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March Madness – From Pistol Pete to a Magic Carpet Ride

I didn’t begin to grow my hair, longer than the crew cut I sported at the time, because of the influence of rock groups I listened to, like Steppenwolf and Cream, who were popular at the time. It was due to a basketball player who was my idol, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I loved the way Pistol Pete’s shaggy brown hair flopped as he brought the ball up the court for his team, the LSU Tigers.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back in 1966, so Pete’s first year as a starter for the Bayou Bengals was the fall of 1967. And there were very few games that were televised back then, but when there was a game on television I was watching. I couldn’t wait for Saturday afternoons and the SEC game of the week.

I was also a sophomore on our high school’s team in ’67 (we didn’t have a varsity and junior varsity). We had an “A” team and a “B” team and I was on the “B” team.

The problem was, we had to cut our hair to play sports at Wilcox County High School in Camden, AL. I began to let mine grow in 1968 which was my second year on the “B” team (that team went 17-0 by the way). But come November and basketball practice, whack, we had to get that hair cut. Mine wasn’t trimmed short enough so I had to go back and get it snipped again. And friends, it wasn’t very long to begin with.

The fall of 1968 was also when I had my first kiss, my first taste of whiskey, and my first cigarette. I’ve since given up the cigarettes.

So those were heady days. And as the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s Uncle John’s Band go, “Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”

It has now been 50 years since Pistol Pete Maravich was in his first varsity season down in Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to witness him play the first game in what became Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on January 11, 1969. The home team Tigers won that game, 90-71. Sorry Pete.

And, it is noteworthy that LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s playing days. They did receive an invitation to the NIT his senior year.

March wasn’t exactly bursting with madness back in those days. In fact, there were only 23 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But, the UCLA Bruins were in the middle of a three-year title run under the tutelage of John Wooden and the leadership of their star center, Lew Alcindor, who was later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Yes, it’s a long way from those 23 teams, from 50 years ago, to the field of 68 that we grapple with today, and there are 10 of the usual suspects (North Carolina, Princeton, West Virginia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, New Mexico State, SMU, and UCLA) in both sets of brackets.

But interest is at a fever pitch, in the year 2017, and we are all caught in the throes of what is now termed “March Madness.”

The “Sweet 16” will have begun play by the time you read this, and here is the way I see it shaking down.

In chronological order:

Sweet 16

Michigan over Oregon

Gonzaga over West Virginia

Kansas over Purdue

Arizona over Xavier

North Carolina over Butler

South Carolina (Welcome Cinderella!) over Baylor

UCLA over Kentucky

Wisconsin over Florida

 

Elite Eight

South Carolina over Wisconsin

Gonzaga over Arizona

Kansas over Michigan

UCLA over North Carolina

 

That leaves us with a Final Four of:

South Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Kansas vs. UCLA

 

So let’s fasten our seat belts as we approach the final turn on that magic carpet ride… ”March Madness.”

 

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

Hoosiers Fall as Soon as They Rise

The Indiana Hoosiers were finally back on top.  They had beaten Kansas in their opener, and after a few years of mediocrity (relative to Indiana basketball history) Tom Crean finally had his boys headed in the right direction.

Even ESPN couldn’t ignore the hype, placing the Bloomington Basketball Boys at the very top spot of its latest power rankings (by the way, Indiana was in the 14 spot the week before).  That’s right, it was Indiana first, then Kentucky, Villanova (defending National Champs), Kansas, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina. That’s a big list of big programs.

You know what big time programs have in common? They don’t lose regular season games to mid-major opponents.

If you haven’t heard, the same week Indiana jumped 14 spots to number one on ESPN’s power rankings, they lost to the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons, more commonly known as IPFW, in overtime.

What a way to solidify your spot at the top, right?

Well, it was an away game for Indiana, which had to shift the odds just a little bit, right?

Please.

Indiana basketball is to Indiana what Kentucky basketball is to Kentucky, or what Ohio State football is to Ohio. If Kentucky were to travel to Newport to play Northern Kentucky, the stadium would be full of blue and white.  If Ohio State were to travel to Bowling Green, you would be hard pressed to find any orange and brown in the crowd.

It was no different for the Hoosiers last night in Fort Wayne’s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.  Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, is around a three-hour drive from Ft Wayne, so fans from the far eastern part of the state that don’t generally get a chance to see their beloved Hoosiers gobbled tickets up. In fact, tickets to the game sold out in less than an hour.

