Tag Archives: Elite Eight

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.

2017 NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Notebook

Good fortune finds that the region that I happened to be covering turned out to be the only part of the bracket I predicted 100% correctly after the Round of 64.  No real surprises, as the top seeds took care of things in a business like fashion; and the only higher seeds to advance – #9 Michigan State and #11 Rhode Island – were anticipated.  The Round of 32 presents some intriguing match-ups as the first weekend of the Big Dance commences.

Close but no Cigar

I mentioned in my tournament preview on Thursday that the Midwest felt like a bracket that would not have much in the way of double-digit upsets.  The teams I felt were most likely, if any, to pull off upsets were Vermont and Nevada.  I make the mistake every year of picking a few too many of the 11-13 seeds to advance out of the Round of 64.  In customary fashion, both of these schools played very well, and hung tough for the majority of their respective games, but in the end Purdue and Iowa State were able to outlast the upstarts.  No surprise that Monte Morris led the way for the Cyclones, and B1G player of the year Caleb Swanigan did the most damage for the Boilermakers.  This sets up a 4/5 tilt between two schools recently plagued by early tournament failures, and something’s gotta give.

Wolverines continue their tear; have a shot at Revenge

The #4 seed Michigan Wolverines kept on rolling, outlasting Oklahoma State 92-91 in one of the more entertaining opening round games.  Senior Derrick Walton Jr. led the way with 26 points and 11 assists, setting up a Sunday afternoon showdown with Louisville.  The Cardinals once again got off to a shaky start, allowing themselves to fall into a 10-2 hole, before taking the lead permanently with just under seven minutes left in the first half.  The Cards got surprisingly strong contributions from big men Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding in order to outlast Jacksonville State.  Michigan has an opportunity to grab a little revenge, as John Beilien’s Wolverines fell in the 2013 National Championship game to Rick Pitino’s Cardinals.

Ram Tough

Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island team handily dispatched #6 Creighton, lining up one of the match-ups I was most looking forward to in this tournament, a date with the #3 seed Oregon Ducks.  All five starters scored in double figures, led by freshman Jeff Dowtin, who along with E.C. Matthews, went 10-10 from the free throw line.  The Rams will need every bit of toughness they have in them, as Oregon handled their business the way the tops seeds should, running up 55 points in the first half, and cruising to victory.  When Dana Altman’s team exerts all of their talent, the Ducks are elite.  This will be a fun game on Sunday.

This is Sparta!

The 2016-17 instillation of the Michigan State Spartans isn’t the typical powerhouse that Tom usually has at his disposal.  Coach Izzo knows how to pull the right strings at the right times, and now is presented with a golden opportunity to knock out top-seeded Kansas.  The Spartans thumped the Miami Hurricanes, and now await the Jayhawks, who, as expected, destroyed UC Davis to move into the Round of 32.  What was expected was the performance of Michigan State’s powerful freshman Miles Bridges and Nick Ward.  The keys on Sunday will be how Izzo’s club deals with the Kansas backcourt, particularly Frank Mason III, and whether the Jayhawks have enough support for senior Landen Lucas on the interior, in order to keep him on the floor.  I like Bill Self’s team to get through, but it may be a battle of attrition.

The Midwest Region is set up to have an outstanding Sweet 16.  Purdue or Iowa State will grab the first slot as that game caps off the action on Saturday night; then everyone else will fill in the gaps on Sunday.  Here’s hoping I can keep one clean region, and have each of my picks roll through, including #11 seed Rhode Island, there to upset the apple cart, and close out the opening weekend of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

E-mail Damon at  or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s not a Homer Pick if my Team can Win it All

As much as I love the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, I always muse that it’s much easier to remain objective picking my March Madness bracket if the Cards don’t make the field.  Now, that’s typically a rare occurrence, and fortunately, over the last decade or so, UofL has been in the discussion as a national title contender, so picking them to win isn’t an outlandish proposition.  This past Monday, I rapidly completed my bracket, and immediately tweeted my prediction that Louisville will win it all.  Within minutes of making announcing my choice, I had several friends drop the “Homer” label on me.  So, I ask the question, is it really a homer pick if the team you root for is a legitimate contender?  I say no.  Ponder that as you read through my predictions for the entire bracket.

East Region

The defending Champion Villanova Wildcats reside here, and it’s their region for the taking.  Jay Wright’s team is battle-tested, and looks more than capable of a repeat.  Let’s not be too hasty, as there are a number of hazards on the road to Phoenix.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Watch out for the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks.  Kevin Keatts is from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, and he has put together a dangerous squad.  In last year’s tournament, the Seahawks pushed Duke to the limit in the Round of 64 before losing a hard-fought game by just eight points.   The Seahawks will push the pace and play pressure defense, which will be in direct contrast to Virginia, as they get another ACC foe this year.  If UNCW can dictate tempo, it could spell early round trouble for the Cavaliers.  While Tony Bennett’s team is always one of the toughest defensively, their style keeps opponents within striking distance, which could play right into Wilmington’s hands.

Early Exit:

Baylor ripped off 15 straight wins to open the season, and looked like an elite team.  While the Bears aren’t completely abysmal, an early disappearing act may be on its way.  Baylor is 5-5 over its final 10 games; and is scuffling enough that a loss to New Mexico State in the opening round, or a run-in with a powerful and hungry SMU team in the Round of 32 should be the demise of Scott Drew’s club.

Pivotal Match-Up:

The most critical match-up to affect this region will be Virginia vs. Villanova, part two.  Part one on January 29 was an absolute classic, as the Cavaliers led most of the way, on the road no less.  The Wildcats scratched and clawed their way back into the game late, and won 61-59 on Donte DiVincenzo tip in as time expired.  I suspect round two will be just as grinding as the first meeting, only with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.  I have Nova surviving it, but no matter which team comes out of it, they’ll be in prime form to make it out of the East Region.

