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It's a new year and roughly six months since I posted anything. So there should be silence and tumbleweeds out there. What better time to catch March Madness and write up a few hundred words on this upcoming tournament.
It's been quite a season in NCAA Basketball, with #1 ranked teams losing every other week. Top-ranked teams could be 2nd in the nation one week and 14th two weeks later. The collapse of traditional powers Kentucky after the Nerlens Noel injury plus North Carolina's plunge to the precipice of making the field meant this year's madness IN-SEASON has produced many more teams with a chance to win. Maybe as many as ten teams are talking title in the locker room. And newcomers are talking tough, too. Heck, Florida Gulf Coast University is in--and has a victory over former #1 and second-seed Miami to show as a reason why. I'd never heard of FGCU until the teams were picked for the NCAA's. But I will tell you that I think this year's dance is going to be good for the likes of teams from both Colorado and Iowa. A changing of the guard? Not really, but a nice set of usually reserved tickets for programs not seen on National TV in a l-o-n-g time, if ever.
Now, last year's rules still pertain to this year's prognostication, even after Rule #1 was violated badly by the Kentucky win. And injuries did in my pick, the North Carolina Tarheels. Otherwise, the rules might have been inviolate. You can see them here: the original My Madness Returns. One thing though, ignore rule #12. I'm going against the pick one #12 to win. And, as for a Cinderella run by an 11, 12 or 13 seed? Not so much this year. I know that goes against the screwy ability of top teams to lose to those they shouldn't. But I'm playing way more conservatively this year in some ways.
But here's the gambling aspect that makes my bracket something worth hanging a lottery ticket on: I've got all four 11's winning, three 10's and a couple of 9's (Rule #5). ESPN thinks I've got a 'B' grade sheet, a little brave and a little under the first day's best picks, but one that could have me riding high. And my percentage of pulling off a big lead is somewhere around 12%. So, I am sticking with my choices. And then reverting mostly to favourites after that.
Of the four 11's I've got winning the round of 64 (can't say first round, what with the First Four dance in Dayton having that description these days), only a Minnesota win over UCLA has much company. I think Tubby Smith saves his job over a UCLA team with flaws and one starter injured in the league tournament. I've also picked Belmont over Arizona because ONE of these years, taking the Belmont Bruins is going to be right. And this is the year, despite Belmont not being the pressing team that is usually required to beat Zona. And the same bad weakness/strength description plagues my prediction of Bucknell making twice-runner-up Butler disappear in disappointment. I say this despite thinking Brad Stevens is in the conversation for best coach in the country and he has an experienced squad with Rotnei Clarke ready to go off at any moment. But injuries have affected Clarke to the point where I've rarely heard from him in months. Bucknell just has the kind of squad that is upset-ready, having done it before, Very few share my opinion on this. Which is great! And lastly, I think Matthew Dellavedova will lead the Saint Mary's Gaels past Middle Tennessee and into the round of 64, where the Gaels will then extend Josh Pastner's record with the Memphis Tigers in NCAA action to 0-3. The uber-athletic Tigers will have their hands full with the Australian star Dellavedova and STM has been a worrywart team all year long. 'Course most prognosticators have Middle Tennessee advancing, so this is a twice-risky pick.
As I said, I think the states of Iowa and Colorado have a good tournament ahead of them. In the #10 seed area, I REALLY like Iowa State to beat #7 Notre Dame and for Colorado then to do in Illinois. I'm countering the mid-America happiness by getting the feeling that Cincinnatti will end Creighton's star Doug McDermott's career without another victory. Which will be too bad because watching McDermott play is a real joy. But I have a sneaky feeling Cashmere Wright is feeling like that's his time to announce he's healthy too. I've got more company with my #10 picks than with the 11's, but I'm still betting against the field.
Now for the usual 8-9 upset picks that are required by statistical law and just plain logic. I realize North Carolina has been a much improved team since going to small ball in the new year. But they are playing Villanova, where modern-day small ball was invented. It's the way they play in Philly. And if the Wildcats can get J.M. McAdoo into foul trouble then it turns into a three-point hoist-up. And I will go with 'Nova, thank you very much. But wait, I'm not done with goodies for middle America just yet. I think Wichita State is due to beat Pittsburgh in another nominal upset. I respect the heck out Jamie Dixon and what he does making men out of Panther players. But I think this is a case of the last-belch Big East team getting the seed nod over the team from Small Conference USA. A shocking win by the Shockers? Not from my perspective.
