Tag Archives: Louisville Cardinals

Not Another List of Big Games: Week 1 (Pt. 2)

Yesterday, I told you there are a lot of big games in Week 1.  Today, we keep it rolling.  Here are some notes on three more games you’ll be watching this holiday weekend: Continue reading Not Another List of Big Games: Week 1 (Pt. 2)

Virginia Football, Still Looking for Win Number 7

For many Virginia fans, after qualifying for the first bowl game since 2011, the football program was playing with house money. Virginia was ahead of most every projection for wins in 2017. Many experts saw 5 wins as the mark of good progress and here Virginia sat with 6 wins and 3 games to play. This is the definition of “house money” and Virginia had nothing to lose the rest of the way, right?

I think not. Despite their performance against Louisville, I don’t think the team is thinking that way either. I didn’t see anyone on the sidelines that looked satisfied with the season to date, resting on their laurels waiting for the announcement of the formerly elusive bowl game destination.

Rolling into Saturday’s game, Louisville was due to put it all together. Unfortunately their best game of the season came against Virginia. Any team with Lamar Jackson is dangerous. He is an exceptional talent. Virginia fans will be glad to see a new quarterback in Scott stadium next year leading the Louisville program. However, everyone knew the Cardinals could produce on offense. The shocker on Saturday, and the driver of the win for Louisville, was the performance of their defense. A talented unit on paper, they had been shredded on multiple occasions in 2017, and as a result, Louisville was a surprising 5-4 heading into their match with Virginia.

While there have been many games over the years when obscure players and teams have had exceptional performances against Virginia, this was not one of those occasions. There was no excuse for Louisville’s defense to be ranked in the 80s among D1 (sorry, I still think in terms of D1, D2, & D3…not FBS & FCS) programs. There was too much talent on the sidelines for that kind of performance. Unfortunately for Virginia fans, the Cardinals’ defense put it all together against the Wahoos and the Cavs left Louisville with a convincing loss, and a record of 6-4. Virginia is still well above season expectations, but not lacking more than a dash of hope for a 7th win before Virginia learns its opponent and destination in the post-season bowl frenzy.

I don’t think Virginia was flat on Saturday against Louisville and I don’t think they were overly sloppy. Virginia just had one of those days when their opponents played very well and the Cavaliers were simply not up to the task. Remember Miami’s last game in the OB? Virginia won 48-0 against a Miami team that had far more future NFL players on the field at all times. Virginia steamrolled the Canes as Miami had one of “those games”.

Virginia has done a good job of putting tough losses behind them in 2017. Ugly losses against Indiana and Pitt have been followed by nice wins against UConn and Georgia Tech. This is a team that seems to have no memory. The past is the past and the next game = the most important game of the season. I credit the staff for building this culture and the players for executing in several tough circumstances.

After watching Miami dismantle Notre Dame this weekend, I am not going to call a Virginia win next week in Miami. However, I am going to predict that Virginia shows up next week well prepared and mentally ready to do what it takes to win, to fight until the final whistle, and possibly pull off the biggest surprise since their last blowout win in Miami.

Virginia might be playing with house money when looking at the “expert’s” predictions for the season. However, when I watch Virginia on the field, I see a team that is focused on nothing but win number 7, and after that win number 8.

What we saw against Louisville was the uncomfortable reality of a team rebuilding from the foundation up not a lackadaisical performance due to a sense of entitlement because a bowl game is in the cards. Unlike so many teams in the past decade, this Virginia team is focused and well-prepared and they win more than in the past..just not every week.

Will ACC Football Continue Its Roll After Last Season?

Will ACC football do it again? I could answer this question in a couple sentences, but that wouldn’t be any fun for anyone.

ACC football was on a roll at the end of the year last year, with ACC teams winning the overwhelming majority of the bowl games in which they played. Not to mention, Clemson eventually won the National Championship Game.

With a new season less than a few weeks away, now is definitely the time to ponder whether the ACC can (and will) do it again. For me, it depends on what exactly “it” is. If the ACC must win the title and win the same number of bowl games, I just don’t see that happening again. If the ACC simply must have a playoff participant and win most of its bowl games, then maybe “it” can be done.