Dark Horse:

Fittingly, the SMU Mustangs are the dark horse in the East.  A bit under the radar, and under -appreciated coming out of the AAC, Tim Jankovich’s team has something to prove.  The Mustangs have an awful lot of length, and a ton of experience, led by the powerful Semi Ojeleye.   The Ponies haven’t lost since January 22 at Cincinnati 66-64, and the Bearcats finished just a game behind SMU in the standings.  Facing a favorable #3 Seed in Baylor, and then a Duke team which is heavily reliant on young players, there’s a strong chance the Mustangs can aptly fulfill the dark horse role.

Who Wins the East?

I’ve gotta stick with the Villanova Wildcats.  Whether the Cats have it in them to repeat once they arrive at the Final Four, I can’t say, or at least won’t say just yet; but this team has enough talented pieces to chase a mini dynasty.  With a rock-solid backcourt of Jaylen Brunson and senior leader Josh Hart, along with last year’s hero, senior Kris Jenkins, it would be a good bet to book a reservation for Nova in Phoenix.

West Region

The OCD in me loves that we actually got two western teams as the top seeds with #1 Gonzaga and #2 Arizona.  It feels like there’s a real opportunity for the west coast to get some representation in the Final Four; and in the case of Zona, have a distinct home court advantage.

Dangerous on Day 1:

The West has many double-digit seeds that I think can stop some hearts in the Round of 64.  Xavier is one, although they’re not an under-the-radar candidate.  The same goes for VCU.  However, the 12, 13, 14 seeds, Princeton, Bucknell, and Florida Gulf-Coast may also pose some problems.  My personal pick is Bucknell.  The Bison have the mid-major formula of solid veteran guards, along with sufficient frontcourt size, which leads to upsets.  Guys like Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland, and Stephen Brown may inject themselves into the American consciousness with a win of West Virginia, and potential battle with Notre Dame.  The West may be blown up by day two.

Early Exit:

West Virginia is my odds-on favorite to get bounced.  Naturally, as I picked Bucknell, as my double-digit danger choice; and the Bison face the Mountaineers.  Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with West Virginia.  Bob Huggins’ team got plucked in the Round of 64 last year, and feel like a good candidate to get bounced, in what could be a topsy-turvy region.  If I had to pick another top seed that may be at peril, it would be Florida State.   Leonard Hamilton has put together a talented group led by sophomore 6-7 guard Dwayne Bacon.  However, these Seminoles haven’t experienced the tournament yet.  If the Noles get past Florida Gulf Coast, the Round of 32 could be the end of the road.

Pivotal Match-Up:

A Sweet 16 tilt between Gonzaga and Notre Dame is my key match-up for this region.  Mark Few has had the Bulldogs on the precipice of the Final Four in the past, only to have his talented, expectation-laden teams fall short.  This rendition of Gonzaga has a go-to star in Nigel Williams-Goss, and plenty of heft manning the middle with Przemek Karnowski.  Many feel like this is the year for the Zags to finally break through.  Not so fast.  The Golden Domers are essentially the same team that has been to the Elite Eight the past two seasons.  Mike Brey’s team is led by the versatile Bonzie Colson, and has plenty of exterior firepower as well with Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem.  I think the Irish make a third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight, and leave Gonzaga fans longing for that elusive Final Four run.

Dark Horse:

The aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish team is my dark horse.  Yes, the Irish are a #5 seed, but certainly are not considered favorites to escape the region.  The experience on hand, along with the tournament success this team has gained over the previous two seasons, makes Brey’s team extremely dangerous.  Assuming Notre Dame gets past Gonzaga, there’s no reason that Arizona, or whichever opponent finds their way to the Elite Eight, can’t be eliminated by the Fighting Irish.

Who Wins the West?

I’ve barely mentioned the Arizona Wildcats up until now, but Sean Miller’s squad is my choice to win the West.  The Wildcats are at the top of their game heading into the NCAA Tournament, having won nine of their last 10 games, including capturing the Pac-12 tournament title.  6-5 sophomore Alonzo Trier is a do-everything type of player and 7-0 super frosh Lauri Markkanen is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the country.  Miller just missed the Final Four in 2015.  This year he’ll get Zona to Phoenix for a shot at the National Championship.

Midwest Region

The Midwest Region seems to have laid out fairly well for my Louisville Cardinals.  Without a doubt Kansas can’t be taken lightly as the #1 seed.  However, #3 seed Oregon just lost a key player.  #4 Purdue is good, but definitely not elite, and the Cardinals have already beaten the Boilermakers.  And #5 seed Iowa State has been a huge disappointment the last few years come March.  Of course, I say this, and the entire region could blow-up in my face.

Dangerous on Day 1:

When I look at the Midwest, I think chalk.  It just feels like a section of the bracket that will end up staying to form, as few of the double-digit seeds feel like a huge upset threat.  If I had to guess which teams have a shot, I’d point out Nevada and Vermont.  The Wolfpack won the Mountain West regular season, and tournament titles, and closed the season winning eight in a row.  The Catamounts haven’t lost a game since December 21, closing out the regular season with 21 wins in a row.  Both teams face opponents – Iowa State and Purdue – which have displayed the propensity to get clipped early in the tournament.  Beware.

Early Exit:

I referenced in my Midwest Region Preview yesterday, that Oregon’s biggest challenge heading into the NCAA Tournament is the loss of Chris Boucher to injury.  Most teams that suffer loss of key personnel typically either rally around it, or sulk and lose focus.  My bet is on the latter.  Top player Dillon Brooks can be a star, but he also has his own meltdowns and antics which distract from the team.  Round of 64 opponent Iona played NCAA tourney participants Florida State and Nevada early in the year; and knocked off Nevada in the second match-up.  The Ducks will likely get past the Gaels, but my prediction is that Oregon will run into red-hot Rhode Island, and get shot down quickly.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It may seem a bit early to be considered a pivotal match-up, but the potential Kansas/Michigan State game will play a major factor in this region.  The Spartans have been down this season.  So down, that for a while it felt like Tom Izzo’s team wouldn’t make the Big Dance.  Well, here come the Spartans, landing at a #9 seed, just in time to bug the hell out of top seeded Kansas.  Honestly, there’s no reason the Jayhawks shouldn’t knock off MSU.  However, the one major weakness for Kansas is in the frontcourt where Bill Self’s team is a bit thin.  That just happens to be a strength of the Spartans.  If Kansas escapes, it will likely propel the Jayhawks to great fortune.  If not, the Midwest Region really opens up.

