Tag Archives: Sweet 16

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

NCAA Tournament: Sweet Sixteen Thursday Games Notebook

The NCAA Tournament got back into the swing of things Thursday night with four games in the South and West Regions.  Despite all of the craziness which took place over the first four days of the tournament, these two regions made it through essentially true to form, with Maryland as a No. 5 seed being the only “outlier.”  Although there was late-game drama, each of the winners displayed an impressive imposition of their will power.

Wildcat Supernova

Villanova exploded out of the gates, and despite some first half resistance from the Hurricanes, the Wildcats ended Miami’s season in dramatic and catastrophic fashion.  This is the Villanova team that can be devastating to just about any opponent when they hit shots, and disrupt defensively.  Miami was rattled early by the three-quarter-court press applied by Nova.  While they did get back in the game temporarily, they couldn’t withstand the pure fire produced by Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono.  Those two combined for 9-13 from beyond the arc; and when the Wildcats shoot like that, there’s simply no defense for it.

The Cats set up that shooting perfectly, by making a concerted effort early to get paint touches, which is typically outside of their character.  I’ll admit I didn’t trust this Villanova team coming in to the tournament based on recent history, along with their style of play.  It appears that Jay Wright’s team is hell-bent on torching their path to the Final Four.  If their play continues without a cold shooting night, they will be terrifying.

Sooners Lay the Boom on A&M

Unfortunately, both of the early games on Thursday turned out to be blowouts, but Oklahoma’s demolition of Texas A&M was nearly as impressive as what Nova did to Miami.  The Aggies were able to jump out to a decent lead in the opening minutes, with Alex Caruso bothering Buddy Hield defensively.  Once the Sooners worked the kinks out, they showed America why they’re so good, and why Texas A&M spent 39 minutes on Sunday being outclassed by Northern Iowa.  A&M spent much of the first half settling for perimeter jumpers, and trying to match the pace of Oklahoma.  That was a horrible idea.

Even though Buddy Hield didn’t light them on fire, his running mate Jordan Woodard picked up the slack.  The Sooners got bonus points from Khadeem Lattin, and little used Christian James who combined to contribute 22 points.  Although an emotional comeback can sometimes serve as a catapult, it certainly did not tonight for Texas A&M.  Once Oklahoma got rolling, they couldn’t provide any serious response.  The Sooners are going to be a tough out.

Experience and Fundamentals Matter

After a very entertaining, hard-fought first half, which ended with Kansas leading by just two points; the Jayhawks utilized fundamentals and defense to put the clamps on Maryland.  Perry Ellis displayed his usual array of solid if unspectacular offensive skills, cruising to 27 points to lead the way for Kansas.  Ellis, along with Wayne Selden, led the methodical breakdown of Maryland in the second half.  Time after time, the Jayhawks worked the ball until they found the cleanest looks at the basket.

On the defensive end, they forced the Terps into long drawn out offensive sets, which led to a lot of perimeter shots, which just weren’t dropping.  Unlike the game on Sunday in which Maryland was able to get Diamond Stone involved, he was simply unable to get going this evening.  Early on it looked as though Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon would control the offensive tempo, but in the second half they were forced into a lot of panicked over-dribbling, leading to poor shots.  The Jayhawks put on a clinic tonight, and have a crisp look to their execution.  Their balance and surgical precision versus the hot-shooting Wildcats of Villanova should produce some fireworks on Saturday.

Oregon’s Athleticism Runs Duke out of the Gym

This half of the bracket had an interesting dynamic to it, in that several of the teams were considered untrustworthy tournament contenders.  Oregon’s lack of basketball pedigree, and questionable No. 1 seed put the Ducks in that category.  Well, they showed on Thursday evening that they’re for real and can make it out of the West Region.  Oregon leveraged their superior depth and athleticism, to simply push Duke to its limit.  The Ducks spread out the Blue Devil’s zone defense, and were able to slice into the gaps, creating easy buckets.

While Dillon Brooks did the most offensive damage, they also got huge contributions from Jordan Bell off the bench.  Not only did he chip in 13 points, but he sent Duke shots back at them on several occasions, causing a ton of havoc defensively.  As the game wore on, the Ducks simply wore out the Blue Devils.  By the end Duke looked like they were exhausted and just chasing the game.  Oregon put the rest of the bracket on notice.  They are a legitimate threat to make it to Houston.

