It's time to predict the NCAA Pool and offer any reader of this blog a free shot at winning their pools.
Let's start with the Final Four, which will come from Louisville, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Memphis, UConn, Oklahoma or Gonzaga, with my ratings of each, roughly in that order, assuming all things are equal. But all things aren't equal.
First, Louisville is a lock for the trip to Detroit. I just don't see anybody pushing the Cardinals en route to winning the MidWest. I see them beating Moorehead St, Siena, Wake Forest and West Virginia before Detroit looms. Wake Forest, a one-time top-ranked team in the country might not even get by Arizona and West Virginia will be coming off a tough game against Michigan State. Do Arizona or MSU scare Louisville? No. So write up the Cardinal for the MidWest. I have first-round upset winners in Siena, Arizona and USC in that bracket. I normally always take higher seeds in the weekend games because of lack of time to prepare, but I like West Virginia to beat Kansas, and then do it again against Michigan State.
In my list of Final Four candidates, I had Memphis rated ahead of UConn despite being seeded lower. I can see Hasheem Thabeet having six GREAT games and UConn winning the national championship. Or I can see Thabeet in foul trouble and not even getting to the West final. Say, losing to Purdue. I'm convinced now (I wasn't three days ago) that Purdue's Robbie Hummel is healthy and ready to minimize Thabeet and Washington's Jon Brockman before him. And that will put Purdue into the regional final against the surviver of the 'M' side of the bracket, Memphis. Karma might be paying Memphis coach John Calipari back for having Kansas steal away the Tigers' apparent crown last year. He's replaced Derrick Rose with Tyreke Evans and, as tough as it is to believe, he hasn't lost much losing the first pick in last summer's NBA draft. The Tigers are playing hard on D, pitching the disrespect game hard and seem poised to take advantage of an injury or two. As for upsets here, I like Maryland over Cal and the Purdue run to the Elite Eight. That's all.
The equivalent to Purdue will be Villanova in the East, taking advantage of playing the first two rounds in Philly, and then taking out Duke, who has no inside game to scare the Wildcats at all. That second-week match-up will be an entertaining run and gun affair, but I just don't think Duke's team has 40 minutes in them. I've seen the Blue Devils play 30+ great minutes against North Carolina twice, but they just can't seem to shake the second-half shooting slump that last about eight minutes and turns leads into deficits. So, I see 'Nova getting to the regional final before coming acropper of the Pittsburgh Panthers. And the reason I can't see Villanova in the final four is that I don't see how they get DaJuan Blair into foul trouble. And Pitt doesn't lose if he isn't in foul trouble. Otherwise, he's a 21st-century Paul Silas. And with time off for healing, I think Pitt wins the region and a ticket to Detroit. Not much in the way of upsets in this one. Just Florida State's mini-upset over Xavier in the second round. I've flipped on the popular first-round exit call for UCLA, thinking now that Darren Collison will be healthy enough to slow Eric Maynor's star from ascending and the Bruins will indeed beat Virginia Commonwealth. Sorry Mr. President Obama.
Which brings me to the South and the minefield for all bracket predictors. Ty Lawson healthy would equate to a North Carolina cruise through virtual homecourt advantage all the way to Detroit. But he's not and won't play the opener against Radford. That's no problem, but second-round opponent Butler might be, regardless if he plays after at least a 10-day layoff. Butler's kiddie corps might not have a lot of respect or fear for the Tarheels and will be the first of the hurdles NC has to clear to get to Detroit. And if Butler doesn't upset the apple cart, next week's games against Gonzaga and then Oklahoma might. Each COULD get to Detroit. And if Ty Lawson is out, or plays sub-standard ball while playing at less than healthy levels, then North Carolina WILL fall. As it is, I believe North Carolina with a healthy Ty Lawson is really the best team in the country. And I think he'll be healthy enough to get TO Detroit, despite the tripping chances along the way. But I'd find a few pools to enter and split them between NC (60 per cent), Oklahoma (30 per cent) and Gonzaga (10 per cent). And because I think North Carolina is second only to UConn as shaky number ones, I wouldn't have any pools with North Carolina on top. I just think there's too great a chance they don't get there. And they really cost you points if they lose early. As for upsets, I've already called for Butler to beat LSU and I like Western Kentucky over Illinois (Chester Frazier's hurt). That and Arizona State beating badly over-seeded Syracuse in the second round covers the upsets.
So we get to see three one-seeds in Louisville, Pitt and North Carolina in Detroit, joined by two-seed Memphis. According to my rating Louisville should beat Memphis and Pitt should lose to North Carolina. But I just outlined how I can't pick North Carolina to win it, since it's, more or less, on the head of an injured player. So, the final comes down to Louisville and Pitt. Louisville beat Pitt all year long. Louisville's my top-rated team. So I should be crowning the Cardinals. Right?
Nope. I HATE, absolutely HATE when teams play for the third time. Especially if one team's won the prior two meetings. Stats say the trend should continue. History says different. There's something about over-confidence and the other team being ticked about the earlier losses that has the series break 2-1 waaaaaaaay more often than it should.
So, the 2009 NCAA National Championship will be won by the Pittsburg Panthers. You can take that to the bird's cage.