Dark Horse:

#11 seed Rhode Island is the sleeper in this region.  The Rams closed strong, winning eight of nine; and have a win over Cincinnati under their belts early in the year.  Undoubtedly, URI starts with a difficult contest against #6 Creighton, and would likely have to take on #3 Oregon in the Round of 32.  With the way the Rams are playing, solid inside-outside balance, and up-and-coming Dan Hurley at the helm, Rhode Island has the look of a Cinderella.  I envision the Rams riding that late-season success into an Elite Eight appearance.

Who Wins the Midwest?

I have the Louisville Cardinals coming out of the Midwest.  As I mentioned in my preview of the Midwest, the Cardinals have their flaws.  Most of those flaws however are self-inflicted.  This is a team that can play multiple defenses, get out in transition, and pick teams apart.  Focusing on applying the death blow is what Louisville needs to add to the repertoire to advance deep into the tournament.  Rick Pitino will adjust the rotations, and as usual, have some tricks he kept hidden all season, which will put UofL on the right path toward the Final Four.

South Region

There’s always one region which seems to have a lion’s share of top programs, and could almost be considered a “Group of Death”.  The South is it this year.  Arguably the top three college basketball programs of all time – KentuckyNorth Carolina, and UCLA – all reside in the South.  What makes this region really fun though, is that in addition to all that tradition, some of the most dangerous double-digit seeds also found their way here.

Dangerous on Day 1:

This one is easy; the most dangerous high seed is #12 Middle Tennessee State.  The Blue Raiders pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history last year, knocking off #2 seed Michigan State.  Much of that squad is back for a second helping, and now they have 6-8 senior JaCorey Williams.  The Arkansas transfer leads MTSU in scoring at 17 points per game.  In the Round of 64, the Blue Raiders get Richard Pitino’s #5 Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Gophers are back in the tournament field after having a miserable 2015-16 season, finishing 8-23.  Without a doubt, Pitino did a masterful job turning this team around, but the visit to the tournament may be short-lived.

Early Exit:

Once again John Calipari has an uber-talented group of freshmen, forecasted for greatness, which captured the SEC regular season and tournament titles.  Kentucky has won 10 games in a row, and may possibly be hitting their stride.  Like most of Calipari’s teams, in-game focus, and reliance on physical ability over substance, are the most glaring flaws.  On most nights, the Wildcats can overcome those.  Enter Wichita State as the foe in Round 2.  Greg Marshall’s team has reeled off 15 wins in a row, and has faced tournament teams, Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State this season.  The Shockers were also woefully under-seeded by the tournament committee.  That sounds familiar.  Like 2014 familiar when Wichita State was undefeated and a #1 seed, and had to face a Kentucky team that ended up with a peculiar #8 seed.  Turnabout is fair play.  Wichita gets revenge on Kentucky, and sends the Cats packing.

Pivotal Match-Up:

It has to be Kentucky vs. Wichita State.  If my forecast is correct, and the Shockers knock off the Wildcats, then things open up for UCLA.  Not that the Bruins can’t take down Kentucky, they’ve done so the last two years in row.  This year, Steve Alford’s team traveled to Rupp Arena and did it.  Despite my prediction, it will take everything Wichita has to defeat the Wildcats.  Many times, that type of effort leads to a let-down the following game.  If Kentucky gets through the Shockers, then Calipari’s team has vengeance on the mind, and a more talented opponent for the Bruins to have in their way.

Dark Horse:

The Cincinnati Bearcats haven’t been able to recapture the success experienced under Bob Huggins in the 1990’s.  Now relegated to the AAC after the Big East restructure several seasons ago, UC doesn’t garner a lot of respect.  Mick Cronin’s team could punch some teams square in the face and take back respect.  Cincy plays a physical brand of basketball, particularly on the defensive end.  That has been Cronin’s hallmark.  Senior point guard Troy Caupain runs this team with aplomb.  Juniors Gary Clark and North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington provide a strong frontcourt, to go with the scoring punch of 6-6 sophomore Jacob Evans.  Assuming the Bearcats get by Kansas State in the opener, UC could present a tough match-up for UCLA in the Round of 32.

Who Wins the South?

Although I’m never sold on Steve Alford coached teams, I’ve got the UCLA Bruins getting out of the South, and giving the Final Four its second west coast rep.  There’s an awful lot of talent on board for the Bruins, particularly super freshman Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.  Ball does just about everything, and Leaf leads the UCLA in scoring.       Blend that with veteran contributions from senior Isaac Hamilton and junior Thomas Welsh, and the Bruins have the arsenal available to make a run at the NCAA title.

THE FINAL FOUR:

The first semifinal pits a couple of Wildcats against each other.  Defending champion Villanova against traditional power Arizona.  Nova has all the moxie, veteran experience, and the championship in their hands until someone rips it away.  Josh Hart is one of the toughest players around, and always seems to make the necessary play to win.  I think the biggest difference will be up front.  Lauri Markkanen is getting better by leaps and bounds every game.  The size issue that Zona presents will be the difference as Arizona gets back to the NCAA title game for the first time since 2001.

