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Pitt: No apologies

03.25.09 at 4:13 pm ET
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If you’re expecting Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon to apologize for his team’s underwhelming performance as a No. 1 seed in the East Regional in the first two rounds, here’s some advice – don’t bother.

Pittsburgh struggled mightily with No. 16 seed East Tennessee in round one and was tied at halftime with No. 8 Oklahoma State in the second round before winning by eight, 84-76.

“I guess it reinforces things,” Dixon told reporters about the close calls in the first two games. “We didn’t rebound well in the first game, and the second game we got better, and out-rebounded our opponent by 20, that was something, I think.”

With Xavier on tap on Thursday night, one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country, Dixon knows his players need to bring their best to the glass to continue their march in March.

“I think it was what we learned was we can win — really that Oklahoma State game showed we can win offensively, we can win defensively in the second half. That was an interesting game, because you had two teams shooting, knocking down shots the first half. And the second half became a grind it out defensive affair. And we played that way, as well, played successfully in that half, as well. You learn you can play two different ways this time of the year.”

Moments after learning his team was a No. 1 seed for the first time ever, Dixon was asked by CBS-TV whether he was concerned about jinxes and comparisons to the Chicago Cubs.

” This team is different than any other team,” Dixon said on Wednesday. “And again, that’s — Sweet 16 is an accomplishment. If it was — if it wasn’t, teams would have got there more than we have. And there’s only two that have been there more than we have the last eight years, Duke and Kansas have been there more than us. There aren’t any buys into the Sweet 16. I think maybe it’s forgotten.”

And for the record, Pittsburgh has never beaten a team seeded higher than sixth in the NCAA tournament. Xavier is No. 4 in the East.

“Yeah, I think this team is different than the previous team from last year, and it’s definitely different from the team six years ago, five years ago, four years ago,” Dixon said. “All the times we’ve made it we have different players, we’re playing different teams. And at the same time we know we have a very good opponent to play tomorrow in Xavier.”

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The elephant in the room

03.25.09 at 3:12 pm ET
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The obvious storyline with the first game on Thursday night is the fact that Xavier coach Sean Miller went to Pittsburgh from 1987-1992. He played on the first Pitt teams to actually make a mark in the Big East. He played for coach Paul Evans and with Billy Martin and Jerome Lane.

But Miller’s players know this is about now, not 1987.

“It’s simple,” said Xavier guard B.J. Raymond. “It’s another game. We’re just going to focus on that. We’re just going to try and play our best. Coach, he did play there. Everybody knows that. It’s the elephant in the room. We’re just going to focus on playing at our highest level.”

And does Miller ever bring up the ‘good ole’ days’?

“In practice, sometimes when we don’t get the job done, he would say ‘When I used to play,’ or something funny like that,” Raymond said. “But for the most part, he’s pretty humble about his college experience.”

For previous entries from the NCAAs in Boston:

Xavier tough as Pitt

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Xavier tough as Pitt: That’s why we’re here

03.25.09 at 2:46 pm ET
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Sean Miller gave a smile on Wednesday afternoon when he called the Big East Conference the toughest league. It was smile of recognition with a hint of sarcasm.

Miller was asked how his team matched up against the ‘toughest of the tough’ in the Pittsburgh Panthers, the team his Musketeers will be facing on Thursday night.

“They’re the very best at playing that game,” Miller said. “Offensive rebounding numbers, they’re number one in the nation, when you consider what they do to their opponent, in the toughest league, so that speaks for itself.”

But Miller sees reason for hope. In 34 games, Xavier has been outrebounded just three times and none in the last 24.

“Ironically, it’s the very best thing we do,” he said. “It will be tested at high level. Our defensive rebounding, rebounding margin, our defense in general is what has allowed us to have 27 wins. It’s why we’re here and what we just did last weekend. Our greatest strength will be tested against the best at doing it. We’re going to have to play a great game and hold serve in those aereas to hae a chance to win.”

Miller has also heard enough of the questions over the last several seasons about his Xavier Musketeers being a mid-major team succeeding in the bright lights of the NCAA Sweet 16.

“I don’t hear any talk about Memphis being a mid-major,” Miller said.

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Celtics not Magic’s biggest problem

03.25.09 at 12:34 am ET
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Boston Celtics (54-18) @ Orlando Magic (52-18)
8:00PM EST, ESPN

The Orlando Magic established themselves as a contender early on this season, positioning Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics as a possible Eastern Conference Semifinals – or even Finals — match up. But before the Magic can think about playing the role of spoiler, they have their own issues to take care of first – the Detroit Pistons.

“We can’t focus in on how they’ve played us in the past,” said Magic center Dwight Howard. “This is going to be a different year for us in the postseason if we continue to do the things that we do on a night in, night out basis.”