How did this happen?

Indiana’s starting five included a former three-star recruit, three former four-stars, and a five-star.

IPFW’s starting five consisted of three guys that weren’t ranked as high school recruits, plus a two-star, and a three-star transfer.

That three-star transfer, Fort Wayne native Bryson Scott, shot 50 percent from the field while scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds (he’s 6’1”).  It was the first time Scott had ever amassed over 10 rebounds in a game.

As you can expect from a 71-68 game, the numbers in each statistical category were pretty similar.  Indiana had a slight edge in rebounds, free throw percentage, and field goal percentage.  The most lopsided categories fell IPFW’s way as the Mastodons accumulated 11 steals to Indiana’s four and seven blocks to the Hoosiers’ three.  Indiana finished with 15 turnovers, seven more than IPFW’s eight.

As far as Indiana and its fans are concerned, though, none of that matters.

Indiana has been revealed as a phony and we’re only a few weeks into the season.  With a non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina, Butler and Louisville, plus a tough Big Ten slate, you can probably expect quite a few losses from the Hoosiers, and don’t even think about a national title.

This is a knee-jerk reaction based on one bad result.

No it’s not.  This is an educated prediction based on NCAA history.  I’m not claiming the Hoosiers won’t win the Big Ten or make the tournament, but you’d be hard pressed to go back in history and find a team, ANY TEAM, that has lost to a mid-major opponent and proceeded to prove itself a championship contender.

That’s my challenge to you, actually. Find me a team that matches that description and tweet it to me @evanskilliter or email me at [email protected].  I’ll be happy to hear from you.

E-mail Evan at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @evanskilliter.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Can Purdue Compete With the Big Ten Elite?

The Purdue Boilermakers are in the midst of a successful basketball season. They currently stand at 19-4 on the year, 7-3 in the Big Ten, and have held a national ranking through all 23 games thus far. Purdue has done a nice job taking care of business against lesser foes, with only one real upset loss, that being to Illinois on January 10.

As good as all that sounds, there is one flaw in the Boilers’ resume: they are 0-2 against Top 25 competition this season.

The only two games they’ve played against nationally ranked opponents were against Butler on December 19 and Iowa on January 24. The game with Butler was tight throughout, but the Bulldogs prevailed 74-68. Purdue held a halftime lead at Iowa, but were outclassed in the second half and fell to the Hawkeyes 83-71.

The Boilermakers have only been able to test themselves against two ranked teams, but the fact that they lost both contests is a red flag. Purdue has been ranked as high as 9th in the nation this season, but they have yet to beat anyone of similar caliber.

Opportunity knocks in these next two conference games for Purdue. They will pay a visit to #8 Maryland on February 6, then host Michigan State (currently 12th in the polls) on February 9. These games are very important in establishing what kind of team the 2015-16 Boilermakers truly are.

Purdue is clearly a good team, but how good? Are they a Big Ten contender and a team expected to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, or are they a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team who will make an early exit from The Big Dance (assuming they get there at all).

In their past Top 25 match-ups with Butler and Iowa, the Boilers have played well in stretches and had leads, but were unable to close those ballgames strongly enough to post a victory.

The recent signs have been promising for Purdue, as the team as been playing well and winning. Center A.J. Hammons has been a key factor for the Boilers of late, stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of a career-high 32 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in Purdue’s win at home against Nebraska on January 30.

In short, the potential is there. When Purdue is on their game, they have an inside-outside combination that few teams around the country can match. Purdue’s front line is among the biggest and most talented in college basketball, and they have several wing players who can knock down shots when the defense collapses on the Boilermakers’ big men.

What Purdue needs to prove is that they can put it all together against top-flight competition, and they’ve yet to do that. These next two games will be a great litmus test for Purdue, but if that’s not enough, they also have games coming up later in February against #19 Indiana, and a return match with Maryland at Mackey Arena.

So, by the time the Big Ten season is nearing an end in late February, we’ll know what kind of team the Purdue Boilermakers are. The chance to prove they belong will be there, now, let’s see what they can do with it.

Six is the Magic Number

As a lifelong College hoops fanatic, I’m typically resistant to any significant changes to the rules. However, when the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel released the rule updates which were being put in place for 2015-16, it was the first time I can recall agreeing with the changes.