Once again, even after all the high-drama of the first weekend, it’s all chalk in the South and the West.  Saturday will bring us No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Villanova, and No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 2 Oklahoma.  That’s some serious firepower and up-temp action for sure, and two primo matchups for two spots in the Final Four.

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

Photo via Flickr/Phil Roeder

NCAA Tournament: South Region Round Two Notebook

The Second Round in the South Region brought the close of an era, as Wichita State’s brilliant four-year run ended at the hands of Miami.  There also would be no more magical Cinderella ride for Connecticut, as Kansas quickly disposed of what many hoped would be a third title run in the last six years for the Huskies.  After what took place the rest of the evening around the bracket on Sunday, the South turned out to be pretty standard procedure.

Hurricanes Avoid a Natural Disaster

Miami looked like it was going to blow away the Shockers in the opening game of the Second Round on Saturday.  This year’s rendition of Wichita State isn’t as talented as the 2013/14 squads that Greg Marshall sported and Miami was making it clear early on.  Credit the Shockers for being patient and not attempting to get the entire 21-point deficit back at once.  They slowly but surely worked their way back into the game.

Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet once again showed the calm leadership they have for four years.  They should be applauded for what they’ve done to force mid-major basketball into the collective consciousness of America.  On the flip side, give Miami its due for taking punch after punch from Wichita State, and holding on.  The Hurricanes looked like they were going to buckle under the pressure, but Angel Rodriguez was magical, and Sheldon McClellan made big shot on top of big shot.  Miami is in a good spot to last in this tournament.

Jayhawks’ Execution Puts UConn to Death

Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks appear to have taken past tournament failures to heart in their first two games, handling their business with relative ease to proceed to the Sweet 16.  Execution was the key against the Huskies.  From the jump, Kansas harassed the UConn guards on and off the ball, hounding them into mistakes.  Offensively, the Jayhawks methodically built a 22-point lead by running crisp sets, leading to clean looks at the basket.  Perry Ellis was his usual self, calmly navigating around the paint, and Wayne Selden did damage both inside and out.

UConn’s offense being restricted to the perimeter was sorely exposed by the Jayhawks.  As Kansas built the lead, the Huskies were typically relegated to getting only one shot on offense as Landen Lucas dominated the defensive boards.  A brief lull by the Jayhawks in the second half allowed UConn to creep within single digits, but there was no real threat of a comeback.  Kansas looks fine tuned to contend for the National Title.

Threes Better Than Twos for Nova

The pace was at full throttle right off the tip when Villanova and Iowa met on Sunday afternoon.  Iowa ran some excellent offensive sets leading to easy buckets.  But Villanova’s outside shooting quickly made the Hawkeyes chase a double-digit deficit and they simply couldn’t keep up.  By the time halftime rolled around, the Wildcats had extended to a 25-point lead, and cruised to the finish.  They shot nearly 60 percent for the game from the field, and better than 50 percent from the three-point arc, going 10-19.

Villanova was extremely physical and aggressive on defense, terrorizing the Hawkeyes into turnovers which led to immediate transition buckets.  This was exactly the type of game that Villanova wants to play, and a style which could beat anyone in the field.  The question as always for them will be whether they can continue to hit perimeter shots at an alarming rate.  If not, how will they generate offense?  Fortunately for the Wildcats, their next opponent Miami plays a very similar style.  Nova vs. Miami will be played at a break-neck pace when they meet up in the Sweet 16.

A Tale of Two Terrapins, Part 2

Sunday’s game between Maryland and Hawaii was eerily similar to the Terrapins’ First Round game with South Dakota State, only this time their better half showed up later rather than sooner.  Hawaii brought the fight right to Maryland in the first half, with Michael Thomas doing the majority of the damage for the Rainbows early.  The Terps struggled to find any real rhythm offensively, but were able to hold a slim lead at halftime, mainly by getting back to the basics, and leveraging Diamond Stone in the paint for easy buckets.

For a large portion of the second half, it looked as if this game would come down to the wire.  However, some of the careless mistakes that Hawaii made against Cal began to creep into this game.  The difference is Maryland made them pay.  The Terrapins went on a 14-0 run, powered by Rasheed Sulaimon, which essentially put the game away without much fanfare.  Once again, Maryland will need all of what they displayed in the second half, and very little of what we saw in the first half, if they’re to knock off Kansas in the Sweet 16.

