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I arrived in Chicago at about 7 a.m. after a late night. I would cage-fight for a bed right now, but I'll settle for a Starbucks. Anyhow, here are links to interesting articles:
The PD's Elton Alexander broke down the career of Steve McNees. ( link)
ESPN.com says the key for Akron will be defense -- preventing Ben Hansbrough from getting hot. (link)
The Chicago Tribune discusses Notre Dame's freshman point guard, Eric Atkins, and the concerns of having an untested point guard in the tournament. (link) The same writer mocked the Zips' comments about Notre Dame, particularly Zeke Marshall's.
Below is a poll. Who do you think will win?
Akron is a 14-point underdog. I think that point-spread is too large. Anecdotally, I couldn't get any of the Notre Dame grads at the office to take a friendly wager on that line.
Tom Gaffney's preview is the most thorough of them all. You should definitely read it.
No outcome today would surprise me. If Notre Dame scorches the nets, I can see the Zips losing by a load. If Akron clamps down, plays the passing lanes and makes its 3s, I can see the Zips winning. I had a difficult time choosing whom to advance on my bracket, because our scoring gives bonus points for the upset picks. I ended up penciling in Notre Dame.
Why are people complaining about the "First Four" extra round? Does it upset you that there are additional, meaningful basketball games on television on Tuesday and Wednesday? And then there are pundits who say the tournament is too watered down, based on the fact that a 16 seed has never won a game. Well, the only way to cure that is by ending the automatic qualification for conference tournament champions -- not by reducing the amount of teams overall, and thus cutting back on at-large bids. Would that make you happier? Heck. Let's just cut out all the mid-majors, because they don't provide any excitement whatsoever in the Big Dance.
It's 9:30 Central Time. I'm leaving my post at Starbucks and heading toward the United Center.
It's 11:30 Central Time, and I finally made it to the United Center, after being sidetracked by Google Maps. The dumb application took me to the Hyatt corporate offices, rather than the hotel, where my shuttle was waiting. It gave me an excuse to walk around downtown, though. This is an energetic city. No doubt about that.
I finally got to the Hyatt hotel, and rode over to the game with Tom Gaffney. I also had the pleasure of chatting with Jerry Palm, the founder of CollegeRPI.com. His Web site is the "go-to" source for insiders
Below is a shot of the empty arena. Fans are just now beginning to trickle in.
I am so excited to announce the following news. Charlie Sheen has picked the Zips to win the national championship. Allow that to soak in. Below is his bracket.
Akron received an allotment of 550 tickets. Among the most special fans in attendance will be Keith Dambrot's father. The university surprised Akron's coach by flying his father in for the weekend. It was a very nice gesture.
The NCAA has all sorts of complex agreements with media outlets. Many are exclusive. One such exclusive right is the privilege of giving play-by-play of the game. Consequently, I will not be permitted to give you any play-by-play today -- only commentary. It's not a big deal, because everyone who is remotely interested in Akron will be watching. I rarely give you any play-by-play anyhow, except toward the end of close games.
In warmups, Notre Dame is showing off its athleticism. Even the guy who looks like me (under 6-foot, 170 pounds, white) is dunking with ease.
John Thompson is doing the game for TBS. He just walked in front of me. He's a big guy.
More Sheen ... This comment is from my buddy Kiel Fleming via Facebook: "If anything gets him thrown in an insane asylum, this could be it."
If you're at the office today, you can watch live video of the game for free. Click here. When you expand the media viewer, there is a "Boss Button." You click that, and the screen immediately turns to a bogus Microsoft Office appearance. Pretty funny.
I root for Akron, and you know that. I'm especially hopeful that the Zips win today, because that will give me an excuse to spend the weekend in Chicago. It's always a good time coming here. Always. My girlfriend will be FedEx'ed out here if Akron wins, as well. Don't worry, fellas. I can have fun in spite of that. (This is a test to see if Theresa reads my blog. I don't think she does.)
A basketball from Notre Dame's warmup came over to me. After tossing it back to an assistant coach, I realized that this is the closest I've ever come to being a big-time college athlete.
We are securely in Notre Dame country, but I think the cheering will be somewhat evened by a few factors: 1) A lot of fans hate Notre Dame. 2) The Texas A&M and Florida State fans will prefer to face a 15 seed on Sunday. 3) The general college basketball fans will root for the upset.
The Fighting Irish band played the national anthem. Notre Dame's coaches had their backs to the American flag. They didn't mean anything by it. Coaches were told pregame that they were to face center court during the anthem. The players figured it out and faced the flag.
Akron's starters: Nik Cvetinovic, Zeke Marshall, Steve McNees, Brett McClanahan and Darryl Roberts.
Notre Dame's starters: Tyrone Nash, Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott, Scott Martin and Ben Hansbrough.
The public address announcer alternated between announcing an Akron player, then a Notre Dame player. Each pair of players met at halfcourt and shook hands.