I had my concerns about reducing the shot clock, but 30 seconds is a sweet spot I can live with; and for years, I’ve been shouting to the rooftops to change the 10 second rule. The NCAA did the right thing, and no longer resets the 10 second count if the team in possession calls a time out while still in the back court. Those were the two most significant adjustments to the actual game play; and two months into the season, college basketball is largely unchanged, with some nice enhancements via the rule modifications.

Despite the improvements brought about due to this year’s updates, the one rule change which should have been pushed to the front of the line was to increase personal fouls from five to six. Now, that was proposed, and is in experiment mode to some extent this coming post season; however, it won’t be in play come NCAA Tournament time. Giving players a little bit longer leash would have been a major upgrade to college hoops, and I’ll tell you why.

Across the sports landscape these days, officiating is under heavy fire. Whether it’s college or pro, football, basketball, baseball, you name it; officials in every sport are, let’s just say, not very well liked. Of course it’s not always warranted, but college basketball has its fair share of really poor referees. And more than any other sport, college hoops seems to have more officials, who inject themselves into the game, and think they’re part of the show.

What does any of this have to do with adding a sixth personal foul? It has everything to do with it. Allowing each player an additional personal foul will reduce the impact the officials have on the outcome of the game. I’m not suggesting that by adding that sixth foul, poor officiating shouldn’t be addressed. However, you can’t very well discipline a bad official during the game. So let’s clip their claws a bit.

Scaling back the damage caused by quick whistles will do wonders for the game and the viewers. Even on nights when the refs want to impose their will on both teams, guys who normally would need to sit on the bench for the last 10-15 minutes of the first half, will now have new life. While the constant stoppages will still be annoying, at least the fan favorites will still be on the floor.
That brings me to my next point.

College basketball has a popularity problem, particularly during the regular season. So let’s keep the stars on the floor. There isn’t nearly the amount of true “stars” in college hoops, as there were in decades past. Many teams are carried by one or two strong players, with a bunch of role players around them.

Take the Providence Friars as an example. Last week, Kris Dunn got two first half fouls against Butler. The inability to keep him on the floor, led to a 12 point deficit. While they were able to climb out of it, and ultimately win the game, his absence put them in peril. Dunn needs to be on the floor producing highlight reels, not walking on egg shells trying to avoid picking up number three.

More and more college freshmen are hanging around for one year, until they bolt for the NBA. With such limited opportunity to watch these rising stars play, we need to reduce the possibility of having them saddled with early fouls, planted to the pine.

Ben Simmons is one of the most hyped freshmen in recent history. Given that his LSU Tigers squad has been underwhelming thus far, there’s a distinct possibility America won’t see him in the Big Dance. In the meantime, we run the risk of flipping over to the rare, nationally televised LSU game, and having Simmons nowhere to be found if he gets slapped with a couple early fouls. College ball needs the stars and future stars out there showing off their talents.

A while back, my esteemed colleague Hollis Mclain III wrote a piece explaining how the new rules would narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. You can check that out here after you finish this post. I personally disagree, and feel that by and large we won’t see much difference than we have in recent years. However, I do believe that adding a sixth personal foul will actually widen the gap; and that’s a good thing. Allow me to explain.

As I stated earlier, by adding another personal foul to each player’s arsenal, we’re drawing power away from the referees; and keeping the best players on the floor for longer periods of time. Over time, the cream will rise. More skill and physical talent will eventually wear down lesser opponents. It will also provide the viewing audience with a better basketball experience.
This won’t be as evident during the regular season, though it will certainly have an impact. Come March, when the games are being played on the biggest stage, that’s when it will really show. Rather than having a top seed sweating it out against some double-digit nightmare because their best player picked up two quick ones, coaches will be able to keep their stars in the game, thus avoiding the scare.

Look, I’m all for the VCUs, Wichita States, and Butlers of the world making a deep tournament run. I enjoy watching a 14 or 15 seed pull off a stunner. However, when we get down to the Elite Eight, and the Final Four; it’s time for the little guys to go, and let the big boys play. This rule change would increase the likelihood that as the NCAA Tournament progresses; the top teams have their best players at their disposal, allowing the tournament to take proper shape.

I love college basketball above any other sport, and I certainly don’t want to see it mirror the NBA game. But adopting the six personal foul rule permanently, like the NBA, is the right move. Ultimately I believe it will be put in play. Since it wasn’t done this year, it needs to be done sooner rather than later, for the good of the game.