While the South lacked the insanity which took place in both the East and West regions on Sunday night, it’s set up well for some outstanding Sweet 16 games, with legitimate contenders emerging from the pack.  Thursday and Friday can’t come fast enough.

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

Image via Flick/Phil Roeder

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

NCAA Tournament Seeds of Doubt

The science of populating the NCAA Tournament bracket is unquestionably inexact. While most of the bubble griping which goes on tends to be much ado about nothing; there are usually some legitimate cases of inaccurate seeding of the teams which make the field. There is also a lot of ranting about a handful of teams which may or may not have deserved to make the field.

What I always find fascinating is the immediate overreaction to seed placement, or inclusion in the field, based on the results of the first weekend. The action this past weekend certainly stoked the fires of those discussions. However, I’d argue that regardless of whether a team should’ve been higher, lower, or left out of the field; winning or losing in the first couple rounds doesn’t validate a team’s Tournament status.

The most prevalent argument tends to be the “Obviously (Insert School Name) didn’t deserve a (Insert Number) seed”. Villanova was the most noticeable victim of this dubious honor. The Wildcats were given the top seed in the East Region, and subsequently amplified the voice of the naysayers by losing to NC State in the round of 32.

Despite the loss to a Wolfpack squad which simply wasn’t a great physical match-up for them, Villanova more than earned the #1 seed they were given. Although they didn’t have any real headlining wins early in the season, the Wildcats did up end a tournament team in VCU. They also beat two Big 10 teams in Michigan and Illinois, along with Syracuse out of the ACC. Certainly Jay Wright couldn’t anticipate that all three of those teams would be average coming into the year.

The Wildcats also finished the regular season on a 15 game winning streak, winning the Big East regular season going away; and then completing the sweep by taking the Conference Tournament crown. Undoubtedly one could lobby for Arizona, or perhaps Virginia over them, but Villanova was worthy of the #1 seed they achieved.

While Villanova fell on the proverbial “Over Seeded” sword, there were a couple of glaring examples of “Under Seeded” teams. These squads typically garner an outpouring of sympathy and outrage from the College Basketball public, as they are perceived to deserve a much higher seed. Wichita State and Dayton filled this role nicely.

Let’s start with Wichita State. The Shockers somehow fell to a #7 seed in the Midwest Region. As a champion of the mid-major, and more specifically, representatives from the under-appreciated Missouri Valley Conference; I was amongst the loudest voices crying foul on their assignment.

While most will say that performance in previous seasons should have no bearing, I’m of a differing opinion. That’s not to say that results from last year should allow a team to be handed an invite. However, based on their Final Four appearance in 2013, and 34-0 start last year, which was accompanied by a #1 Seed, the Wheat Shockers have earned some street cred.

Being under seeded can have some interesting consequences. Either said recipient runs into a stronger opponent earlier than they should, or they serve as a much more difficult opponent than a higher seed should have to face in the early rounds. Wichita proved to be the latter. Beating Indiana was expected, and to some, it came as no surprise that they were able to oust #2 Kansas in the round of 32.

The other prime example of a team which deserved a significantly better seed is Dayton. Heading into Selection Sunday, the Flyers by all accounts were a safe bet to join the party. On the day of reckoning they ended up as the last team in, drawing the #11 seed in the East Region, coupled with a play-in game. In similar fashion to Wichita, the slight by the committee proved to be detrimental to their opponents.

The Flyers were awarded a game on their home floor, and took advantage as such. Again, that’s not to say they wouldn’t have won a couple of games regardless; but Dayton was able to dispatch Boise State and Providence, before battling Oklahoma to the bitter end. Ultimately, both Wichita State and Dayton won in spite of the fact they weren’t given the respect they were due.

Since Dayton received a snub from the committee, someone else had to be awarded. Now, there were a few culprits who could be named. Indiana, Texas, and UCLA all should have been left out of the field of 68 in my estimation. While I champion the cause of the deserving mid-major, I am staunchly against rewarding the mediocre high-major. All three of these teams fit the description.

The big boys from the power five conferences have chance after chance all season to get “good” wins. None of these teams did that. As expected, the Hoosiers and Longhorns went out with a whimper. On the other hand, UCLA is still hanging around, so of course the “UCLA was deserving” crowd are shouting from the rooftops.