Over the past two seasons the Magic have made early exits from the playoffs at the hands of the Pistons. In 2007 they were swept 4-0 in the first round. Last season, in spite of earning their best record in over 10 years, they fell 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With less than a month left in the regular season and Eastern Conference rankings changing every night, the Magic could very well face the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.

“I think mentally we’ve got to get over that hill, I guess, that they present to us,” said Howard. “They’re a very physical team, they get away with it. They know how to score. They play great defense. And we know how to beat those guys, but it’s just going to take us to come out and do it. We know the way to beat them is to run, not let the defense set up, and then play help defense, and then rebound the basketball. So they’re a team that we can beat. We just have to be mentally on our game.”

This season was the perfect opportunity for the Magic to reverse their luck. They have been soaring behind Howard, beating the Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons, on the other hand, have plummeted since the Allen Iverson trade. But the Magic went 0-3 against the Pistons this season. The third loss came just a day after defeating the Celtics in Boston this month.

“Any team is liable to get beat any night. But you’ve got to be able to beat both teams,” said Howard. “Boston is the world champion so they’re a tough team. And you’ve got Detroit, who’s been beating us like they’ve got our number. I think it’s just a mental block. It’s the same thing that happened to us with the (Atlanta) Hawks. They would always beat us until we got over that — ok, we can beat this team — then that’s when we started beating them. But we have to do that against a good team in Detroit.”

The Magic did not capitalize on the Pistons’ struggles. They are not focused on exploiting the Celtics’ either. While they could view Kevin Garnett’s restricted playing time and the recent depletion of the Celtics bench as a window of opportunity to steal the second seed, the Magic are paying more attention to their own team.

“We’ve just got to continue to do things to win games,” Howard said. “We can’t really focus in on how Cleveland or Boston’s playing. They’re still good teams without those key guys, so we’ve just got to come out every night and continue to get better. Hopefully we’re hot during the playoffs, and the team’s that hot during the playoffs is going to win.”

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Now Appearing on Celtics Now

03.24.09 at 5:18 pm ET
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Do not adjust your HD. That is your humble narrator who will be on the new episode of Celtics Now with Michael Holley on Comcast SportsNet, which airs tomorrow night at 6 p.m. on CSN.

I appeared on a panel with Dana Barros and Pete McKenzie from 100.7 to discuss Kevin Garnett’s return, whether Paul Pierce is playing too many minutes and who scares us among the teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

More show times:

Wednesday

6/11:30 p.m

Thursday

2:30/6/7:30 p.m.

Friday

6 p.m.

It gets better every time. Promise.

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Trags Take… Nova and Duke

03.24.09 at 12:13 pm ET
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East Regional Semifinal-No.3 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke, approx. 9:57 p.m. Thursday, Ch. 4

Memo to Villanova coach Jay Wright: If you’re leading by two late on Thursday night with say, 18 seconds left, your players better know exactly where Duke’s Gerald Henderson is on the parquet floor. If you don’t, this can happen. Just ask Henderson’s dad.

Everyone in Boston remembers that moment in 1984 when the Celtics were trailing 113-111, and down 1-0 to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the game in overtime and then won the title in seven.

As Harvey Araton of the New York Times points out, the ghost of the old man’s steal will be out in the building next to the parking lot where the old one used to stand, the old Boston Garden. James Worthy can’t help but think what would’ve been if his lazy pass didn’t find its way into Henderson’s hands that fateful night.

Jay Wright: Dressed for Success.

Jay Wright: Dressed for Success.

Fast forward an unbelievable 25 years to this weekend’s East Regionals in Boston. One team has three national championships and one of the most successful coaches in the history of college sports on the sidelines.

The other team has a long and rich basketball tradition, including a 1985 NCAA title, with the best dressed coach in the history of college sports on its sidelines.

And so you have Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils (30-6) against Jay Wright’s No. 3 Villanova Wildcats (28-7) going up against each other in the late, late nightcap on Thursday at TD Banknorth Garden. And for the record, Coach K is 833-273 all time and 760-214 in 29 seasons with the Blue Devils. Jay Wright is 176-89 at Villanova in eight seasons and has guided the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in four of the past five seasons.

Villanova is trying to get back to the Elite 8 for the second time in four seasons and back to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 1985.

Whenever one speaks of Duke and Regional Finals the discussion starts with the most dramatic shot ever made in Regional Finals history. The date was March 28, 1992 and the scene was Philadelphia’s Spectrum, which just hosted its final basketball game ever two weeks ago. Duke was trailing Kentucky in the East Regional Final, 103-102, with 2.1 seconds remaining.

I know, enough of the trips down memory lane.

The Road to Boston:

Villanova: Beat No. 14 American, 80-67. Beat No. 6 UCLA, 89-69.

Duke: Beat No. 15 Binghamton, 86-62. Beat No. 7 Texas, 74-69.