Akron has made an effort early to get the ball into Marshall.
McNees had a 3-ball spin 90 percent of the way into the hoop, then came out. In fairness, Notre Dame has had three short field goal attempts not fall in, as well.
It might be because Akron's fans are behind me, but this does not seem like the partisan crowd I expected. The stadium is about 90 percent full.
They have now run more plays for Marshall in the first four minutes than the entire MAC Tournament.
If Sheen is right, and the Zips are Final Four bound, they might get a helping hand in Houston. Mack Rhoades, Akron's former AD, is hosting the Final Four as the AD at the University of Houston.
After the first media timeout, Akron subbed in Quincy Diggs, Alex Abreu and Brett McKnight. Marshall remains on the floor, and Dambrot keeps getting the ball in to him.
Akron is getting the ball in good places, but the shots haven't fallen. For instance, Marshall bricked a one-handed dunk attempt. Akron is 2-for-13 from the field. The Zips can play with these guys, but they can't allow themselves to fall into a hole early. Hansbrough splashed a 3 to complete a 10-0 run for the Irish.
Jack Cooley, a 6-foot-9 center for the Irish, is one big hoss.
It looks like the TBS feed is on a five-second tape delay. It's probably greater for those who are watching on the Internet.
McClanahan did a nice job drawing a charge on a Notre Dame fast break. Normally, players put their hands over their crotch when drawing a charge, but Brett's were crossed over his chest -- a daring move.
Akron has climbed back within five on 3-pointers from McClanahan and Diggs, but Notre Dame quickly widened it back to 10 on a 3 and a careless inbound pass turnover by McNees.
The good news is, Marshall isn't in foul trouble. He picked up his first at the 5:57 mark.
Akron fans will be suffering an Irish overload. The Zips are playing Notre Dame in Chicago on St. Patrick's Day weekend.
Hansbrough is a fun player to watch. The way he controls the ball and knows the offense, you can tell this guy is going to be a coach someday. He has an undeniably high skill level. He is also crafty with the referees. He makes dire facial expressions every time he's touched and allows his neck to snap back upon contact.
Akron would do well to pump fake on some of these 3-point attempts. Notre Dame is blood thirsty for a block on the perimeter.
Akron fans are unhappy with the referees so far. The Irish have probably gotten a majority of the 50-50 calls.
The 15 seed is a different animal than what the MAC is used to. With a 12, 13, or 14 seed, no one is surprised to see a close game. The 15 seed is where you're expecting to see a noncompetitive beatdown.
Akron made about four extra passes, finding Abreu with no one anywhere in his area. It was a swished 3. Akron is back within four. Cvetinovic pumped his arms running back down the floor.
For those people who are texting, e-mailing, etc., I am wearing a brown suit and striped tie, sitting in the second row of media across from Akron's bench.
If you've read the news clippings, you know how much Notre Dame is haunted by these early exits from the tournament. If Akron can put some fear into the Irish, this might become a different game.
Marshall just took this game to another level. He swatted a Hansbrough shot and then stared him down for at least four seconds with a dirty grimace on his face. That's a side of Zeke I've never seen, but it can't hurt.
Halftime - Akron 30, Notre Dame 34
Notable halftime stats: Notre Dame is shooting 39.3 percent; Akron is 36.4 percent. The Irish have made 5-of-10 3-pointers, while the Zips have made 4-of-10. Hansbrough has 11 points; McKnight and McClanahan each have seven. Cvetinovic and Nash each have six rebounds.
Akron has done a good job on the boards, sealing off the Irish and grabbing six offensive rebounds.
This was a half that both locker rooms will believe they can improve upon. Akron missed an unusual amount of shots from 10 feet and closer. Notre Dame missed a few opportunities to extend the lead to a point that might have demoralized Akron.
I swear to you that I will ask Dambrot about Sheen's picks at the press conference if Akron wins this game. You know Sheen, aka the Warlock, will take credit for an Akron victory. And that will be hilarious.
I bet Dambrot never thought he would speak into a TBS microphone before this year.
The Zips came out of the locker room flat. It's like they forgot the aggression that has been keeping them in the game. It was a 5-0 run, and Dambrot called timeout.
Marshall is missing his normal touch around the rim. He's 1-for-11 from the field. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has opened up a 13-point lead.
By now, you have seen Notre Dame's mascot -- a person dressed like a leprechaun with no mask. I was disappointed backstage when I heard his voice with a normal midwestern accent. Not a real Irishman.
Akron moved to a 1-3-1 zone. That will give Notre Dame a lot more looks at 3s. After a few possessions, Akron went back to man-to-man defense.
How does Diggs' jersey get untucked so often? Dambrot is feeding him the ball quite a bit, and he's been successful with the dribble-drive.
Akron has chipped the lead down to five.