The Bruins trip to the Sweet 16 has been a perfect storm of good fortune. After SMU coughed up a multiple possession lead in the waning moments, UCLA was catapulted into the next round with a huge assist from the infamous goal tending call. One of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in NCAA Tournament history. Perhaps they would’ve found a way to win without the help, but we’ll never know.

Earlier that day, the first stroke of luck went the Bruins way. When the UAB Blazers upset the Iowa State Cyclones, it removed a large obstacle from their path. Taking nothing away from the Blazers victory, but one upset was all they had in them. It showed when they were overwhelmed by UCLA, allowing the Bruins to make another appearance in the Sweet 16.

None of the success UCLA has experienced to this point expunges their pre-tournament rap sheet. Yes, the Bruins did manage to finish above .500 in a very average PAC 12 Conference. However, finding a good win on their schedule is near impossible. The win over Utah in late January has gained some legs now that the Utes have made the Sweet 16; and they did beat those same UAB Blazers way back in November.

Otherwise, they got blasted by every legitimate team they faced, and mustered seven points in the first half against Kentucky in December, on a neutral floor. Based on the body of work UCLA put together throughout the regular season, there had to be at least one candidate more deserving of a bid.

Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the emotion it stirs amongst all of those watching. Naturally, in the “what have you done for me lately” culture of sports, it’s easy to assume that a team’s recent performance is their true identity. However, whether a team deserves to move up a seed, down a seed, or receive no seed at all, should be determined by what they did to get there; not justified by their subsequent Tournament performance.

Best Experience for the Free Agent College Fan

UF Champs
Idle hands are the devil’s play-pen, right? I wonder how the devil feels about too much time alone with one’s thoughts. It’s during that time that I start theorizing about going to college, putting aside things like educational value and the social aspect, and wondering which institution would have offered the best four-year experience for the sports fan. This is a thought process that works much better with the advantage of hindsight in my back pocket.

Each July, we get the better part of a week that lacks any sporting event of real consequence. Sure, the Home Run Derby demonstrates might, because chicks dig the long ball. The actual All-Star game despicably determines home-field advantage for the World Series, but even thought I’m a big baseball fan, I find myself less inclined to watch it each year. In fact, I skipped the Mid-Summer Classic this year. A day later, I skipped the ESPY’s, the awards show for sport, which I’m thinking we don’t need, but allows ESPN to fill the void with their own program taking center stage. I checked in on Twitter long enough to see that enough people excitedly tune in, or at least settle for the annual extravaganza. My theory is that in sports, unlike other aspects of entertainment, the games themselves determine the winners and losers, so you really don’t need an academy or committee to determine who deserves the trophies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzMnCOG-C1o#t=470

More so than the nominees and winners, the host seems to be the target of the hoopla, year in and year out. None of them are exactly in the ballpark of Billy Crystal at the Oscar’s, but Norm McDonald had the epic joke about Charles Woodson’s Heisman legacy in 1999 and the rest tend to fall into the Rob Riggle Pantheon of Forgettable Awards Show Hosts. This year, ESPN gave the viewers Drake, the former child actor turned young adult hip-hop artist. The trend seems to be to dislike the guy for a multitude of reasons, but sports fans are quick to point out that the trendy Canadian tends to latch himself to superstars and winners.

For the common man, this is a sports fan sin of the highest order, but if you’re able to laugh off the notion that he should be fiercely loyal to the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Raptors, and no other teams in all of sports, it’s fair to say that Drake is somewhat of a free agent. After spending the better part of my 36 years rooting for the Cleveland teams, I know I don’t have that luxury, but that time alone with my thoughts took me back to a “what if” scenario that allows me to be just that, a free agent fan.

drake-espy

In reality, I took my talents to Parris Island and the United States Marine Corps out of high school, a school of hard knocks, rather than a traditional place of higher learning. If I’ve learned anything about fans, especially younger ones, over the last decade, it’s that geography and alma mater don’t matter as much as they used to, but when you have those things going for you, it sure justifies your allegiance a lot more. Now, choosing a school based on the games you might attend and the glory you might share with those teams you watch play is foolish, but this was my time alone with my thoughts; I wasn’t considering any real word factors, just trying to have the fun that Drake seems to, without constantly transferring to chase National Championships.