Photo: ATrumbly/Flickr

Tournament Notebook: Midwest Region (Part 2)

And just like that, the first flurry of NCAA Tournament games is nearly finished with the set of 16 teams who will be feeling Sweet nearly complete. Much of the Midwest region has been surprisingly unsurprising with the least shocking of all being Kentucky’s march to the second weekend. They survived another grinder, a common theme for the entire region, on Saturday against Cincinnati. The Bearcats stayed within striking distance for much of the game, but it never really felt like the ending was in question. I guess it shouldn’t be a total surprise that even with the seed difference a game would be close between two teams as physical and with the defensive mentality of these two teams. I’ve been wondering the second half of the year if Kentucky’s close games are a sign that they might not be as good as their undefeated record would indicate, or if it is them simply being bored against inferior competition. We didn’t find out the last few days, but we surely will starting next weekend.

At the time of this posting the Wildcats’ opponent has yet to be determined, with Maryland/West Virginia being one of the late tip-offs on Sunday night. Both teams were somewhat popular picks to be upset in the first round games so it’s a little surprising that both teams found their way to this match-up. It’s hard to see either of these teams being able to compete with Kentucky for 40 minutes even with almost a week to prepare.

The other side of the Midwest region had a little more intrigue. After escaping a nail-biter against Texas, Butler was unable to finish the deal against Notre Dame on Saturday. Notre Dame made the clutch plays that allowed them to advance to the Sweet 16 even though they shot only 6-20 on 3s, something that has become their calling card.

The team that will be trying to hold the Irish to a similar 3-point percentage next week? The Wichita State Shockers who nailed 10-20 from deep in upsetting the Kansas Jayhawks on Sunday. The Shockers’ guards/experience proved too much for a young, up-and-down Kansas team to handle. Wichita State has experienced a lot of winning the last three years and certainly doesn’t let the moment affect them. Their win Sunday sets up what should be an incredible game against Notre Dame. Both the Irish and Shockers have a relative lack of size, star guards, and can bury teams with a barrage of threes. With any luck it will give us a game that doesn’t require overtime for the teams to get to 60 points.

The more marquee Elite 8 game would probably be a Kentucky-Notre Dame match-up, since many people pegged them as one of the few teams who have a chance to end the Wildcats’ undefeated run. From my point of view, the Irish and Wichita State are both so even that they have an equal chance, or lack there-of, of beating Kentucky. Plus Wichita State would surely provide many more underdog and “David vs. Goliath” stories that the media would surely eat up. Regardless, many people will be rooting for Kentucky’s opponent from here on out, no matter who that happens to be.

Tournament Notebook: Midwest Region

The Midwest Region was mostly a blood-bath on Thursday. Kentucky rolled as expected. As with many one seeds, they were up big early and then coasted in the second half. The only thing that stood out was that 15 (!) guys saw the court for the Wildcats. Six of those guys saw only one or two minutes. What’s the point? I never understood that. Otherwise nothing to see here.

The Notre Dame/Northeastern game started the tourney off with a bang. Notre Dame’s reputation for laying an egg in the tournament precedes itself and almost came through here. The Irish were on the brink of disaster, but won because of their huge edge in turnovers, including on the final possession when Northeastern couldn’t get off a shot. The Fighting Irish maybe had a little luck carry over from St. Patrick’s Day as they were able to pull out a win despite allowing Northeastern to shoot 49% and nearly getting doubled up on the glass (33-17). The biggest surprise may have been the Irish, known for their 3-point shooting, going only 2-6 from deep. They’ll have to make more than that to beat Butler on Saturday.

As for those Bulldogs? They were another Midwest team lucky to come out with a win (turned out to be the theme of this region in general). They played a grinder against Texas, not that it was overly surprising. Butler is known for their physicality and defense and the Longhorns were 15th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Butler was able to pull away in the end because of execution and a lack of turnovers. Like Notre Dame, they took care of the ball much better than their opponent. Unfortunately, just like Notre Dame they got pummeled in rebounding (41-28). The good news for the Bulldogs is that that rebounding edge, or lack thereof, was the result of the Longhorns incredible size advantage, both in height and weight and NBA talent as well. That’s not something Butler will have to deal with against Notre Dame. The Bulldogs’ physicality will be a lot for the Irish to handle and if they can limit outside shooting the way they did against Texas, they have a good chance of making it to the second weekend.