On the other side of the bracket, Louisville and UCLA square off.  It’s been some time since the Cardinals and Bruins have played, so it’ll be nice to see these traditional powers, and rivals of the 70s and 80s get back together.  The Bruins can put up some serious points, and have an edge in overall depth of talent, but that gap isn’t as large as you’d think.  Getting out in transition is just what Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel want to do for the Cardinals, and if UofL doesn’t have to settle for jump shots, it’s for the best, as that runs hot and cold for the Cards.  The biggest difference here is coaching and experience.  Rick Pitino is a far superior strategist than Steve Alford.  The Cardinals also have several holdovers from the 2015 Elite Eight run, including Quentin Snider and Mangok Mathiang.  After having to miss out on the Big Dance last year, the Cardinals are hungry for more, and get through to the Championship game.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

Arizona Wildcats.  Louisville Cardinals.  This is a National Championship game that I crave.  Sean Miller’s star continues to rise, as he brings Arizona back to the prominence.  Rick Pitino continues his master craftsmanship of molding elite basketball teams.  Alonzo Trier and Donovan Mitchell will be the showstoppers.  Much of the talent position by position will be crossed out.  Louisville has the big men to throw different looks at Lauri Markkanen, and limit the freshman’s impact on the game.  The X-factor will be junior point guard Quentin Snider.  Q can very quietly step up in the biggest moments, and his control of the game, and perhaps a big shot or two, will decide this one.  Rick Pitino gets his third, and the Louisville Cardinals grab their fourth National Championship.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Preview

At first blush, the Midwest Region seems to be destined to have the top seeds represented in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8; but questions abound for Kansas, Louisville, and Oregon as the opening rounds approach.  Although most of the double-digit seeds in this region don’t appear to pose a serious threat, there’s at least one that may knock heads with the big boys.

Jayhawks are going to Kansas City, Kansas City here they come!

There’s no reason to suspect that the Kansas Jayhawks shouldn’t find their way to KC, but will they be able to go any further?  Bill Self’s team had another incredible season, scattering four losses throughout the year, including bookends in the season opener, and to close the season in the Big 12 semifinals.   Despite their immensely talented backcourt led by Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, and Josh Jackson, the Jayhawks frontcourt is a bit thin.  Could a potential matchup with Michigan State and the Spartan’s tough frontcourt combo of Miles Bridges and Nick Ward be too much for Landen Lucas to handle on his own?  This is the time of year that Tom Izzo starts working his magic, but if he can’t, top seeded Kansas should be bound for Kansas City, and a shot to advance out of the Midwest Regional Final.

Cardinals need more Dr. Jekyll, less Mr. Hyde

Louisville may be the one of deepest and most talented teams in the Midwest region, and perhaps the country.  However, the biggest issue this team has shown has been its wild personality swings.  Particularly glaring during late season losses to Wake Forest and Duke, the Cards have displayed a propensity to squander big leads.  UofL can dominate the vast majority of a game, only to completely go away from everything that is working.  Those lapses are what terrify and infuriate the Louisville fan base.  What is most shocking is that this tendency manifested early in the season during Louisville’s first loss of the year to Baylor.  The Cardinals let a 22 point lead slip before falling to the Bears in the Bahamas.  That may just be the identity of this year’s version of the Louisville Cardinals.  I suspect that Rick Pitino will tighten up the rotation, which should provide more cohesiveness; and Donovan “Spida” Mitchell is the type of player that can carry a team into early April.  If the Cards are Dr. Jekyll, they could win it all; if they’re Mr. Hyde, it could be a very early exit.

Rough Rhode ahead for the Ducks

Oregon has spent the entire 2016-17 season among the nation’s elite teams, and still has a loaded roster, and excellent coach in Dana Altman to lead them deep into this tournament.  Much will depend on the way the Ducks respond to the loss of versatile 6-10 senior Chris Boucher.  While Boucher was important, this team goes as junior Dillon Brooks goes.  However, the injury essentially cost Oregon a seed line, which is ridiculous since seeding should be based on a team’s body of work.  Will the Duck’s be ultra-motivated by the injury and a little bit of a slight by the committee, or will these late season factors lead to a bit of a malaise?  I’m leaning toward the latter.  Assuming Oregon survives the Round of 64 against Iona, the Ducks may be in for a rude awakening in the Round of 32 against Rhode Island.

Rams are a dark horse?

Don’t sleep on Rhode Island.  As mentioned above, URI could be a serious stumbling block for Oregon should they run into each other in the Round of 32.  The Rams were sitting squarely on the bubble, and then ripped off eight wins in a row, and took the Atlantic 10 Tournament title to ensure a spot in the field.  Dan Hurley’s squad has solid inside-outside balance with E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin; and has shown a ton of grit down the stretch.  In a region that appears to be set up for the chalk to advance, Rhode Island is poised to make a run.  Certainly the opener against the Creighton Blue Jays will be no cakewalk, but if the Rams escape, there’s no reason that Hurley’s club can’t bounce the 3 seed Oregon, and find themselves in the Sweet 16.

Perfect storm for the Cyclones

Over the last few seasons, Iowa State has been a huge disappointment (I know they’ve killed my bracket), but the path the Cyclones face may be tailor-made to make amends.   I loved the Steve Prohm hire when Fred Hoiberg bolted for the NBA; and although it took some time to come together, ISU has the pieces in place to do some damage this year.  A rare senior-laden team in college basketball, the Cyclones are in great hands, particularly with Naz Long and Monte Morris.  After several bitter tournament showings, look for Iowa State to get past #4 seed Purdue, to set up another Big 12 showdown with rival Kansas in the Sweet 16.

North Carolina Central and UC Davis will square off on Wednesday for the right to be the first roadblock for the Jayhawks on their way to a cozy spot in Kansas City.  There should be a lot of answers about the Midwest Region when the Round of 32 wraps up on Friday evening, but don’t be surprised if there are even more questions.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Flickr/Brett Hurd

Filling out My Bracket with a Cavalier Attitude

2016 was one of those rare College Basketball seasons which never revealed a truly elite team.  Usually there’s at least one school which is head and shoulders above the rest.  With so many teams flitting in and out of elite status over the course of the season, I had to loosen the reigns a bit while making my selections.