The playoff participant I’d expect to emerge from the ACC this season would not be the Clemson Tigers, though. If anything, I expect the Florida State Seminoles to earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs this postseason and be the ACC team mostly likely to win the title. Vegas says I’m not alone in this expectation.

Florida State may have lost running back Dalvin Cook, but it looks ready to reload and move forward this season. Cam Akers is expected to pick up where Cook left off, so Seminole fans need not worry about that loss. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois also has an entire season of experience now, which should help him better lead the Florida State offense. The Seminole defense returns countless starters and will have Derwin James back this season (if he can stay healthy). This combination of offensive and defensive power is what makes Vegas (and me) hot on Florida State this year.

On the other hand, Clemson is in for a rebuilding year after losing its dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to the NFL. The Tigers lost multiple other starters that leave a few big holes on both sides of the ball. Two major departures that come to mind are Ben Boulware (defense) and Mike Williams (offense). Clemson fans might place their confidence in Dorian O’Daniel and Hunter Renfrow to step up to replace those two, but I don’t have that same confidence—yet.

As far as the non-conference games during the season and the bowl games during the postseason go, there are countless other ACC football teams that look ready to take on formidable opponents. I’ll be brief, but here are a few teams worth giving some attention.

Virginia Tech had a great first season under one of my favorite head coaches, Justin Fuente. If the Hokies can improve their ball security, they may even finish above that 9-3 mark from last season.

Miami had a solid season under Mark Richt as well. Hurricane fans remain confident as ever, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of this team now that quarterback Brad Kaaya is gone. He may not have been elite, but he was an important part of Richt’s offense.

Louisville was flying high behind Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson early last season, but fell from grace by the end of the year. After watching that collapse, the Cardinals are another team that I really don’t know what to think about yet.

Georgia Tech had an interesting season last year, finishing 8-4 in the regular season and beating two SEC teams during that time. The Yellow Jackets beat the Vanderbilt Commodores and the in-state rival Georgia Bulldogs during the regular season. Georgia Tech also went on to beat Kentucky in its bowl game. This season, Georgia Tech gets a chance to prove itself early against another SEC foe—the Tennessee Volunteers. Let it be known right now that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yellow Jackets take down the Vols in this season opener.

The Pittsburgh Panthers, North Carolina Tar Heels, and NC State Wolfpack are a few other teams to keep on the radar in the ACC this season.

To wrap things up I’m also going to give you my prediction for the end-of-year standings in the ACC.

ACC Atlantic Division:
  1. Florida State
  2. Clemson
  3. Louisville
  4. NC State
  5. Syracuse
  6. Wake Forest
  7. Boston College
ACC Coastal Division:
  1. Virginia Tech
  2. Miami
  3. Georgia Tech
  4. Pittsburgh
  5. North Carolina
  6. Duke
  7. Virginia

With those being my standings, I would expect Florida State to beat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game and secure a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

While the ACC may not be quite as good as last year, I do still expect a championship contender from the conference and a strong record in non-conference games.

 You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Featured photo courtesy of Ashley Romanosky.

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

The Real Madness of March

Every year, I spend far more time and energy than I should filling out my NCAA Tournament March Madness bracket.  I debate whether chalk or Cinderella’s will prevail.  I agonize over which 12-5 upsets are ripe for the picking.  I look at strength of schedule and see who beat who, as if that matters.  Then, I spend the entire tournament second guessing myself.

Inevitably, I get caught in between rooting for my bracket and cheering for those Cinderella’s that capture our hearts.  It ends up being a very stressful month and at the end, I never feel like I have fully enjoyed what is truly an amazing sporting event.

I like to act as if I know what I’m talking about when predicting these games.  Really, I don’t.  None of us do.  Why bother pretending?  It’s not like I’m a big college basketball fan anyway.  I mean, sure, I watch the tournament religiously.  The first Thursday and Friday of games are days that I believe should be national holidays.  Why play the charade of going to work and acting like I’m not watching online?  I am.  #SorryNotSorry (I am, however, sorry I just used that expression. #NeverAgain)

Anyway, when it comes to regular season college basketball, I never watch many games.  This season though, that’s never been truer.  Confession: I watched a grand total of three full college basketball games this winter.  The complete list: Mt. St. Mary’s vs. Michigan (I was actually in attendance), Xavier vs. Cincinnati (Go Bearcats! #BeatX), and Tulsa vs. Cincinnati (Again, I was in attendance).

