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Frankly, my desire to blog has been largely taken away by the spammer. But if anything can revive my flagging interest, it's March Madness. So here's this year's predictions. It's a long read so I don't have to explain myself and my 12 Rules for Picking NCAA Champs. Enjoy!
RULE #1: Calipari Doesn't Win in the End
John Calipari is a hall of fame recruiter who combines a willingness to play kids with all their faults come March Madness. But something is missing as a coach. Stop me if you've heard this before. Kiddie point guard and a team with some three-point issues, sometimes in making them, some times in stopping them. It's like a recording. And this year's team has the same issues, albeit less of a shooting threes one than usual. It also has Anthony Davis, who is a superstar. There was a blog not too long ago that asked, are the Kentucky defenders lazy because of Davis? It's an important question and one that helps explaining why Kentucky staggered and then stumbled on the weekend. Sign of the future? Or just a re-righting of a bunch of overblown egos? History says it's a sign. And, while half of all of my brackets still have Wildcats Winners! as the headline, my GUT instinct is that Rule #1 will hold another year.
RULE #2: Syracuse Falls Before Final FourCarmelo Anthony has been a loser all of his life ... except for one special night at the end of his freshman year. For one night, the fabled 2-3 zone kept rebound control and the offence did enough to win in NCAA Basketball's brightest glare. But the thing about that team was that it DID feature an All-American, one of the very few Jim Boeheim has been able to bring to cold and snowy Syracuse. He gets the guys with issues, never the apple of everybody's eyes. And while he coaches a winning system that integrates those marred players, you usually need a star with go-to power when it's time for solo theatrics. And, as usual, this best defensive team in the country, doesn't have The Guy. Not offensively. And when the other team has days to prepare for the zone ... and the talent, Syracuse can be beat. Third round, maybe fourth round. And gone. Again.
RULE #3: You Will Go Broke Betting Against Tom IzzoGive Tom Izzo a better than average team and book Michigan State into the Elite Eight, usually the Final Four. A really good Michigan State team should be appearing as National Champions on many bracket sheets. But this is NOT a great Michigan State team. It's a team of pieces around lion-hearted Draymond Green. But Green plus Izzo means a long run. Unfortunately, foul trouble will catch Green somewhere along the line. I still respect Izzo enough to have one sheet with MSU on top. But it's only one.
RULE #4: Referees Are HumanAnd sometimes, refs can't handle the spotlight any better than the players. Somewhere along the same line that gets Green in foul trouble, the same will happen to Jared Sullinger of Ohio State. Both Green and Sullinger have passable caddies to take ten minutes of bench time when that inevitable second foul comes in the first half. But it can't be more than that and have either of the Big Ten schools win. Other teams are also in the same boat, but I can't think of two teams more susceptible to big-ego refs or nervous nellies then those two. At least that have title aspirations.
RULE #5: Pick One (or Two) Nine Seeds to WinDefending champion UConn, Saint Louis, Alabama and Southern Mississippi carry the aggrieved designation this year. I don't like angst-ridden Alabama to beat Creighton and Southern Miss has drawn the Angry Man's Special, Kansas State. After all, K-State's done okay playing with the big boys in the Big 12 this year. Just ask Missouri. So that leaves Saint Louis against Memphis and UConn versus Iowa State, two of the more under-rated programs in the country. I have to believe VASTLY under-seeded Memphis does the job, leaving me with the solitary pick of UConn as the lone nine seed to advance (to get hammered by Kentucky, but a win is a win). I'm sure memories of last year's win is interfering with my choice here, as is the blarney about Andre Drummond, studly star of the future. He's been anything but, in the games I've seen him play. But I give a lot of points for Jim Calhoun's return and the time off because of the early exit in the Big East Tournament to get ready for the farmboys from Iowa.
RULE #6: Troubled Teams Like to TravelNorth Carolina has some injury issues that won't plague them in the first two rounds when John Henson will probably sit out the first tune-up and maybe the second. By the time he's really needed, Carolina will be far from the friendly confines of the East Coast. Add to the fact that Harrison Barnes isn't 100 per cent either, life on the road might be a better place for the Tarheels. The other team that will be far, far from home is Baylor, one of the potential Kentucky killers in the event. It's painfully evident that Perry Jones III has talent. It's also a team that disappears and then re-appears when contention talk starts. Playing in the South, away from the suddenly rabid Baylor ball fans en masse (The women's team is odds on fave to take the distaff NCAA title), might, just might, put Baylor on the right side. It will take dispatching Duke (not nearly an imposing task) and thus, two humongous games from PJ3, but it's doable.
RULE #7: Untroubled Teams Don't Like to TravelSince nobody's without troubles this year, never mind.
