Stop me if you've heard this before ... Duke will win the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship early in April. And they'll beat my perennial final four pick Kansas in the final. And Ohio State, a past champion, and the good-this-century Pittsburgh Panthers will also be in Houston for the Final Four. All four teams enter the tournament as number one seeds, which was a curse ... until last year. So round by round we go, with the defending champions being the last one with a seat in this game of dosey do.
All season long, we've heard a familiar refrain from these last year ... parity. No undefeated teams, no once-beaten teams. One of the twice-beaten teams, San Diego State, plays midnight (Eastern time) games and nobody, but nobody watched them play. Except for in their two losses. To the only other good team in Mountain West. So, how good are Kawhi Leonard and title-winning Steve Fisher's Aztecs? Don't know. All I've got are reports that the mini-Dwight Howard is a beast. And either that the 'myth' of SDSU will be exposed or, in fact, we are headed for a meeting of the twice-beatens in the semis.
My gut tells me that if things go really kerplooey, Ohio State will stumble before Houston. I am a Kendall Marshall believer in North Carolina (and yeah, it doesn't hurt to have John Henson and Harrison Barnes), so I think Ohio State can be tripped up right there by the baby Tarheels. Or, maybe last year's designated stumblee, Kentucky, returns the favour this year, with the even younger Wildcats getting a measure of revenge for being ousted short of the Final Four a year ago. Good teams and a seven-man rotation for the top-ranked Buckeyes HAS to have Ohio State fans fretting. As some analyst pointed out, all it takes is one whistle-happy ref to land the oh-so-thin front court of Ohio State, led by player of the year contender Jarred Sullinger on the bench for important minutes.
Duke gets my nod because they have most of the factors I'm looking at this year (depending on others' research, I've been stuck working more than I would like for this time of the year). The only thing missing is proximity since they got sent out West. But other than a third-rounder against Texas' Toronto Boys, it's not like the other team's are going to have home area advantage. The Blue Devils can shoot and defend. Rebounding's a bit soft, but this seems to be the time of the year that the Plumlees get serious about being as good as they can be. And ultimately, I honestly believe that Kyrie Irving will be on the court when needed. Won't be for a lot of minutes, but I think he'll be there to add that little oomph Duke needs to defend.
Kansas is Kansas. 'Nuff said. I pick 'em every year. They win often enough to get me the odd computer or T-Shirt prize. It's built into my genes. So I like them to win the Pittsburgh-Kansas game, which, ironically enough, will NOT be held in Pittsburg, Kansas. I'd actually like them to win the whole thing, but I think the Duke guards are better than whatever group Bill Self decides to go with for the Jayhawks. So Rock, Chalk Jayhawk comes up one win short.
Winning pools is all about picking the surprise Sweet 16 team and getting about two thirds of the upsets in the first two rounds correct. Read another stat that MOST pools are won by somebody picking between 49 and 53 of the 63 games correctly. That's a LOT of misguesses still to succeed. Too many people pick too many upsets, and then watch as their disregarded favourite wins a round or two or even three more than they thought, propigating their one bad idea into a full-blown, knock me out of competition, disaster.
So, assuming the selection committee knows a thing or three about basketball, here's my list of upsets. It's not as long as it will be, but I hope the ones I miss lose on the first weekend, limiting my exposure. I like Gonzaga over St. John's for two reasons. Gonzaga's been dismissed most of the year while over-acheiving St. John's recently lost D.J. Kennedy, who will be missed. A third general reason? I think people see so much of the Big East which enjoyed a fine non-conference sked, that the polls skew eastward. And freshmen grow up fast these days. Those kiddies who blew up in front of the largely experienced Big East teams in December, are ready for payback. Soooo, I think MOST Big East teams will underperform their seeds (except Pittsburgh, of course). And here's a kicker, I think Gonzaga then goes on to knock out everybody's second favourite team, Brigham Young, in the second round. You can't take Brandon Davies out of the BYU line-up and have the same team. Sure, Jimmer Fredette will go out in a blaze of glory, whenever he goes out, but I like Gonzaga in this game a lot.
BRIEF SEGUE BEFORE RETURNING to our regularly-scheduled prognostications. In high school, my best friend (and frequent bridge partner) was the son of a high ranking church official. He was also a very good basketball player and earned a scholarship to attend a religious Division II school down in the deep south. Now, my pal was your prototypical rebellious son of a reverand (who I actually quite liked and got along with, despite my agnosticism). He didn't last his whole first year. He got thrown out for having a case of beer AND two (not one, TWO) copies of Playboy in his room. Religious schools take things most of you or I would fob off as unimportant VERY seriously. I feel for Davies. But having other friends who attended that school on athletic scholarship, EVERYBODY knows the rules. It's just too bad that it will limit BYU's run in this year's event. WE NOW RETURN YOU TO OUR REGULARLY-SCHEDULED BLOG.
The same poor under-rated western team serves as a rationale for picking Utah State over Kansas State. KS is riding the back of Jacob Pullen and I like US to smother the scoring machine. Last year's wunderkinds, Butler, will get more respect and worse results this year. Look for the Bulldogs to go down in an 8-9 matchup with Old Dominion. Later in the tournament, I like #2 seeds Notre Dame and Florida to meet their Waterloo's short of the Sweet 16. I REALLY like Purdue as a surprise team, which means curtains for the Fightin' Irish. I have all the respect in the world for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo when it comes to the NCAA's. You'd be a fool not to. If he beats UCLA, then Florida will follow. On the other hand, my western bias yells UCLA over Florida too, if they overcome The Izzo Factor. I THINK it will be UCLA doing the deed, but how do you go against Izzo and sleep at night?
There are two REALLY interesting first rounders featuring centres of attraction and one game that will be a chore not to snore through. I very much give Morehead State a chance against Louisville, given Kenneth Faried, an NBA draftee this summer. It's about a one in four shot, but it's there. And Texas could stumble against Oakland, which is a really good team, if the Longhorns look past the Detroit school to a match against potential top draft pick Derrick Williams and his Arizona Wildcats. It's not like Texas HASN'T had concentration problems. And we've been hearing (and occasionally seeing) Oakland centre Keith Benson for most of the last three years. Make the upset a one in five chance. And the basketball purist might look forward to the Wisconsin-Belmont game a lot. But Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, he of the defensive bent, won't. Belmont's good for being an NCAA runt. Disciplined AND March Madness-tested. Coming off that horrendous loss to Penn State in the Big Ten playoffs (NEITHER team topped 40 points!!!), Ryan has to wonder where his offence disappeared to. And will it come back? I believe so, and think Wisconsin is a Sweet 16 team with a decent hope of going further. But the opener will stress the Badgers out. A LOT! Oh, and those Nittany Lions of Penn State are just a little less than a 50-50 shot against Temple.
The tournament starts tonight and then kicks into high gear two days hence. It is simply the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas and Birthdays NOT excepted. Four days of glorious noon-to-midnight roundball (well, almost til midnight on Sunday).
Go Duke Go!!