So, yeah, I don’t really have any idea what went on this college basketball season.  (Though, I hear tripping people has become a hot button issue.)  What I do know, from hardly following along, is that there was a lot of movement in the Top 25.  It seems to me that this is one of those years where there are a ton of good teams in the field, but not many great ones.  Is that a fair assessment?  Honestly, I’m asking.

Let’s highlight some things as I take my first look at the bracket.  (That’s right; I didn’t watch the selection show either.)

East

Hey!  Mt. St. Mary’s made the field… sorta.  The only first round upsets I have here are Marquette over South Carolina and New Mexico State over that Baptist school in Waco, Texas.  Give me Virginia over Florida in the second round.  Other than that, there’s nothing too exciting.  Looks like an easy path to the Final Four for defending champion Villanova.

Midwest

Woo, lots going on here.  First, Michigan State got lucky.  The Spartans are bad but the Hurricanes sound beatable.  The rest of the first round seems pedestrian but man, look at these possible second round matchups.  Kansas vs. Michigan State is enough said.  Iowa State meets Purdue in a battle of teams with high hopes.  Creighton vs. Oregon will be fun.  And Michigan gets a shot at revenge against Louisville.  I’m still upset about 2013 and, as a result, I’m going into full homer mode.  The Wolverines beat the Cardinals, the Ducks, and the Jayhawks on their way to Phoenix.  (#SorryNotSorry… Damnit, that didn’t last long.)

West

Smart guy alert in the 8-9 matchup as Northwestern and Vanderbilt get together.  Wait, the Northwestern Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament!  Congrats to them.  I’ll even pencil in an opening round win for them before getting smacked by Gonzaga.  Give me the other smart guys at Princeton to pull the upset on Notre Dame.  On the bottom half, I’m going a little upset crazy.  Florida Gulf Coast makes another run to the second weekend with wins over Florida State and Maryland.  And St. Mary’s finds its way to the Elite Eight for a fourth try at besting West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga.  You know what they say, “it’s tough to beat a team twice, thrice, four times in the same season.”  Well, Gonzaga will.

South

I’ve got Seton Hall beating Arkansas for the same reasons I have Marquette beating South Carolina.  I’m Catholic and the SEC is still a terrible basketball conference, until proven otherwise.  Middle Tennessee State earns its second tourney win over a Big Ten opponent in as many years, my second 12 over 5.  Cincinnati will beat UCLA with a superior defense the likes of which the Bruins have never come up against.  Unfortunately for my adopted school, the Kentucky Wildcats will be waiting in the Sweet Sixteen.  North Carolina will be able to handle Coach Cal’s bunch en route to yet another Final Four.

Final Four

Last year’s championship game was so phenomenal, why not have a rematch?  Michigan and Gonzaga fall victim to destiny.  This time around, Villanova won’t need a buzzer beater.  The Wildcats will repeat, beating North Carolina quite easily.

There you have it.  Now all that’s left to do is wait until Thursday so I can hide my internet browser behind some important-looking work stuff and enjoy this damn thing for once.

I recommend you do the same, but don’t expect many of you to.  That chance at glory is too tantalizing to pass up, isn’t it?  Yes, you’d rather drive yourself crazy trying to arrive at the perfect bracket that you’ll literally never achieve.

And to you all I say have fun losing your group for the umpteenth time to your aunt who bases her picks on the team mascots.  After all, this is the real madness of March.

E-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll send you back an invite to my bracket group.  Should be easy to beat me since I’m not trying, right?

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Five Way Too Early Predictions for SEC Football in 2017

I know we still have a while to go until we get our beloved SEC football Saturdays back, but I just can’t wait. SEC football is on my mind all the time. So here are just a few of my recurring thoughts about this coming season.

Georgia will be the team to beat in the East

Let’s be honest, Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens was a little underwhelming. The worst moment of the season for the Dawgs had to be that last-minute loss to the Vols at home. Just when Jacob Eason had led them down the field to take the lead, Josh Dobbs and Jauan Jennings connected for an unbelievable Hail Mary. I fully expect Georgia fans to be able to put that pain behind them next season. Eason will have more experience, the defense will have more experience, and coach Smart will also have more head coaching experience.