Most years I can pretty confidently have the bracket completed within 15-20 minutes after the field is released on Selection Sunday; but certainly not this season.  It took me until Tuesday evening to finalize my picks all the way to the Champion.  Here is my Region by Region breakdown of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

SOUTH REGION

We’ll start in the South Region, where the top overall seed, the Kansas Jayhawks reside.  Bill Self’s team began to pick up steam late in the year, and is one team which is as close to being truly elite as you can ask for this year.  This is how the South shakes out:

Dangerous on Day 1:

The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are my pick to cause real problems as a double-digit seed.  Stefan Jankovic is the name to remember.  The 6-11 junior is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Bows.  Out of conference, they beat a tough Northern Iowa team, and lost close battles with tournament participants Texas Tech and Oklahoma.  Look for Hawaii’s experienced backcourt, along with their star Jankovic to knock off the Cal Golden Bears, and their super frosh Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

Early Exit:

As far as a higher seed which will get bounced on the first day, I just mentioned them, the California Golden Bears.  Cuonzo Martin’s team has a plethora of talent, but inconsistency has plagued them.  Cal has a good mix of size and perimeter ability.  Aside from the freshmen Brown and Rabb, the Bears also have excellent wing players in Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, and Jordan Mathews.  However, between the inconsistency, and now the revelation of a scandal involving a recently fired assistant coach, I see the Golden Bears departing quickly.

Pivotal Match-up:

The face-off between the Maryland Terrapins and the Kansas Jayhawks should decide the region.  Kansas is one of the more balanced teams.  Senior Perry Ellis uses a variety of fundamentally sound post moves to lead the way in scoring.  Old man jokes aside, Ellis truly has an old school game.  He teams up front with Landen Lucas, and brick house Jamari Traylor.   Add in the perimeter attack of Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, along with Wayne Selden; and Kansas has a lot of ways to beat you.

The Terps are on the list of teams with temporary elite status this year.  But don’t let that fool you; they’re as talented as any team in the country.  Melo Trimble is arguably the best point guard in the country; and they have plenty of post power with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone.  It’ll be interesting to see how Jake Layman matches up both offensively and defensively in this one, because he may be the difference.  In any event, whichever team gets past this game is going to the Final Four.

Dark Horse:

Sixth seeded Arizona is my pick to surprise in the South.  Like much of the Pac-12, the Wildcats were up and down all season.  Much of that can also be attributed to the absence of blue chip freshman Alonzo Trier for a number of games.  However, Trier, Gabe York, and Ryan Anderson each average over 15 PPG; and they can rely on seven-foot senior Kaleb Tarczewski to patrol the paint.  Don’t be surprised to see Coach Sean Miller get his team together for another deep run.

Who Wins the South?

My pick to win the South Region is the Maryland Terrapins.  Coach Mark Turgeon is a coach on the rise, and is building a strong foundation at Maryland.  His team has the balance and depth necessary to sustain a deep run, and fend off periods of offensive drought.  Keep an eye out for the Terps in Houston.

WEST REGION:

The West is widely considered the weakest region.  Top seeded Oregon is not a school accustomed to being in this position, and probably hasn’t been seen by many people East of the Mississippi.  A weaker installment of the Duke Blue Devils, and a perimeter heavy #2 seed in Oklahoma, makes for a wide open, truly Wild West.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Yale has rapidly gained popular support as the classic 5/12 upset special.  The Bulldogs made sure to play some top teams in the non-conference.  Duke beat them by 19, and USC by 12, but they also pushed SMU to the limit in a two-point loss.  They are dealing with turmoil of their own, with the dismissal of team Captain Jack Montague in February, but Yale still has what it takes to advance at least one round.

Early Exit:

I have no doubt that Shaka Smart is going to do great things at Texas, just not this year.  Smart did a real nice job with the Longhorns this season, but it’s going to take a bit more time for his full “Havoc” to take effect.  Running into a veteran Northern Iowa team, who is playing in their second straight tournament is simply the wrong spot for Texas.

Pivotal Match-up:

Texas A&M vs. Northern Iowa won’t necessarily determine the Final Four representative from the West, but it will have a major impact.  The Aggies became a popular choice immediately after the brackets were released, to take the West Region.  While they have had a strong season overall, they had a rough four game losing streak against some very average teams in the SEC.  I’m not sure Northern Iowa has answers for Danuel House and Jalen Jones; however, the Panthers’ Wes Washpun will be the X-factor.  He’ll pester the Aggies shaky lead guards, and has a knack for hitting big shots.  If A&M can get past this one, it may propel them to great things.  I just don’t believe they will.

Dark Horse:

Cincinnati is my sleeper in the region, coming in as the #9 seed.  The Bearcats are always tough defensively, and their physical nature could disrupt the up and down style of Oregon in the second round.  Whether they can score enough is the question?  Cincy could be the team to knock out the first #1 seed.

Who Wins the West?

I’ve barely mentioned them while discussing the West Region, but my Final Four pick out of this bracket is the Oklahoma Sooners.  Although it goes against my nature to pick a perimeter heavy team to advance this far, I think the path in front of them lends itself to that type of success.  Buddy Hield has been flat-out magical this season, and that magic will carry them through the West Region.

EAST REGION:

Yesterday in my piece regarding equitable brackets I referred to the East Region as the “Group of Death”.   That may be a bit dramatic, but the East is certainly heavy with pedigree, if you will.  We should get blue bloods Indiana and Kentucky in the second round, followed by the winner of that game against North Carolina in the Sweet 16.  This is going to be a fun region to watch.

Dangerous on Day 1:

Most of the double-digit seeds in this region aren’t much of a threat.  However, you won’t want to sleep on Stephen F. Austin.  The Lumberjacks are playing in their third straight NCAA Tournament, and they did knock off VCU in the First Four a couple of years ago.  Coach Brad Underwood is beginning to emerge as an attractive potential hire for the power conferences; and they have the guard play to compete.  I doubt SFA pulls it off, but they have the goods to put a mighty scare into West Virginia.

Early Exit:

This is the one region which doesn’t really have a glaring candidate among the higher seeds to get bounced early.  Either Kentucky or Indiana will go home at the end of the first weekend regardless, so unless there’s a big shocker, most of the top seeds are safe.  Notre Dame against the play-in winner is the closest thing to an early out surprise that the East has to offer.