The other Midwest game on Thursday was of similar ugliness as the Texas-Butler affair. The only reason Purdue or Cincinnati got into the 60s was because it went to overtime. Purdue squandered opportunity after opportunity and was an abysmal 4-26 from 3-point range. In the end this game has little significance since the winner’s prize is going up against Kentucky next. Cincinnati is a gritty, defensive team but they got outrebounded 51-38 against Purdue, what’s going to happen against the Wildcats on Saturday?

The Midwest region certainly provided intrigue and close games on Thursday, let’s just hope that intrigue is a little easier on the eyes today.

Jinxing Your Team One Pick at a Time

50%. That’s roughly the number of people who are picking Kentucky to win it all on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge. That has to be by far the highest in a while. I’m actually a little surprised that it’s that low. The next highest team picked to win it all? Wisconsin at just under 10%.

So what teams are capable of knocking off Kentucky? I’d say short of some surprise team going 15-22 from 3 against them, only the other Top 5 teams. Wisconsin has a pretty good shot. They’re extremely balanced, play ultra-efficient on offense and have player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky. And though it is a different Kentucky squad, the Badgers were one shot away from beating them in the tourney last year and won’t be intimidated. Wisconsin’s possible Elite 8 opponent Arizona also has as good a shot as anyone. They have experienced guards, play elite defense, and have the bigs to match-up with Kentucky’s size. At least to the point anyone could match their size. Duke (gulp) is probably the only other team that has a realistic shot, if for no other reason than they come closest to matching Kentucky from an NBA talent stand point, and they also have the 3-point shooting to match.

Ultimately do I think Kentucky will go down? On to the picks…


SWEET 16

Kentucky over West Virginia
Too much size, too much talent, too much everything for West Virginia to pull off the upset here.

Wichita State over Butler
Regardless of what their seed says, the Shockers are really good. They were in the Final Four two years ago and were undefeated last year until running into a Kentucky team that made the championship game. Key players from those two teams lead this year’s group and they move on here despite Butler’s edge inside.

Wisconsin over Arkansas
I like Arkansas to get past North Carolina because of their edge on defense and having the best player on the floor (Bobby Portis) but that won’t be enough to get them past Wisconsin. The Badgers are simply too good and Arkansas didn’t really challenge the only elite team they played in SEC play (Kentucky)

Arizona over Baylor
Rico Gathers can match up with Zona but I don’t think Baylor has anyone else to match the Wildcats’ size. Close for a while, but Arizona wins relatively easily.

Villanova over Louisville
I don’t think Louisville is that good, but I’m not sure anyone else they’d play before this point is great either. With the quality of competition increased immensely, the Cardinals fall.

Michigan State over Providence
Providence has two great players in Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton that will carry them to this point. However, I think the Spartans have the ability to take one of them away and down the Friars. Having one of the best coaches in the country won’t hurt either.

Duke over Stephen F. Austin
Duke could get a scare from San Diego State (if SDSU gets through St. John’s) but even if the Aztecs hold Duke 20 points below their season average, I don’t think they can score enough on offense. Every year there are one or two surprises in the Sweet 16. I think Stephen F. Austin is that team this year, but their Cinderella run will end here as the Blue Devils’ talent proves too much to overcome.

Iowa State over Gonzaga
I admittedly have little feel for this part of the region. The Cyclones are obviously talented enough to beat Gonzaga, and after recent years I refuse to believe the Zags can make the Final Four until they actually do it.


ELITE 8

Kentucky over Wichita State
The Shockers have the guards to play with Kentucky (and probably have the edge there) but they would get slaughtered on the boards. Kentucky wins fairly handily.

Arizona over Wisconsin
While I hate it when people use rematch to describe two teams that played a previous year, this is about as close as it gets. Wisconsin returned virtually everyone from last year’s Final Four team and got huge improvement out of players like Nigel Hayes. These two teams played basically dead even last year in a game Frank Kaminsky dominated. He’ll have to do the same because this Arizona team is better than last year’s. They replaced defensive standout Aaron Gordon with Stanley Johnson, who can take a game over, and their defense is just as good. The difference this year is Arizona will have Brandon Ashley, who missed the tournament last year due to injury.

Michigan State over Villanova
The Spartans are battle tested after having played almost 1/3 of their games vs Top 10 teams. Villanova seems like the likeliest one seed to bow out earlier than hoped and with only one day in between games, I’m going with Tom Izzo.