South Carolina will have more than one good upset win

This past season wasn’t particularly impressive for South Carolina in its first year under Will Muschamp. But, the Gamecocks did manage to get a pretty nice upset win over the Vols. They were a huge part of why Tennessee never made it to Atlanta. The Gamecocks showed promise in most games, even many of the losses. The only game they might want to erase from memory is that Clemson thrashing at the end of the season. But with another year under Muschamp’s guidance and with his recruits coming in, I anticipate two upset wins out of the Gamecocks this season.

Butch Jones will get run out of Knoxville

This call may be a little early. But with all his press conference clichés, I think this might be the year Tennessee fans grab their pitchforks and run Jones out of town. Heck, after that Vanderbilt loss to end the regular season my dad had decided not to renew his season tickets for 2017. Guess he doesn’t want to be part of another championship of life. Or maybe he just doesn’t have that five-star heart. All this being said, the Vols may be in trouble next season. Their defense is a huge question mark and now they have a question mark starting at quarterback too. Just ask the Gators how well that second question mark works out in the SEC.

Alabama will win the West…again

No other team was truly a tough match for Alabama in the West last year, with the biggest challenges coming from LSU and Ole Miss. Ole Miss later lost star quarterback Chad Kelly to injury and its season tanked. The Rebels were more of a pretender than an actual contender. LSU had a slow start, but ended up in some good games under then-interim (now head) coach Ed Orgeron. But at the end of the day, Alabama was still dominant in the SEC. Alabama dominated all the way until the national championship game that it lost to Clemson. That loss may sting, but with quarterback Jalen Hurts having more experience, I expect Alabama to be number one in the West and headed right back to Atlanta again in December. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Alabama still has Nick Saban.

But LSU will make it close

The LSU Tigers had arguably one of the most interesting seasons out of the entire SEC in 2016. Les Miles was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Defensive Line Coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron led the team to a 5-2 finish (after starting the season 2-2 under Miles). Additionally, LSU dominated Louisville and its Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson in the Citrus Bowl. On top of all this, Orgeron put together a top ten recruiting class in his first time recruiting as LSU’s head coach. With Orgeron leading, talent returning, and talent coming in, the Tigers are poised to finish second in the SEC West and maybe even give the Crimson Tide a run for its money.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Image courtesy of Sean Davis, Flickr.

2016 ACC Football: Proof That They Aren’t Just Good at Basketball

Now is when I tell you about the good and the bad from this past season of ACC football. I’ve been brainstorming for this article since the day after Clemson won it all, but I’ve still run into a problem of sorts. All in all, there was just much more good in ACC football than there was bad this season.

That isn’t to say that there was no bad in ACC football. Trust me, there was. There is even one play from one particular ACC game this season that still bothers me. I’ll get to that later, though.

What all the good did do for the conference was offer evidence that maybe these schools are capable of being among the best in the country in more than just one sport. Without further ado, I present you with the proof.

The Best of ACC Football

Clemson won the College Football Playoff National Championship game. I am sure nothing else that any conference carried out can top that. But Clemson’s victory over mighty Alabama in that game wasn’t all the good they provided for ACC football this year. The Tigers were 14-1 by the end of it all, having lost that one game by a single point. They also shut out Ohio State in their first playoff game.

Deshaun Watson, our favorite (black) dual-threat quarterback, ended up accounting for a total of 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards between passing and rushing for Clemson. Running back Wayne Gallman contributed 17 more touchdowns this season. And there was wide receiver Mike Williams who came back from injury and ended up having quite the season as well, racking up 11 touchdowns.

The Clemson defense was also nothing to scoff at, allowing an average of 314 yards per game. Clemson was very good for the ACC.

Florida State, overall, was also pretty dang good for ACC football. There was some definite bad in that 63-20 loss to Louisville early in the season, but the Seminoles still managed to bounce back and have an impressive year. Star running back Dalvin Cook was essential to Florida State’s success, with 288 carries for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns. The fact that he was not a Heisman finalist still baffles me. But aside from Dalvin Cook’s success, the team was successful as well, finishing the year at 10-3. Not to mention, Florida State beat Michigan 33-32 in its bowl game when Michigan was arguably a playoff contender at the end of the season.