Players to watch:

Villanova: Dante Cunningham, Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds. At 6-8, 230 pounds, Cunningham has been the stabilizing force for the Wildcats down low. Averages 16.8 points a game. Undersized as a center, his athleticism works wonders. He has an underrated jump shot which makes him very dangerous. Swingman Corey Stokes averages just 9.7 points a game but delivers at 42.8 percent rate from three-point range. Corey Fisher has emerged as a court leader in this tournament, taking some big weight off the shoulders of Scottie Reynolds. Together, Fisher and Reynolds form one of the quickest and pressure-oriented backcourt tandems left in the tournament.

Duke: Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler. Henderson is the key to this young, some would say over-achieving bunch of Blue Devils. He quarterbacks the offense, scores at 16.8 points per game clip and obviously has the pedigree of a winner under pressure with his dad. He can rebound for a 6-4 guard, grabbing nearly five a game. Took over for Greg Paulus as starting point guard. Scheyer can shoot the three from the other side of midcourt. Exaggerating, but only a little. Singler, at 6-8, 235 pounds, draws the assignment of containing Cunningham. He leads the team in rebounding but that could be a challenge against this Villanova group.

Trags Final Take: Villanova learned a lesson against American in the first round. Don’t get into three-point shooting contests with teams that live on the perimeter. They were down 14 early in the second half before that hit home. Have a similiar lapse of memory here, and it’s nighty-nite. But Villanova knows that Cunningham is having a great tournament and spark plug Scottie Reynolds has yet to really get involved with his trademark dribble penetration. Gerald Henderson, Sr. got it done on the parquet in 1984 but Villanova and their three-guard set finds a way to contain his son.

Villanova 78, Duke 71

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Trags Take… X-Men and Panthers

03.24.09 at 9:37 am ET
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East Regional Semifinal- No. 4 Xavier vs. No. 1 Pittsburgh, 7:27 p.m. Thursday, Ch. 4.

On Thursday night, the first of three East Regional games will be played at TD Banknorth Garden and the matchup between Xavier and Pittsburgh figures to be compelling on many different levels.

Here’s how.

The first game has the top seed Pittsburgh Panthers (30-4) taking on No. 4 Xavier (27-7). The Musketeers are coached by Sean Miller, the same Sean Miller who played for Pittsburgh in the mid-to-late 80s and fed Jerome “Send It In” Lane on the most devastating college dunk of all time.

Miller said on Monday that facing his old school isn’t a big deal.

“Pitt holds a special place for me just from the standpoint that I had a great experience there as a student-athlete. I was treated like you wanted to be treated,” Miller said. “The friendships that I have today with so many of close friends stem from my experiences there. And it really stops there as well.”

Naturally.

He is also the same Sean Miller who appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when he was five and showed off his dribbling skills before a nationwide audience.

Now Miller is all grown up and so are his Muskies. They were down seven and playing right into Wisconsin’s hands on Sunday when the team went on a 10-0 run and the Badgers were not heard from again. Xavier advanced with a 60-49 win in Boise.

As for Pittsburgh, they nearly became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 before waking up against East Tennessee State. They were tied with Oklahoma State, 49-49, at halftime, before pulling away for the win in Dayton. An interesting note, Xavier A.D. Mike Bobinski didn’t travel with his team to the land of big potatoes. Instead he stayed behind in nearby Dayton to watch the Panthers and another No. 1 seed, the Louisville Cardinals.

The Road to Boston:

Xavier: Beat No. 13 Portland State, 77-59. Beat No. 12 Wisconsin, 60-49.

Pittsburgh: Beat No. 16 East Tennessee State, 72-67. Beat No. 8 Oklahoma State, 84-76.

Players to watch:

Xavier: B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson. Raymond led all Muskies with 15 points on Sunday and is the stabilizing force in a backcourt that is vulnerable to pressure. Anderson is arguably Xavier’s most versatile player, at 6-6, 220 pounds, big enough to play in the front court but quick enough to handle the ball on the perimeter. If he’s shooting well, look out. He was scoreless in Xavier’s loss to Temple in the A-10 semifinals.

Pittsburgh: DeJuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Blair had 10 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday. He had 27 points and 16 rebounds against ETSU in the first round. He is 6-7 and listed at 245. He been playing even bigger. Young is a pure scorer and showed that with 32 against the Cowboys on Sunday. He leads the Panthers with 18.9 points per game. And Fields is the floor general, dishing out 7.6 assists a game while scoring at a 10.6 PPG clip.

Trags Take: Not going the Steelers Karma route here. Told you here at the beginning of the tournament that Xavier was one of the five teams I liked in this field. Not going to change now. Pittsburgh’s luck runs out against one of the most athletic and versatile teams remaining in the tournament. Xavier finds a way to defend Young and contain Fields.

Xavier 70, Pittsburgh 64

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