Duke over Iowa State
The Cyclones have the offensive firepower to keep up with Duke and have some good wins this year. But I think Duke has just enough of a size advantage, and Iowa State’s 3-point defense (217th in the country) will be a problem against a Duke team that has four regulars who hit at least 38% from beyond the arc.


FINAL FOUR

Kentucky over Arizona
Arizona has the size to match Kentucky. They have solid guard play. What they don’t have is outside shooting and it will be hard to score on Kentucky in the paint. This would be a close, low-scoring game with Kentucky ultimately securing a return trip to the title game.

Duke over Michigan State
The Spartans defense isn’t as stingy as usual and when these two teams played in November, the Spartans gave up 81. They can’t afford to play at Duke’s pace, and the Blue Devils have too much talent on offense for Michigan State to overcome.


NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Kentucky over Duke
Duke has what you’d want to beat Kentucky except for defense. The Blue Devils defense has been anything but great this year. On the flip side, the Wildcats have the NBA level talent down low to match Jahlil Okafor and limit him the way other teams cannot. Kentucky completes its undefeated season.

Here are the bigger first round upsets I see going down:

13 Valparaiso over 4 Maryland
11 Ole Miss over 6 Xavier
12 Stephen F. Austin over 5 Utah
13 Eastern Washington over 4 Georgetown

Jason is on Twitter at @Jlindy87 or you can e-mail him at [email protected]

March Madness Predictions

The most wonderful time of the year is here!  March Madness is just two days away.  Sorry play-in games, or First Four, whatever you want to be called.  The real tournament starts on Thursday.

Countless brackets will be filled out feverishly in the next few days.  Everyone has a method to the madness.  Or there are those who use a lack of an actual system, as their method of filling out what they hope to be a winning tournament bracket.

While I won’t do what Hayden was so generous to do for you yesterday, and provide you his entire bracket; what I will do is provide my take on each region.  It’ll be a mix of prediction, evaluation, and flat out speculation.  Just a little something for you to go with, or against while filling out your brackets.

The first thing I’m going to do is pick the games of the First Four.  I think bracket pools should evolve to where these are used as bonus points.  Extra credit for getting your bracket in by Tuesday.  In these games I like North Carolina A&T over Liberty; St. Mary’s to beat Middle Tennessee State; Boise State takes out La Salle; and James Madison ousts LIU Brooklyn.  They may not seem important, but it wasn’t long ago that VCU used the First Four as a springboard to the Final Four.

Alright, so here we go, region by region.

Midwest

Who will come out of the Midwest?

Answer: Louisville Cardinals – Matchups are so important in the tournament.  The greatest advantage the Cards have is that they can matchup with anyone.  The other critical variable is that U of L is predicated on defense.  No matter what, they are always in games because they will wear the opponent out, and get points off of their defense, even when the offense is struggling.  This is a deep, experienced team led by senior point guard Peyton Siva; focused on getting back to the Final Four.

Which dark horse team could take the region?

Answer: St. Louis Billikens – This is another gritty defensive team, with a lot of experience.  The core of this team gave Michigan State all they could handle last year in the round of 32.  Yes, I realize they are a #4 seed, which is a little high for a dark horse.  However, in a region with Louisville, Duke, and Michigan State, it’s fair to say that it would take a Cinderella run for anyone else to come out of this region.

Which lower seed could make some noise?

Answer: Saint Mary’s Gaels – I was leaning toward the Oregon Ducks, simply because they were seeded improperly.  However, this is a Gael’s team that has been to the tournament, and has a ton of experience.  Although they have to play an extra game, which may put the Memphis Tigers on upset alert, I wouldn’t be surprised to see St. Mary’s win two games.

Who will disappoint?

Answer: Duke Blue Devils – At most, I envision Duke getting to the Sweet 16.  While there’s no shame in getting there, and losing to say Michigan State; more is expected from this team.  The Blue Devils also face a tricky second game.  Creighton could be particularly dangerous; and Cincinnati would be no easy task either.  Duke could be heading home early for the second straight season.

West

Who will come out of the West?

Answer: New Mexico Lobos – The Lobos have stellar guard play from Kendall Williams and Tony Snell; and they have a legit seven-footer in Alex Kirk.  There’s not much in their way until the Sweet 16 and a possible matchup with Ohio State.  New Mexico has all the components necessary to make a Final Four run.

Which dark horse team could take the region?