There’s also Virginia Tech and coach Justin Fuente on the “good” side of things. In his first season as head coach of the Hokies, Fuente took the team to the ACC Championship Game. And, the Hokies actually gave Clemson a good game. Fuente and the Hokies finished with a record of 9-4 and an impressive comeback win over Arkansas in their bowl game. This is why Fuente, in my mind, was clearly the best coaching hire from last year.

There’s one more name I’d be crazy for not mentioning, regardless of how his season ended. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had an incredible year. It was so incredible that he won the Heisman trophy. With 51 touchdowns throughout the season, it’s safe to say that Jackson was the key to Louisville’s success. Jackson is also only a sophomore, which means he has at least one year left with the Cardinals. That’s very good for them.

I can think of one last name I should also mention when praising the good in ACC football. Pittsburgh running back James Conner returned this season after being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. He clearly didn’t let his cancer slow him down considering he had 16 rushing touchdowns and four receiving touchdowns this year. Here’s to Conner, because he’s about as good as it gets–aside from Clemson’s championship.

The Worst of ACC Football

The few bad things I could come up with off the top of my head require much less explanation.

There are the only three teams from the ACC that did not play in bowl games: Virginia, Duke and Syracuse. Virginia and Duke both were 1-7 in conference play while Syracuse was 2-6. None of these teams won more than four games this season. When you’re a member of a Power Five conference, those kinds of records are beyond bad.

The other major “bad” that I saw in ACC football this year was Lamar Jackson’s supporting cast. Jackson did get some help from his teammates at times. But most the work rested on Jackson’s shoulders, and because of that the Cardinals had a hard time winning when their opponents could contain him.

This brings me to the one horrible play I mentioned above. The Louisville vs. Clemson game was one of the best games of the regular season. That game really did come down to the wire. And the Cardinals could’ve beaten the Tigers if it weren’t for a huge mistake James Quick made on a pass play from Jackson at the end of the game. Instead of getting the yardage necessary to get a first down, Quick went out of bounds to stop the clock only to realize he had done so on fourth down and had not gained enough to get the first down. And that was the end of the game. SO BAD!

One last fact worth mentioning when speaking of the bad in ACC football this season has to do with the North Carolina Tar Heels. They were actually a pretty good team this season with a top 20 defense. But somehow the Tar Heels managed to only grab one interception (as a team) during the entire season. For most of the season, it looked like they might make history and not end up with any interceptions at all. That one interception came against The Citadel, too, so it wasn’t even all that impressive. What gives, Tar Heels?

 

Even with these bad things I just mentioned, it stays clear that this was a mostly good season for ACC football. Only three teams in the entire conference weren’t bowl eligible. Then, the ACC won eight of its eleven bowl games, not including the National Championship Game. Dabo Swinney took down Nick Saban in that one. I’d say that’s good—especially for a basketball conference.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Photo from Flickr user Jason A G.

Bowl Season’s Biggest Winner: ACC Football

If you’ve read my articles here before, then you know I am admittedly a huge SEC homer. I was raised on SEC football and would not feel the way I do about the sport of football as a whole if it weren’t for the SEC.

Last year, the SEC did pretty well overall in bowl play. I would’ve given them props for that. In fact, I probably did. This year, it was a mixed bag for the conference I love.

But, there was a conference that really did shine in the most unimportant games of the season. That conference, to most people’s surprise, was the ACC.

Earlier this year I wrote an article trying to tell people to show ACC football some respect. After all, you don’t have to like the ACC to respect it. And now those of you that did read that article back then will see that sometimes I’m right. (I’m also wrong sometimes, too.)

But instead of just bragging about being right about that call, I will walk you through exactly how the ACC proved that I was right this bowl season. As I said above, bowl games are largely unimportant. That being said, they do come with bragging rights for the teams and conferences that fare well.

So, here’s to the ACC. Enjoy your bragging rights for the next eight months, and we’ll see what happens next year.