And yes, I have Colorado State and Iowa also winning opening games.
Now after all of those upsets (NINE, if you just refer to the round of 64), I'm expecting all Cinderella activity to cease and desist. No double-digit seeds getting to play spoiler on bracket sheets all over the world. Yes, I have second-round upsets. But these are moderate, the #5 over #4 battles, like Shaka Smart's VCU squad doing the dirty to Michigan in yet another sublime March for the Rams. Add Wisconsin as an over-achieving #5. Bo Ryan understands this March business too. But none of my upset picks will see another week in the spotlight. Honestly, I'm hoping not getting TOO ebullient about my picks will let me back into those who pick upsets better than I do, but then ride the Cinderella feeling one round too long. And besides, I'm SUPPOSED to go chalk at this point. See Rule #13 from last year. What it's not there. It should be. So, here it is:
With little time to prepare for the rounds of 32 and 8, pick the higher-seeded team unless there's an obvious weakness/strength mismatch the other way or the lower-seeded team is just crazy good on defence, usually with something unusual about that defence.
That explains VCU and Wisconsin. And it also explains why Louisville is actually the top seeded number one in the country. But there ARE exceptions to every rule. More of that later.
Well, later has arrived. I'm picking Duke to win it all. That means BEATING Louisville in the South Final. Which I think will obviously happen. Here's my Duke theory: the Blue Devils are two teams. A top-tennish team without big man/long range bomber Ryan Kelly and an almost undefeated team with him. The Andrea Bargnani-like Kelly was actually undefeated until the Blue Devils laid an egg against Alex Len and the Maryland Terrapins in the ACC tournament. That's NIT-bound Maryland. Still, losing in the ACC's has never been a big bugaboo with Duke. The reason I like Duke versus Louisville is because the senior-laden Dukies are composed enough to handle the Cardinals' 40 minutes of pressing defence and good enough from three-point range to outscore the notoriously inept offence the Cardinals have. I think it will be one of the most entertaining college basketball games in years. Even the interior battle between Mason Plumlee and the resurgent Giorgui Deng will fun.
And once past Louisville, the Blue Devils will do in my favourite ex-pat Canada squad (they are called the Gonzaga Bulldogs down south) before dispatching the Kansas-Indiana victor (which I think will be Kansas, despite Indiana's Victor Oladipo).
Look, I know picking Duke to win is unpopular on two fronts. First, I'm breaking Rule #3 by predicting they will get by Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, and secondly, picking Duke is like siding with the bad guy in any other conflict you can think of. It's DUKE and you're either with 'em or agin 'em. Hating Duke is a national past-time in many places in the U.S. But this bracket is for the money, so go BLEEEPPPPPP!
Indiana has the easiest ride to the Final Four because Miami, they of the loss to FGCU (do you remember what that acronym stands for ... check back to paragraph two), are simply too inexperienced to take on the Hoosiers. Not with Oladipo, the most destructive defensive force in college ball (after Noel got hurt), waiting to prove Shane Larkin has some learning to do. That's not to minimize the season Larkin has had. He's been fabulous. And the Hurricanes simply have no a answer to this year's Zeller, Cody. Mind you, I had a Zeller making a difference last year and was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Kansas will have a slightly harder row to hoe in that the East title will require beating Florida or Georgetown. And I actually picked Georgetown because Otto Porter Jr. is a GREAT college player. Right there with McDermott, Oladipo, Larkin and Michigan's Trey Burke as the contenders for the award. Now, a grain of salt. I have gotten it horrribly wrong when to get on and off the Florida bandwagon for years. Off when they got their back-to-back titles and on for toooo many disappointments. I just can't get over the fact that Florida has lost EVERY CLOSE GAME it's played this year. I have them as a sweet sixteen squad and no more because I KNOW Georgetown's slow tempo will keep it close and Porter rates to be the deciding factor in decision time.
Why Kansas and not Indiana to do the losing deed to Duke? Jeff Withey will off-set Zeller. The Ben McLemore-Oladipo battle will be epic. But that then leaves three aside to decide who moves on. And I just like the experience and abilities of Kansas' supporting cast. You are allowed to differ. In fact go ahead.
I'd rather be lonely on the podium.