Answer: Wisconsin Badgers – The Badgers are positioned at a #5 seed partially because the Big 10 teams beat the hell out of each other.  As usual Bo Ryan seems to have an endless supply of big guys who can pound you on the glass and defensively; and can also stretch the defense from the perimeter.  Wisconsin should cruise to the Sweet 16; and could be a real problem for Gonzaga, assuming the Bulldogs make it there.

Which lower seed could make some noise?

Answer: Wichita State Shockers – I was tempted to say Belmont, but I think everyone, including Arizona is aware of what the Bruins can do.  Not that WichitaState is an unknown; I just think they’re better positioned to make a run.  The Shockers struggle to score at times, but they’ll get after it defensively, and come at you in waves.  I strongly considered picking WichitaState to knock out Gonzaga in the round of 32.  I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened.

Who will disappoint?

Answer: Gonzaga Bulldogs – The Zags definitely deserved a #1 seed, and they are a really good team.  However, the top line also makes them a prime candidate to be a disappointment.  Unless this team finally cracks the seal, and makes a Final Four; it will be exactly that.  I just don’t see them negotiating through Wisconsin.  If they do, either New Mexico or the Ohio State Buckeyes will take them out in the Elite Eight.

South

Who will come out of the South?

Answer: Kansas Jayhawks – The Jayhawks didn’t lose a ton from last year’s National Runner-up.  Bill Self is one of the elite coaches in the game.  They have a nice mix of upper classmen (Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford) and youth (Ben McLemore, Perry Ellis).  If things go as I think they will, Kansas may run the VCU Rams, and I doubt they get tripped up by them again.  Anything can happen, but I don’t see much at the bottom of the region to keep them from Atlanta.

Which dark horse team could take the region?

Answer: VCU Rams – So I just said Kansas gets out of the region.  Well, if anyone could take them out, I say it’s VCU.  Shaka Smart’s team gets up and down, shoots the triple, and creates havoc on defense.  They really don’t look physically imposing, but they are relentless.  The Rams can’t overlook the Michigan Wolverines in the round of 32.  However, VCU is more than capable of making a deep run.

Which lower seed could make some noise?

Answer: South Dakota State Jackrabbits – Any team with Nate Wolters has a chance to cause problems.  The fact that Michigan isn’t a top flight defensive team helps immensely.  Wolters should be able to get his offense going, and he has enough support to get out of the round of 64.  Reaching the Sweet 16 would be huge for the Jackrabbits, and certainly feasible with a possible mid-major matchup in the round of 32 with either the Akron Zips or VCU.

Who will disappoint?

Answer: Michigan Wolverines – About 15 games into this season, I thought the Wolverines were the best team in the country.  Trey Burke is a Player of the Year candidate.  They have firepower galore.  They also settle for a lot of perimeter shots, and don’t play very good defense.  Combine that with an underwhelming coach in John Beilein; and you have a tournament disappointment.

East

Who will come out of the East?

Answer: Syracuse Orange – I realize the Orange didn’t exactly set the world on fire down the stretch.  The talent and experience is there to make this a formidable foe in the tourney.  The Orange has solid guard play, and James Southerland has been torching the nets from three.  The first major test should be the Indiana Hoosiers in the Sweet 16.  For teams that haven’t run into it often, the length of the Syracuse zone defense can be a real problem.  I think both Indiana and the Miami Hurricanes struggle with that problem and the Orange crash the Final Four.

Which dark horse team could take the region?

Answer: Temple Owls – The East seems like the least likely to have a dark horse representative in the Final Four.  However, my rationale is simple.  Temple plays a methodical style, and has a player in Khalif Wyatt who is capable of carrying a team on his back.  If the Owls were to knock off Indiana in the round of 32, I could see them making their way through the weakest of the regions.

Which lower seed could make some noise?

Answer: Bucknell Bison – This is a flat out good team.  Mike Muscala will be a household name by the time the Bison exit the tourney.  Bucknell is well balanced, and has played major competition.  This is the one double-digit seed I’m confident will go to the Sweet 16 at minimum.  They’ll get by the Butler Bulldogs and then oust the Davidson Wildcats after they pull the upset of the Marquette Golden Eagles.  Once they get that far, who knows what can happen.

Who will disappoint?