Pivotal Match-up:

All the talk is about the top of the region, but the most pivotal match-up to me is Xavier vs. West Virginia.  Both of these teams are tough as nails, so this should be a grinder.  Chris Mack’s team was very consistent, and has good perimeter/interior balance.  The battle up front between Devin Williams, who’s an absolute beast, and the Musketeer’s big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds should be entertaining.  We’ll also witness some outstanding guards going head-to-head with Trevon Bluiett and Jaysean Paige.  With all eyes on the top of the bracket, the winner of this game may get to fly under the radar.

Dark Horse:

Anytime you have a sure-fire lottery pick on your team, you’ve got a chance to advance through the bracket.  Providence has that player in Kris Dunn.  A powerfully built 6-4 guard, Dunn is the type of player who could put a team on his back for three weeks.  Luckily, he’s also got a great running mate in 6-9 Ben Bentil, who leads the Friars in scoring and rebounding.  Early in the season it looked as if Providence would do better than a 9 seed.  Don’t be shocked if they make a deep run.

Who Wins the East?

The Xavier Musketeers have never made the Final Four.  This year, I think they finally do it.  Led by one of the bright young coaches in the game in Chris Mack, along with the required balance necessary to deal with every type of opponent; I see Xavier getting the job done.  The Musketeers will harass the North Carolina guards into a rough shooting night, and the big men will keep Brice Johnson at bay on the glass to finally break through to the Final Four.

MIDWEST REGION:

If the East is the Group of Death, then the Midwest is “The Bloodbath”.  Honestly I view this as the most difficult region.  There are essentially two #1 seeds with Virginia and Michigan State.  Both of these top-tier teams will have some tremendously physical match-ups en route to the Regional Final.  Can they survive it?

Dangerous on Day 1:

While most of the Midwest region will be playing brass knuckle ball, the Iona Gaels and Iowa State Cyclones are going to be in a track meet.  Iona has a future pro in A.J. English; and that alone makes them dangerous.  The Gaels will get up and down with the best of them, and shoot a lot of 3’s.  Although they didn’t have any great wins this season, they may just get their first during the tournament.

Early Exit:

Iowa State clearly has talent, and Georges Niang will be the most versatile player on the floor on most nights.  The Cyclones have seven players who average double figures, so scoring won’t be an issue. However, it’s been rocky waters in Steve Prohm’s first season in the locker room, which may end much like last year’s did for Iowa State; on the first day.

Pivotal Match-up:

When I mentioned this region being a bloodbath, I was thinking specifically about the potential match-up between Virginia and Purdue.  The Boilermakers frontline of A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan, and Isaac Haas is imposing.  The Cavaliers won’t be intimidated with 7-0 Mike Tobey, and powerful Anthony Gill going to battle with them.  The backcourt is where Virginia likely gets it done, with London Perrantes knocking down shots, and Malcolm Brogdon doing a bit of everything.  The key will be if either of these teams have another 15 rounds in them once they reach the Regional Final.

Dark Horse:

Seton Hall is HOT! The Pirates have won 14 of their last 16 games, including the Big East Tournament Title.  They’re led by four sophomores, namely Isaiah Whitehead on the wing, and Angel Delgado in the paint.  Whitehead is the type of player that can lift a team onto his shoulders, especially for a short sprint of the tournament.  The toughest part will be the difficult pairings they’ll have right from the jump.

Who Wins the Midwest?

Virginia has lost to Michigan State two years in a row in the NCAA Tournament; last year in the second round, and the Sweet 16 the prior year.  Both of those games were bare knuckle brawls.  The toe-to-toe match-up between Denzel Valentine and Brogdon one last time may become a thing of legend.  I expect nothing less than brilliance this year, but this time Tony Bennett gets his guys over the hump.  Virginia advances to the Final Four.

THE FINAL FOUR:

In the first semifinal we’ll have Maryland vs. Oklahoma.  There will be some unbelievable guard play on display with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon, nose-to-nose with Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield.  The guards may cross each other out, leaving the Terps frontcourt to be the difference.  This is the game which will expose the Sooners up front.  Willow-thin Khadeem Latin will have all he can handle and then some with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone.  The overall balance of Maryland gets them into the Championship game.

Next up will be Final Four newcomers Xavier, versus a Virginia team which hasn’t been this far since 1984.  While the backcourt match-up won’t be quite as dynamic in this game, it will certainly be formidable.  Unlike the other semifinal, the yeoman’s work being done up front by both teams big men, may even things out.  The difference here will be the defense of Virginia, and Malcolm Brogdon.  The Cavaliers put opponents in a vice and squeeze until they crush them.  Defense will push Virginia into the final game.

THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

Squaring off in the National Title game are the Maryland Terrapins and the Virginia Cavaliers.  Former ACC Rivals meet again for the hardware.   Virginia has beaten opponents all season by imposing their will.  A similar fate awaits the Terrapins in the Championship game.  The size up front which Maryland has been able to use as an advantage all tournament, will be offset by the physical nature of Virginia.  Melo Trimble will rise to stardom this March, but the Cavaliers have a disciplined backcourt combo which will be able to keep him in check.  Once again, Malcolm Brogdon is the difference maker, impacting every aspect of the game, to lead his team to victory.  The senior laden Virginia Cavaliers are your National Champions!

Email Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Image via Flickr/Thomson20192

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

March Madness: Watching the Final Weekend

As excited as I am for the Final Four this coming Saturday, I’m saddened that my favorite sport will be ending its season as of next Monday.  Obviously, I’m even more anxious as my Louisville Cardinals move ever closer to their first National title since 1986.

Year in and year out, I thoroughly enjoy the NCAA Tournament; and this year has been no exception.  However, just browsing through my twitter timeline over the last two weeks, I’ve seen a lot of opinion to the contrary.  I’ve also seen plenty of sentiment that this year’s Final Four will not live up to what the Final Four is supposed to be.