Since I would have first set foot on campus in the Fall of 1997, we’re only considering what I would have been able to see from the 1997 College Football season thru the conclusion of March Madness in 2001. I’m also only weighing the top two college sports, football and men’s basketball; it is tough to say how open-minded I would have been a half a lifetime ago, but I don’t see myself with fond memories of volleyball or women’s hoops under any circumstances in the present tense. I’m also eliminating baseball as part of the criteria, though a trip to Omaha for the World Series would be on my bucket list, if I had one.

I had to consider the champions in football; Michigan and Nebraska in 1997, Tennessee in ’98, Florida State in ’99, and Oklahoma in 2000. Remember, this is a parllel world and it doesn’t matter that 18 year-old me despised Michigan and all of the Ohioans that chose to attend. I don’t quite weigh basketball success evenly, but if you’re going to get a decent seat for a big March Madness game, there is no grey area between the student body and the extraordinarily wealthy; the path of least resistance to those premium seats involves enrolling at a school that’s going to play in those types of games often.

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Oklahoma would have provided a fine conclusion to my final year in 2001, with the upset of Florida State in a sloppy game in Miami to win the Orange Bowl 13-2, which gave them a National Championship. If I consider Oklahoma from a Class of 2001 alumni perspective, there’s no questioning fifteen years of Bob Stoops, a few seasons of Adrian Peterson, a victory in each BCS Bowl game, and four appearances in the title game would have me screaming “Boomer Sooner” from the rooftops, but this is strictly about the four years on campus. That would have meant two seasons of John Blake before Stoops turned things around in 1999; the Sooners were 9-14, good enough for fifth place in the Big 12 South both years. sure, a National Championship washes away those scars, but outside of that 2000 season, they’d have given me three losses in the Red River Shootout and an unremarkable trip to Shreveport for an Independence Bowl loss to Mississippi to end 1999 with a 7-5 record. On the hardwood, Oklahoma made the tournament in all four of my college years, but a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State in 1999 highlighted those years.

I had a friend from elementary school in Cleveland that actually spent those four years in Tallahasse; he sat on the bench with the Seminoles basketball team as a manager. In what would have been our freshmen year, Steve Robinson led them to a #12 seed in the NCAA tournament. A second round knockout at hands of Valparaiso dropped them 18-14 for the 1997-98 season, and it would be the last post-season action the Class of 2001 would witness in their four years on campus.

Of course, Florida State, under the charge of Bobby Bowden was a football school. It would have taken until the 11th game, the rivalry game in Gainesville on November 22nd, before I’d have seen Bowden lose a football game. Aside from the table in the ACC in ’97, the ‘Noles went to USC and beat the Trojans, slaughtered then-Big East rival Miami at home, and took down Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. If not for the three-point loss to Florida, Peter Warrick and company presented a great argument over Michigan and Nebraska for the title; it leaves me to wonder how the pre-BCS system would have paired the top teams up for the bowls. In ’98, a Week 2 loss at NC State meant they needed help in November to get to Tempe for the inaugural BCS Championship at the Fiesta Bowl, and they got it, so they met Tennessee in the desert.

They lost to a great Volunteers team, but bounced back to take down Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in the second BCS title game at the Sugar Bowl. They had to deal with #3 Florida in the swamp first, and came away with a 30-23 win before neutralizing “Beamer Ball” by 17 points in New Orleans. Four years of Bowden Ball ended on a sour note when Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke couldn’t figure out Bob Stoops defense at the Orange Bowl, but if you do the math, 45 wins and 5 losses with a realistic chance at a title on January 1st in each of those seasons, Florida State was’t a bad place to be for that period.

At Tennessee, I’d have gotten Peyton Manning’s senior year. Sure, the guy couldn’t beat Florida and they’d lose to co-National Champion Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but the 1997 season set the scene for the ’98 season well. With Manning gone, it was up to Tee Martin to take the reigns on offense, doing just enough to let a defense littered with NFL talent win a title. They stormed the field at Rocky Top when the Vols edged the Gators at Neyland in Week 2 and beat four Top 10 teams, including #2 Florida State in the desert for the first BCS Championship. Florida got them in Gainesville the next season, but they took down #10 in consecutive weeks and reached the Fiesta Bowl, where they’d lose to Nebraska. In 2000, they’d suffer their worst season of the four years, going 8-4 with losses to Florida, at LSU, at Georgia, and to Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. For the travel alone, with bowl games in Miami, Tempe twice, and Dallas, this Ohio-born kid would have loved it. Throw in Peyton Manning and a 43-9 for Phil Fullmer, and Tennessee probably didn’t even need the four NCAA tourney appearances in basketball, which included losses to Illinois State, Missouri State, Charlotte, and a Sweet 16 loss to national semi-finalist North Carolina in 2000.