Answer: Indiana Hoosiers – Again, being the top seed has its privileges, and its drawbacks.  The Hoosiers have been their own worst enemy when they’ve lost this season.  They just seem to lose focus.  I don’t see them keeping it for three straight weeks.  If they do, they could win it all.  If they don’t, they could suffer a worse fate than the Sweet 16 ouster I’ve predicted for them.

Final Four

As you can see, in breaking down the regions, I gave you my Final Four picks.  Louisville out of the Midwest region vs. New Mexico out of the West region.  Kansas out of the South region vs. Syracuse out of the East Region.

I’m picking my Louisville Cardinals to once again overcome the New Mexico Lobos.  They battled last season in the round of 32.  This time the stakes are higher, but the outcome will be the same.  The Cardinals take a close one.  The Kansas Jayhawks will end the improbable run by the Syracuse Orange on the other side of the bracket; setting up a Louisville vs. Kansas matchup for the National Title.

I’m picking the Louisville Cardinals to get their third National Championship.  Final score: Louisville Cardinals 72 Kansas Jayhawks 65.

An all Catholic College Hoops Conference would be a revelation

Conference realignment in college athletics has been a maddening process to watch unfold over the last few years.  As a hardcore college hoops fan, I’m disappointed to see the Big East dissolve.  I won’t say I’m sad; after all, it is just an athletic conference.  But I am disappointed.

Growing up in the 80’s, the Big East was huge.  At that time, the amount of college hoops on national television was a mere fraction of what it is today; but you could count on seeing a Big East game on TV every weekend of the College Basketball season.

It seemed that every single March, I’d be watching an awesome Syracuse-Georgetown match up in the Big East semis or championship.  That rivalry is now gone.  Along with some other really great rivalries which developed over the lifetime of the Big East.

Although I’m disappointed with the loss of the Big East, I’m excited about the prospect of the remaining Catholic schools forming a league; along with the possibility of expanding to a nationwide Catholic basketball conference.

Now, my enthusiasm for this idea has nothing to do with religion.  I was raised Catholic; however, religion is not a part of my life.  There are other reasons for my enthusiasm for such a league.

First and foremost, I’m excited to see a conference whose members actually have something in common.  Conferences used to be regionally based.  The majority of conferences made complete sense.  The ACC had schools which resided on the Atlantic coast; the SEC was made up of schools which were in the Southeastern part of the United States, etc.

When teams would realign in the past, they typically would relocate to a conference that made sense regionally.  South Carolina joined the SEC.   Boston College and Miami joined the ACC.  You see where I’m going with this.

All of that went out the window with the latest boom of realignment moves.  The Big East was set to take on schools like Boise State, San Diego State, etc.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but those schools are out west.  Nothing against those schools; but that sort of tomfoolery really makes my Rainman-ish side itch.  I appreciate reason, logic, and order.

The formation of an all Catholic schools league would be logical.  Not only will the formation of a conference of all Catholic schools be logical because of the common thread they share; but it would also be a dang good college hoops league.

The Big East holdovers form a strong base of teams steeped in basketball tradition.  Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova have each won National Championships.  DePaul, Providence, St. John’s, and Seton Hall have each played in the Final Four.  Although most of that success dates back to the ’70’s & ’80’s, these are still successful programs.

What would make this a really great league, would be the possible additions that have been rumored.  If schools like Butler, Dayton, Creighton, Gonzaga, St. Louis, St. Mary’s, and Xavier join, it would make for a fun, yet powerful basketball conference.

There are enough top tier schools to be a force in the NCAA tournament.  Many of those schools consistently reach the second weekend of March Madness.  Even though the league would be strong, it wouldn’t be top heavy.  The talent gap between the first place team and the last place team wouldn’t be significant.  Once proud schools like DePaul and St. John’s would have a chance to revive after being buried in the Big East for years.

If all of those schools would come together, there’d be some awesome built-in rivalries.  Georgetown-Villanova will always have the Big East ties, and the 1985 NCAA Championship.  Butler/Xavier has been downright nasty in recent seasons.  Natural regional rivalries between St. John’s/Seton Hall, Dayton/Xavier, and Marquette/DePaul would exist.  Plus, the conference would span the Midwest with St. Louis/Creighton; and the West coast would be covered with Gonzaga/St. Mary’s.

Obviously this is a lot of speculation.  We know the seven Big East teams are on the move, but right now, there are only rumors about which other schools may join them.  Who knows if this will actually happen?  I certainly hope it does.  Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think an all Catholic schools league would produce some pretty awesome college hoops.