It makes sense I guess.  Action starved American sports fans need every game to be an up and down scoring fest, which ends with a buzzer-beater, to be happy.  I realize that only one of the Elite Eight games was decided by single digits, but there was plenty of good basketball to watch. 

And although there is only one #1 seed in the Final Four, there will be plenty of quality basketball to see on both Saturday and Monday.  Look, I like to see every game come down to the final possession too – except for Cardinals games – but not every game has to be a buzzer beater to be great. 

Don’t get caught up in the seeding of the other teams.  Michigan and Syracuse may be #4 seeds, but both are playing unbelievable basketball right now.  With that said, here’s a snapshot of what to look for from each team while watching the Final Four this weekend:

Louisville Cardinals:

My Cardinals have been every bit the #1 overall seed.  Other than playing tight with Duke for about 25 minutes, the Cards have been in control.  For most casual hoops fans, I’m sure the words full court pressure and Peyton Siva come to mind when they think of Louisville.  Both key components, but there is so much more to this team.

What you’ll see:

The focus of the TV cameras will be on Russ Smith.  Affectionately nicknamed Russdiculous; Russ has stolen the spotlight this season, and rightfully so.  Russ is a human highlight film who makes fans pull their hair out, and jump for joy within seconds.  Russ is fun to watch, and will undoubtedly get your attention this weekend.

What you should watch for:

There are two things you should look for from the Cardinals if you truly enjoy basketball, the 2-3 matchup zone, and Gorgui Dieng.  I love defense.  I know most of you don’t.  Not sure why, locking people up defensively is extremely satisfying.  The matchup zone the Cards play has morphed into one of the better defenses in recent memory. 

If you’re old enough, think the UNLV amoeba defense in the early ‘90’s.  A suffocating, trapping, switching zone that closes out on every shot; which causes turnovers and shot-clock violations on the regular.  If you have any appreciation for good defense, pay attention on Saturday.

And then there’s Gorgui Dieng.  The kid who was a recruiting afterthought has become perhaps the most important U of L player.  His importance won’t always translate on the stat sheet.  But Gorgui will alter shots, keep offensive rebounds alive, and has developed a nice mid-range jumper.  The little things he does may not look like much as individual plays, but his cumulative impact is immeasureable.

Wichita State Shockers:

I know there are probably plenty of you out there who are annoyed that the Shockers have crashed the Final Four.  I’m not going to claim that I predicted it, because I picked them to lose early.  I figured they’d give Gonzaga a run, but bow out.  I do believe though that I told all of you a number of weeks ago, that you should be paying attention to the Missouri Valley championship, so that you’d know how good this team is.  Well, they went out and proved it.

What you’ll see: 

Point guard Malcolm Armstead is the straw that stirs the drink for the Shockers.  He gets to the lane, he makes big shots, and he runs the show for Wichita.  Carl Hall is the headliner in the frontcourt.  Hall is a bruiser who can go toe-to-toe with just about any forward in the country.  Without a doubt, Armstead & Hall will catch your attention.  If the Shockers have any chance to beat Louisville, they’ll have to come up big, and he’ll be the center of attention.

What you should watch for:

Freshman guard Ron Baker.  He’s sort of a guard/forward tweener, as he’s about 6-3, but weighs almost 220 pounds.  This kid doesn’t put up gaudy stats.  What Baker does do, is a little bit of everything.  If you need a rebound, he’ll track it down.  If you need a big three pointer, he’ll drill it.  If you need someone to dive on a loose ball, he’s got it.  Baker is a difference maker.  Keep an eye out for him on Saturday.  Upsets are made by the Ron Bakers of the world.

Michigan Wolverines:

When the Wolverines shot out of the gates this year, I thought they looked like the best team in the country.  A few stumbles to end the season, and a #4 seed made a lot of people forget how talented this team is.  The Wolverines are back to playing elite basketball, and have a great shot at cutting down the nets.

What you’ll see:

The flash and flare of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson Jr.  You should pay attention to these guys, and with good reason.  Burke may be the best guard in the country, and his running mates provide plenty of big finishes, transition three pointers, and sexy alley-oop dunks.  Burke can be a one man show at times, and when he’s going well, that one man show is hard to stop.

What you should watch for:

The most impressive, and most important player for Michigan in my opinion, is Mitch McGary.  This kid has grown by leaps and bounds over the course of his freshman season.  He is a throwback big man.  He has unbelievable hands, catching crazy pass that Burke throws his way.  More importantly, he has amazing body control.  Despite his huge frame, McGary can gather himself around the rim without barreling over people, and finish with a deft touch.  The Wolverines have other big men, but none of them have the complete game that McGary has.  His ability to operate in the heart of the Syracuse defense will have a significant impact on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

Syracuse Orange:

Like Michigan, the Orange started out like gang-busters, and fizzled a bit down the stretch.   Their late season struggles led to a #4 seed, which for some reason, dissuaded a lot of people from thinking they could go far.  Well, the matchup nightmare that is Syracuse is back in the Final Four; and there’s no reason to think they can’t win it all.

What you’ll see:

Michael Carter Williams and James Southerland get the lion’s share of attention.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s deserved most of the time.  MCW is one of those long, lanky point guards who can impact a game without scoring.  His tremendous length and athleticism allow him to get to the lane, and distribute with ease. 

Many of the forays Carter Williams makes into the lane result in easy kick-outs to Southerland for lethal jumpers.  Southerland is an unconscious shooter.  He’s hard to miss as many of his shots come from so far out, he’s easy to spot.  I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding this gunner.

What you should watch for:

Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is a staple of college basketball.  Unlike the 2-3 matchup zone Louisville plays; Syracuse employs a much more traditional zone defense.  The major difference is that the Orange have so much length at every position, it is difficult pass around, drive through, or finish when you get to the lane. 

