Thursday, March 18, 2010

SPORTS: You've Heard It Before, ROCK, CHALK JAYHAWK!

Rising my head above water for a nonce, it's time to get my March Madness picks made publicly, in order to bask in the afterglow of 'Told Ya So!'

Yes, I am wearing my Kansas Jayhawks Championship Tee-shirt as I proudly name this year's version of the Jayhawks as the national champion. I think I have something like eighty poolsheets going (some of them progressive, being made before each round) and Kansas wears the crown in, ohhhh, about 76 of them. That's despite arguably the most stacked region to tiptoe through, including the only two teams that have bested Kansas this year. Gotta admire the sense of humour demonstrated by the selection committee. I don't think it's much possible that Tennessee will earn a rematch, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see Oklahoma State make the regional final. Realistically, it'll be either Ohio State or Georgetown who will see Kansas cut the region nets for souvenirs. I actually like Georgetown here because I'm a big Greg Monroe fan.

Now, who will play Kansas in the final. I'm betting it won't be Kentucky, who has a minefield of chances to slip up before the big Monday night in Indy. In my voluminous pool sheets, I have Kentucky losing in the second round a couple of times, in the third round a bunch of times, in the fourth round a bunch more times, in the semi-finals a few times and not a all a couple of times. The Wildcats are a wild mix of talent and youthful inexperience. And somehow, that means I think Bobby Knight gets a laugh at John Calipari's expense.

Let's face it, when you have two of the top four picks in this summer's NBA draft, at least two other first round talents and a guy off the bench who might go in the draft too, you know Kentucky has championship level talent. But there is something to ponder. In anointing John Wall player of the year before we ever saw the best of Ohio State's Evan Turner, we also glossed over the warts on Kentucky. This is a team that runs and guns and depends on the other wonder frosh, Demarcus Cousins, and late lottery pick Patrick Patterson, to play volleyball with the offensive rebounds. But in their losses, and the near losses to a non-tourney team like Mississippi State, the formula for beating Kentucky became all too clear. They don't shoot threes all that well, are so-so at the charity stripe and don't retain focus all that well on defence when the other team stalls (the truer way of saying, patience on offence).

Remember that humour I mention the selection committee showed earlier. Well, they must all be Bobby Knight fan club members. Cuz look at this route to the title. After the opening round practice slash game for Kentucky, the Wildcats will likely get Texas, merely the top-ranked team in the country two months ago. If the Longhorns suddenly get serious and focus, it will be a heck of a game and no guarantees who wins. Assuming Kentucky does in Texas, next in line is Wisconsin, the defensive-minded demons coached by Bo Ryan. Well THAT's not going to be fun. Wisconsin doesn't make many mistakes. The Badgers will air the ball out and they've got the three-point threats and interior offence to make that work. Then on defence, the Badgers will pack the paint and dare Wall and company to hoist up shots (and make a few). Oh, and if Kentucky falls behind and has to foul Wisconsin, the Badgers will make their free throws. Kentucky doesn't get any breaks just getting by Wisconsin, as West Virginia will be MORE than happy to take a shot at ending Wall's collegiate career. The Mountaineers have their own potential draftees in Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks and they might be playing the best ball in the best league in the country right now. Plus, coach Bob Huggins has that number two seed to fire up his club. Knowing the formula will make Huggins' game plan simple.

But let's say Kentucky walks the walk through the minefield. Come Final Four Saturday, who will Kentucky see wearing blue and white too? Yep, the Duke Blue Devils. Let's see how THEY fit the formula. Outside shooting? Check. Interior presence? Check, and the two Plumlee Brothers are in a race for most improved players from season start to season finish. Ability to work the clock? Check. Well-coached defensive schemes that will off-set the frontcourt Kentucky strongmen? Check. Experience? Check, what with most all the players having multiple NCAA's experience while the Wildcats are so young, if you add up ALL the years of experience their top six players have, it doesn't hit double-digits. And that doesn't include anything but a cup of coffee for Patterson as far as March Madness goes. Although getting that far will obviate another Kentucky peculiarity (the team didn't play all that many good teams, especially away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena) so there will be some decent wins on their resume by then.

Give them the win over Duke (I'm actually betting mostly that West Virginia does them in, first), the Wildcats are met finally by an even more talented team in Kansas. I think Sherron Collins neutralizes Wall, the bigger Wildcats discover why Cole Aldrich is the best true collegiate center in the country and there is no shining moment for the bluegrass boys.

So, go ahead and pick where you think Kentucky loses, if at all. As I mentioned I think West Virginia gets them and then does in Duke in the national semi-final. A glorious season comes up short in losing to Kansas in the final, but that's what's going to happen.

The other Final Four participant? Syracuse, who really only needs to get by a second-round tripwire in Gonzaga. And that's only because of injury concerns. Syracuse has been the most cohesive unit in the country over the season and there just isn't anybody in their bracket who will give them the heebie jeebies. In fact, I think BYU might be their regional final opponent two weekends from now.

All in all, I'm expecting a rash of favourites winning. Sure, I've got some variety in my various sheets. Afterall, why repeat the same picks more than once, when a perfect sheet can be worth a million bucks. For the usual nine-eight mismatches (the nines win 54 per cent of the time), I like Northern Iowa and Louisville. The five-twelve to watch is UTEP beating a good Butler team, since there has to be one of those, or the tournament isn't complete. But that's the only one that appeals. A LOT of OTHER people like Utah State and especially Cornell to continue that odd five-twelve thing. But I don't. Texas A&M is good and Cornell has a bad match-up in their model, Temple. It'll be close in both games but the higher seeds will win. I like Saint Mary's to give the ten's a win and that's about it early. I didn't mention upset darlings Sienna, who have a badly wounded Purdue in a four-thirteen that a LOT of people are jumping all over, including me, until I looked at it more intently.

First, pre-Robbie Hummel injury, Purdue was a one-seed in the making. Sure, when another injury Saturday led to the Boilermakers finally giving up the ghost and getting pasted in the Big Ten semis, it appeared a four-seed might have been too high. I mean, come on, ELEVEN POINTS in the first half!! But as good as Hummel is/was, as problematical as a hobbling Lew Jackson will be, this is still a very talented and well-coached team. Yes, Sienna's good and has been to the second round as a double-digit seed the last two years. But the Saints have their OWN injury problems right now. And with that factor to take into account, I'm calling for Purdue over Sienna almost right across my boards. But I have them losing to Texas A&M right after that.

So that's the scoop three weeks in advance. It's Kansas over West Virgina for the title and Syracuse and Duke joining West Virgina one win short of a dream come true.

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