be fun. Despite losing to Louisville in the Big East Championship final, Syracuse is one of the hottest teams in the country, but only time will tell if the 35 overtime minutes they played against Syracuse and West Virginia eventually takes its toll. Since they play so much zone defense, it shouldn’t be much of a factor, and it’s not like point guard Jonny Flynn gets tired anyway. ASU has been up and down lately, but they played well in the Pac-10 tournament before blowing a 15-point lead in a loss to USC. The Sun Devils depend on James Harden (20.8 ppg) to score, so it will be interesting to see if Syracuse’s zone can slow him down. Regardless, Herb Sendek has done a terrific job in his short tenure at ASU. I wonder if NC State regrets letting him go…

4. The Illini should be aware of the long ball.
Western Kentucky’s A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez average better than 5.0 made threes per game between them, and along with Steffphon Pettigrew, the Hilltoppers’ top three scorers all shoot at least 37% from long range. If Illinois comes out and lays an offensive egg like they did against Minnesota (36 points) and Penn State (33 points) earlier in the year, Western Kentucky will pull the upset.

Gonzaga, Siena win

Good news for the major conference bubble teams — Gonzaga blew out Saint Mary’s in the WCC final and Siena beat Niagra in the MAAC final. Both teams probably would have made the NCAA tourney without winning their conference final, so the fact that there were no surprises is good news for the other bubble teams.

Saint Mary’s might be in with a 25-6 record, but they lost to the Bulldogs by 25 points, and there are lingering questions about the health of the Gaels’ best player, Patrick Mills, who went 2-16 from the field and scored just five points in the loss. He has posted just 17 points in two games since returning from an injury to his right hand, so if the committee doesn’t feel that he’s up to snuff, Saint Mary’s is very much on the bubble.

The Big East Championship starts today (BIGEAST.tv) while the Pac-10 and Big 12 tournaments start tomorrow. The Big 10, SEC and ACC tournaments begin on Thursday.

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