The entire reason this team has gotten this far, is due to their zone defense.  It is a matchup nightmare, particularly for teams that don’t see it all season; and most teams don’t.  People were disappointed that the game against Marquette wasn’t competitive.  Well, it wasn’t close because of how brilliant the Orange played in their zone.  If they keep executing their defense the way they have so far in the tournament, Syracuse is going to be difficult to beat.

 

These four teams are going to make for a brilliant Final Four on Saturday.  College basketball is made up of so much more than just the stars that have the ball in their hands constantly.  Focus on the game within the game, and you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the sport.  I don’t know what the final scores will look like, but I know we’ll have a couple of great games on Saturday.

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.

College Basketball: The Top 4 has a familiar look, but no one wants to keep the top spot

NCAA Hall of Champions
NCAA Hall of Champions

As we move into February, the College Basketball continues to be as topsy-turvy as ever.  Achieving the number one ranking seems to be a curse for which ever team takes up the mantle.  The top spot has essentially been a revolving door since I last reviewed the Top 4 in early January.

Louisville took the #1 ranking for a week before going on a brief slide.  Duke lost it, and then took it back briefly before getting their doors blown off by a fast rising Miami Hurricanes squad.  Most recently Michigan held the honor for all of a week before losing at Indiana.

The Hoosiers, who were everyone’s preseason favorite and #1 ranked team, have now reclaimed the top spot…for now.  A little over a month away from the actual madness, the current Top 4 has a Final Four-ish feel to it.

Indiana Hoosiers (20-2) – When I watch the Hoosiers play, I see no reason why this team should lose to anyone.  They have a bona fide star in Cody Zeller.  Victor Oladipo is making a push for Player of the Year.  Christian Watford is one of those really good college level players; and Jordan Hulls is a marksman.  Not to mention they have a star freshman at the point in Yogi Ferrell.

This team can push up and down the floor, or run an efficient half court offense.  The roster is deep enough that if someone has a bad night, others can pick up the slack.  There’s really no reason they should lose.  Of course they’ll need to avoid mysterious performances like the one against Wisconsin a couple weeks ago.  I’m not sure if that was disinterest or what.

Fortunately, there are few teams that have enough talented players to exploit the few weaknesses the Hoosiers have.  Unfortunately, they may run into several of them during the remainder of the Big Ten schedule.

With road games against Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Michigan to end the season, it may be difficult for the Hoosiers to keep the #1 ranking through the end of the regular season.  Regardless, this team is built for March.  Indiana should be snagging a top seed come Selection Sunday.

Florida Gators (18-2) – The Gators have ripped off 10 straight games since stumbling to Kansas State just before Christmas.  That said the SEC is pretty weak this season.  If any team has the opportunity to win out, it’s the Gators.  Because the SEC is down significantly, we may not know exactly how good Florida is until Tourney time.

The core of the team is essentially the same group that reached the Elite Eight last season.  They are guard heavy with Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario doing a lot of the scoring.  Erik Murphy is a versatile perimeter oriented big man.  Patric Young is a man-child, but doesn’t have a ton of help in the paint.  Will Yeguete pounds the glass alongside Young, but won’t provide much offense.

Florida doesn’t look very deep, and they don’t have a ton of physical size outside of Young.  Those issues may or may not get exposed until late March.  There are teams in the SEC that COULD beat them, but the Gators have been thumping everyone lately.

Perhaps the Missouri Tigers will be fired up for revenge at their place, or the length of the Kentucky Wildcats will bother the Gators.  More than likely, this team will cruise into March with very few losses, and a chance at a top line in the bracket.

Michigan Wolverines (20-2) – The Wolverines were #2 last time I looked at the Top 4; and despite the loss to Indiana on Saturday, they should be entrenched atop the rankings.  They’re still one of the more complete teams in College Basketball.

I was surprised they came out flat a few weeks ago at Ohio State.  Despite that, they nearly pulled that one out.  On Saturday, they looked a little out of sorts to start the game against the Hoosiers.  Intense environments like that can only help this team as they prepare for the stretch run.

Michigan does have one really bad habit they need to break.  While Trey Burke has become a star, there are times the rest of the guys tend to stand around watching him.  There are too many talented offensive players on this team to let that happen.  It bogs down the offense, and makes them easy to guard.

Previously I said that Nik Stauskas may be the X-factor.  However, a different freshman has changed my mind.  Mitch McGary is starting to become that.  He’s extremely poised, makes good decisions, and does a lot of the dirty work.  McGary may become a household name by the end of the season.

They still face a tough Big Ten slate, including two games with rival Michigan State, Ohio State at home, and another shot at IU to end the year.  All of that is really fine tuning and preparation for March for this team.

Duke Blue Devils (19-2) – Just last month, Duke was the most reliable team in the Top 4, and a strong bet to make a run at the Final Four once again.  Now I’m not so sure.  I never thought someone as gawky as Ryan Kelly would be so important, but he really is.

The Blue Devils will take care of business on most nights without him during ACC play.  The league certainly is not at its normal elite level.  However, the 27 point thrashing they suffered at Miami served notice that this could be in danger if Kelly’s injury keeps him out longer than expected.

Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, and Quinn Cook are having really impressive seasons.  Without Kelly, the supporting cast is going to have to become more consistent to relieve some of the pressure on those guys.  Rasheed Sulaimon has some really great nights like he did against Maryland when he went for 25 points.  But the freshman will have some clunkers like the 0-10, four point spot he put up in the loss to North Carolina State.

Duke will survive the ACC season reasonably unscathed, even at less than full strength.  However, if Ryan Kelly is gone for longer than expected, or for the season, the Blue Devils are not a Top 4 team, let alone a Final Four team.

 

Before we know it, March will be upon us, conference tourneys and madness.  The Top 4 will probably shift a few more times before then; but I think the candidates will stay about the same.  There are about 10 legit teams that will rotate in and out of that group.

I suspect the Kansas Jayhawks will get a crack at the top spot in the next few weeks; and the Gonzaga Bulldogs may find themselves in the Top 4 when we take a look just before the madness starts in early March.  Until then, enjoy the splendor that is College Basketball!