The ACC did take 3 L’s in bowl play. One of those really wasn’t that bad, in my opinion. But Louisville’s (vs. LSU) loss and Pittsburgh’s (vs. Northwestern) loss were both inexcusable. In a somewhat comical manner, I did manage to call the outcome of that LSU game on Twitter though. #SorryNotSorry

Let’s face it: Lamar Jackson had to carry Louisville this season, and if he was shut down then the team was hopeless. LSU shut him down and the Cardinals were hopeless.

And as for Pitt, I really didn’t see that loss coming. I guess that’s what happens when you cough up the ball four times. Northwestern wasn’t bad this year, but it also wasn’t good. Even with four turnovers, I’m still surprised Pitt dropped this game.

The other ACC bowl loss, the one that I don’t think was all that bad, was North Carolina’s loss to Stanford. North Carolina had some great moments this season, including victories over both Miami and Florida State. The Stanford Cardinal had a more solid season overall so I wouldn’t have expected a win from North Carolina in this one. Keeping the game as close as the Tar Heels did was actually pretty impressive. Here’s to moral victories!

Now, let’s discuss the ACC’s wins. And as I write this, there are eight of them. There could potentially be nine after the College Football Championship game. But I won’t get into that. My SEC bias might start showing again.

Boston College beat Maryland. But who really cares? Maryland is only recognizable in the college football world because of its hideous uniforms. Not to mention, Maryland left the ACC. The joke’s on them now.

Going into the bowl game with Wake Forest, Temple had actually put together a pretty good season. The Owls finished out the season with a convincing win over Navy, which was actually doing pretty well this year. The Demon Deacons jumped out to an early lead over the Owls and managed to hold onto that lead for the remainder of the game. They also had cool shiny helmets, so that’s a win too.

I never thought I would say beating Kentucky in football is a good win, but I’m saying it now. Georgia Tech’s win over Kentucky may not be as impressive as the win over Georgia during rivalry week. But now the Yellow Jackets are on a roll against the SEC East, having won their last three games against teams in the division. As we all know, the SEC East is not exactly full of formidable opponents. It’ll be interesting to see how the Yellow Jackets fare against one of the SEC East’s better teams, the Tennessee Volunteers.

Speaking of SEC East opponents that aren’t formidable, N.C. State dominated Vanderbilt in a game that was never close. N.C. State wasn’t exactly impressive during regular season play either but it did finish the season on a high note with a big rivalry win over North Carolina on the road. With that win and this dominant performance against Vanderbilt, it seems that the Wolfpack may be gaining momentum.

Arkansas may not be in the SEC East, but the ACC did notch another win over the SEC as a whole when Virginia Tech topped Arkansas in comeback fashion. Arkansas has always been confusing under Bret Bielema, and you never know what to expect from the team. Virginia Tech under Justin Fuente has been incredibly impressive, and the win over Arkansas just solidified that.

I don’t like West Virginia and I never have, but watching Miami get a relatively easy victory over the Mountaineers wasn’t any fun for me as a Gator fan. Mark Richt has done pretty well in his first season with the Hurricanes, and topping that off with a bowl win over a ranked opponent was a great sign for Miami fans. Maybe they’ll finally be able to forget the dark days of Al Golden.

Floridians can be proud of the college teams in their state because Florida State also managed to get an impressive win over Michigan. Michigan was supposedly a playoff contender but after an embarrassing first half in this game, Florida State made the Wolverines look like pretenders. As much as I may dislike both teams, I have to admit that this was a great win for the Seminoles and for the ACC.

Last but not least, there’s Clemson’s College Football Playoff beatdown of Ohio State. This was a glorious moment for me as an Ohio State/Urban Meyer hater. The one team from the Big Ten that did make it to the Playoff wasn’t even able to score a single point against Clemson. Talk about pretenders! I truly have a huge smile on my face as I write this. Clemson absolutely destroyed Ohio State, just showing the rest of us how overrated the Buckeyes (and the Big Ten teams) were this season.

Here it is: Yes, the ACC had a couple bad losses and one loss that was a moral victory so to speak. Still, the ACC had numerous good wins and a few great wins this bowl season. Like I said before, maybe it’s time to finally give credit where credit is due.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @OGKristenB.

Photo courtesy of Ken Lund.

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