RULE #8: Kiddies Need Training, So Prefer Seniors Over FreshmenAs was pointed out, nobody's truly a freshman at this time of the year. But they are still novices on the biggest stage in their lives to this point. Six games (seven if you were VCU last year and California this year) and six chances to choke. These ARE kids, barely young men. And kids make mistakes. Always at the worst of times. Seniors, to a large degree, have been there, screwed up and came back for more. In a lot of cases, all but the very cream of the senior class, are headed for non-ball careers the day after the season ends for them. There's a certain calmness that comes over them. They make fewer mistakes because they have fewer direct chances to affect the outcome in a spectacular way. A team like Missouri, with its senior core has a chance, better than slim, to walk away with it all. They can't beat K-State, but they've got the team to win a LOT of NCAA games because no one man is an island on this pass-happy, height-challenged team. Think Villanova from earlier this century. The question is whether they can defend the behemoths coming their way eventually. Wisconsin and Vanderbilt should be feared as well. And Ohio State isn't ALL-senior, but that Jared Sullinger is pretty good anyways. A freshmen or two never hurt, but four or five? Judge Kentucky's chances accordingly.
RULE #9: Winners have a Point Guard, a Shooter and a Serious RebounderBasketball is an inside-out game. Get the ball to your big guy and have him dunk or pass it back out and reset. Have the PG drive and dish to the wide-open arc specialist (or two). Defend these situations well. And GET THE REBOUND by whatever means necessary. As it turns out, the shooters are more prevalent than some would think. But some are special, like John Jenkins at Vandy, Doug McDermott at Creighton and Austin Rivers at Duke. Those teams also have the rebounder in question. But I fear that the PG requirement will prevent any of those three from being around at the Final Four. Not a single player in this country is good enough to be two thirds of the winning equation all by himself.
RULE #10: Defence Never Has a Bad Shooting DayAs I have pointed out, Syracuse can compensate for some hit and miss offence by relying on the country's best defence. Admittedly, having prep time to handle the zone is a concession at this time of the year, but the Orange are never going to allow 90 points come tourney time. They will always be in the game. It's also a reason why Kentucky is so feared. Anthony Davis is the ultimate enforcer. And he handles guards on switches with aplomb, considering that he WAS a guard not that long ago. When looking for winners, never look past the top ten in defence left in the tournament.
RULE #11: Better Team Upsets DO NOT REPEATVanderbilt will not beat Kentucky in the championship game, even if Vanderbilt gets there. There ARE teams that have better teams' number. See K-State vs Missouri. But pick the better team in the re-match, especially if the weaker team is 2-0 heading into the tourney.
RULE #12: Find Three Double-Figure Seeds for Sweet SixteenThere are rules that just defy imagination, but seem to stand the test of time. Like the Ninth Seed Rule. That one's kind of obvious, since the teams are a toss-up on a neutral floor and you're handing one of the two coach's the bulletin board material he wants. Now, let's also point out that a sheet should have one 12 seed getting to the Sweet Sixteen, along with one 10 seed. Then pick out one of (but not both) an 11 and a 13 to win a first-round upset. You SHOULD have at least four or five first round upsets on your sheet, but leave it at that unless the matchups are REALLY REALLY something to look at. Sure, there will usually be MORE upsets, but keeping the number manageable will give you mostly a going forward sheet, although you lose the chance to say you KNEW Belmont was going to oust Georgetown. Winning it all is a better feeling.
So, that's the rules. My sheet, my gut check sheet, has North Carolina winning it all. I'm treating Henson's injury like that of Ty Lawson a couple of years ago. I thought Carolina was the best team coming into the season and I've seen them humbled to the point where they shouldn't be too over-confident. And I think Todd Zeller has enough in him to give Davis issues come the final against Kentucky. My other final four contestants are Missouri and Ohio State. Before New Orleans, serious scalps see Baylor get Duke and Wisconsin do in Syracuse. The 'darling' team will be #12 California, who wins in, in the First Four and then takes out Temple. And don't be surprised if the Bears beat Michigan too. The #11 to start off with a bang is North Carolina State over San Diego State and the #10 I like best is West Virginia and Kevin Jones beating my ex-pat Canucks at Gonzaga. But I wouldn't be too shocked if Robbie Hummel and Purdue do in St. Mary's. It's a topsy-turvy season and the popular conception is that there will be LOTS of upsets. I think taking the under might be the winning strategy. As usual, stick to chalk with the second round. Short prep time favours the top-ranked teams. You won't go 16-0, but you should have 14 or 15 on-going teams. Last WILD prediction: back to back overtime games decided by a bucket or less in the opening round, Georgetown over Belmont and St. Mary's over Purdue.