The refs called a phantom foul on Cvetinovic. The replay showed that the Serbian didn't even touch him. Very quickly, Notre Dame took the lead back to 11.
It doesn't look like any players will be in jeopardy of fouling out. Martin and Cvetinovic each have three.
Akron simply isn't making its shots. The Zips' defense is solid, but you cannot pull off the 15-over-2 upset while shooting 34 percent (and getting jobbed by the refs).
Eric Atkins and Abreu got double-technical fouls. Atkins fouled Abreu, and Abreu flipped the ball at Atkins. Atkins tossed it back at Abreu as the Zips' guard was walking away. Nothing serious.
What is serious is that Akron needs to make almost every shot from here on, in order to make this game close. Cvetinovic just blew a fast-break layup.
One of my colleagues from Notre Dame e-mailed me: "Yawn." I agree that neither team has been impressive. You could have fooled me into believing this was a CBI Tournament matchup.
The Zips have begun the full-court press. It also appears the Zips have orders to foul when the ball reaches certain non-shooters.
Marshall shot a 3-pointer. He was wide open, but still. It missed off the front iron.
The Irish possibly sealed Akron's fate with a baseball pass over the press that ended with a Nash dunk. The lead is 14.
McNees hit a 3 from the corner with a minute to go. It will probably be the last of his career. Three other seniors, Roberts, McNees and Mike Bardo, are playing their final games.
McNees got boos from the Notre Dame fans for body checking Hansbrough with 16 seconds left.
If you want to look for the positives, Akron covered the spread.
Dambrot ended the game in a classy way, by taking his seniors off the court so the fans could give them an ovation.
Final Score - Akron 56, Notre Dame 69
Cvetinovic waved to the Akron fans. Was this his final game as a Zip? Or in America, for that matter?
Notable final stats: Akron shot 35.9 percent. Notre Dame was 44.7 percent (52.6 percent in the second half). Hansbrough had a game-high 15; Diggs scored 11. Scott grabbed 14 rebounds for the Irish, who outrebounded the Zips, 41 to 32. Akron outscored Notre Dame in the paint, 26 to 20.
The foul discrepancy was 21 to 11. Notre Dame shot 26 free throws, compared to Akron's six. McKnight and Marshall were a combined 5-for-25.
I went into the Akron locker room to talk to Cvetinovic. He said it's time to roll up the sleeves and start working toward next year. That naturally led to a follow-up question: "Are you even coming back next year?" He said, "No comment." McClanahan, who was sitting nearby, chimed in, "He's coming back." That's going to be the big question heading into next season. Losing Cvetinovic would mean Akron would need to replace three starters and two key bench players.
"Well, I'm disappointed we didn't win. I thought we competed hard enough to win. We played good enough defensively to win. We just didn't shoot the ball well enough, really."
"I told the guys before the game that the headline after the game will be: 'Mid-Major pounds the ball against Notre Dame inside.' We just had to play a little bit better offensively to be there nip and tuck to be there at the end. We just didn't get enough from Brett McKnight, Zeke and Nikola inside."
On the 9-0 run: "I told the guys during the timeout that we have had adversity all year long. We just have to not let them get spurts. We fought back, but we just couldn't put enough baskets together to win. You have to shoot the ball better than that (to beat a high seed). We thought we could score on them, but we just didn't."
"I thought it would be a bigger challenge defensively, but we guarded them. We got a lot to build on. We want to take that next step with this program. Maybe it's going to take a little time for us to win in the NCAA."
"I refuse to let anything bother me at this point, because this team was 12-10."
"My hat's off to Notre Dame. They do a lot of things well."
"We hadn't seen any motion teams all year. We prepared hard for it."
"It wasn't really any different than playing in the MAC. I just wasn't making the shots."
"We got pretty good looks throughout the game. They weren't falling how we like."
"We had our ups and downs as a group. We came together and won some games when it mattered. We are very disappointed that we didn't win today. Getting here was not enough for this group."
"It's a challenge. Facing a bigger opponent. It's a challenge on the glass. I wanted to get every rebound I can."
"Defense is where we kind of set the tone. And rebounding."
"We're thrilled to advance. It took us a long time to get away from them. It doesn't surprise me because they're old, they defend. I loved how we rebounded the ball, especially Carleton."
"He changed some shots. He is one long guy. I don't know if we played against anybody like that in the Big East. We did a good job. The key was, they didn't get rolling from the 3-point arc. We were going to live with some twos and some drives. If they get too many clean looks (at 3s), that's how they were going to beat us."
"It's a fine line between being loose and concentrating. The first thing we did was erase the numbers. We played against a team that cut nets down on Saturday. They're a good team. I'm glad halftime was 20 minutes. We needed to ratchet it down."
"Ben played too fast. He forced plays at times in the first half. In the second half, his decision making was outstanding."
"I think we can still use tape as a teaching tool here, especially with this group. They're students and they want to play better."