Nebraska and Michigan gave their basketball fans positively nothing in the way of post-season play during the years in question, but it starts with a National Championship where #1 didn’t play #2. Both were unbeaten, Michigan wrapping up their season with Heisman winner Woodson in the Rose Bowl over Ryan Leaf and the 11-1 Washington State Cougars, while Nebraska’s Scott Frost outplayed Peyton Manning in the Cornhuskers’ 42-17 Orange Bowl win over Tennessee. Michigan would go on to defeat rival Ohio State in two of the next three seasons and beat SEC teams from Alabama in January for the next three seasons, Auburn in the 1999 and 2001 Citrus Bowls, and Alabama in a thrilling 2000 Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s bowl travels took them from Miami, for the title, to San Diego, Tempe for a rematch of the 1998 Orange Bowl, and the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. 1997 was the legendary Tom Osborne’s last season coaching the Big Red. Alumni considerations, which again are not a factor, don’t treat either school well.

From 2001 to 2013, Michigan has lost in all but two seasons to Ohio State, and when they’ve been bowl-eligible they haven’t fared well; the exception being a forgettable Sugar Bowl win over an even more forgettable Virginia Tech team in 2012. Things don’t shape up well for Nebraska either; Frank Solich managed to get them to a National Championship after a stunning 62-36 defeat in Boulder which knocked them out of the Big 12 Championship Game, but not out of the BCS Championship at the Rose Bowl, where Miami kicked their asses. Over the next decade, they showed they didn’t belong on the same field with the likes of Big 12 powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas, and went running for the Big Ten in 2011.

Two schools without a title in football or basketball during the alotted time do make a good case for a great fan experience. First, Arizona; they’re a basketball school, but the final years of the Dick Tomey Era in football weren’t awful. They went from 7-5 with a loss to New Mexico on their home field for the Insight Bowl in 1997 to 12-1 season in ’98, the only blemish being a 52-28 home loss to UCLA in a season where the Wildcats handed Washington State their only loss of the year. They would beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, but whiffed considerably in 1999 and 2000, going 11-12 and opening the door for John Mackovic to take over for Tomey in 2001. It would be a while before Lute Olsen and the Arizona basketball program would part ways. They would have a single one-and-done year in the tourney with a 1-point Opening Round loss to Oklahoma in 1999, on the heels of a 12-1 football season, but losses to Utah (’98), Wisconsin (’00), and Duke (’01) on the hardwood should have left Wildcats basketball fans with little to hang their head about. Utah played for the National Championship, Wisconsin reached the Final Four, and the loss to Duke was the National Championship.

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Speaking of Wisconsin, I’m not sure where people in Madison rank that Final Four appearance among the great moments in school history. They are, after all, a football school. They made the tournament in three of these four years, but were 0-for-4 against Michigan State in 1999-2000 and were one-and-done to Missouri State and Georgia State in their other tournament cameos. On the football field, with or without this “what if” scenario, Wisconsin serves as one of the ultimate “what if” teams; what if Michigan didn’t trip them up in their eventual Rose Bowl winning seasons in ’98 and ’99 (they also lost to Cincinnati in 1999)? You may not have anything nice to say about and 1998 Outback Bowl loss to Georgia or their Sun Bowl win over UCLA in 2000, but back-to-back Big Ten Championships and Rose Bowl victories don’t happen very often. If only I could say I was there for it.

In the end, given the choice and the clairvoiance, Tennessee seems like it would have been the best place to spend the time, even though Drake might have had to change into the Florida and Nebraska track suits at halftime on occasion. While Florida is being mentioned, I can’t think of a more choice experience than aligning with the Tebow years in Gainesville; only 2009-2012 Alabama rivals 2006-2010 Florida, but the Gators needed an assist from Billy Donovan, Joakim Noah, and company to lift them to the top.

Where would you spend your college years, strictly from the perspective of a sports fan? Do you think there’s a better four years than any mentioned here? Where do you think you’d see the best teams and the most desirable post-season travel itinerary? I’d love your thoughts, either in e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@JRichRadio); let me know what you think.

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.