It's time for that most important time of the year, March Madness. It comes at a time when I need total immersion into something that isn't health-related and sitting around munching chips, guzzling sugar-free and sodium-free Mandarin Orange soda while watching what I hope will be a steady procession of exciting games is enough to put me to bed happy tonight.
And, it's a year where ANYBODY in the top THIRTY in this bracketologist's nightmare has a chance to get past this weekend. Win a championship? Well, that's another thing.
A week ago, I was all over Oregon to dark horse their way to the title. Admittedly, the Canadian content, including local kid Dylan Ennis, had something to do with that. But I saw an Oregon team that was ready for the NCAA's before the year turned over. Sure, the Ducks got bored to the point of losing to non-title contenders. But the talent and the 'arrogance' that a title team needs was in plenty evidence. But this past weekend dealt the Ducks a cruel blow. Chris Boucher out for the rest of the season with a blown-out knee. Quack!!!!
So, if not Oregon, who? The guard theory certainly made me immediately think of Kansas. Then Josh Jackson did whatever he did and Kansas lost in the Big 12. There will be extra motivation for Jackson to atone for his ... whatever he did. And Frank Mason III has been other-worldly this year. But here's the thing. Like my previous infatuation with Florida, Kansas tends to disappoint with the notable exception of Mario Chalmer's comeback kings back in the 'Aughts. I think it's time to move Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk back to the Bin of Dreams I keep in the attic. Oh, this undoubtedly makes them almost automatically the favourite, but over time, I think it's best not to let my heart get broken into even smaller bits.
Can Malik Monk go all Aaron Harrison on the tournament and play six top-calibre games? I'm guessing not. So, not Kentucky, which somehow got drawn into the Region of Death, the South, with heavyweight road-blocks in UCLA and (if I am wrong) North Carolina in the way. Besides, John Calipari (The Grayson Allen of coaching) is still coaching there and his in-game coaching is .... NOT NEAR A MATCH for his recruiting.
Defending champs Villanova, the team after a short man's heart? Again, save for the Florida Repeatin' Gators from earlier this century, defending champ means "which round do they lose in?" And I think I have the one Big 10/16 team that will be a surprise this year. Wisconsin doesn't shoot free throws all that well, which will be okay for the first 37 minutes of the second-round game between the Wildcats and the Badgers. I think the Wisconsin lead at that point will be large enough to survive the intentional foul onslaught. 'Nova is worthy of the top overall seed. But with the Curse of the Champeen hanging like the Sword of Damocles, I'm calling on Wisconsin to dispose of the Champs.
Hmmmmm, North Carolina? Certainly from the Tobacco Road neighbourhood in the dominant ACC. Experienced up and down the roster. Joel Berry II might only be two-thirds of Mason III, but he's been very, very good ... most of the time. Justin "I'm not Josh and was NOT going to be confused with him ... until THIS year when all things JJ were great!" Jackson gives the Tar Heels TWO honourable mentions in the coming Mason III coronation as Player of the Year. But North Carolina needs Isaiah Hicks to play six relatively foul-free games in a row. Well, make that five. Sorry Texas Southern fans, both of you. Hicks and the UCLA front-line are not a match in Tar Heel heaven. So that's, what, three number one seeds down?
The fourth to fall and the one to go the farthest (well, tied with Kansas for the farthest), is the "finally-respected by the Bracket committee" Zags/Bulldogs of Gonzaga. They have major league front-court talent, which will have the needed neutralizing effect on Arizona when they meet in the West Region final. But an unfunny thing will happen in Phoenix in the Final Four. The Zags will discover that height matters ... unless the opponent can shoot over that height.
Which means a Duke-UCLA championship final. Which feels right in this year of bad, REALLY BAD pre-season rankings. Sure, injuries had an incredibly negative effect throughout the nation, including taking Harry Giles out of the Player of the Year discussion. And off the starting five for Coach K's Dookies. He'd be smart to stay in school and earn an even BIGGER pay cheque in the summer of 2018. But, history keeps banging us over the heads to take the money when you can. Losing one season means that BIG free agent contract is just another year away. All that said, Giles HAS to play big for the ... let's call them height-challenged Blue Devils.
And that's because the UCLA front-line is NBA-sized. And T.J. Leaf and his NOT height-challenged teammates will have Lonzo Ball creating lay-ups. Ball, however reminds me of Chris Paul. And Paul's exit from the college game was messy piled upon messy. And that was despite having more experience than Ball. Plus, it's not really Ball that I have issues with. It's his lightning rod of a father who will somehow dominate the Final Four stage from off-stage by saying something bizarre thanks to a willingly complicit Media. In fact several somethings in an unacknowledged battle with Comrade Donald for attention. The task of staying focused amidst the pressure of "CBS' One Shining Moment in the making," along with trying to neutralize his father's fodder of foolishness will prove a step too far.
Which brings me back to Duke. The "why nots" for Duke are easy to figure out. A bit of a tallness issue. The issues with Grayson Allen. That swoon when Coach K left the team for pain-relieving surgery. And EVERYBODY in the country seems to have a long-term dislike for the confidence (read AIR-oh-gantz) that seems to permeate every Blue Devil once the kid accepts the scholarship.
To me, surviving the injury bugs (Allen, Giles and Amile Jefferson, as well as The Coach), the ACC tournament, and yes, the confidence, combined with the experience, makes me think the Blue of Duke will outlast the Blue of UCLA in an entertaining final, 81-77. Why? I love Luke Kennard's game. With Allen back, the Bruins cannot swarm Kennard to force the ball out of his hands. Allen is the release valve for that plan. (and yes, Allen's well documented dirty play difficulty will dominate the media scrums in Phoenix for the rest of the questions beyond Mr. Ball.). I wouldn't relish playing Kennard straight up. And that is why I think this is yet another banner/pennant to rise to the rafters at Cameron, Duke's Tobacco Road home.
So, beyond UCLA and Duke upsetting their ways to the Final Four, what other water-cooler upsets do I see making tongues wag? I honestly, rarely go against chalk on the weekends. But in this year of multiple teams getting to that top ranking, I think I have to throw away tired old ideals. It's also the year of the Virginia commonwealth popping up in near-record numbers.
I think that the sweetheart that gets past the first weekend will be Middle Tennessee (knocking off Minnesota in a 5-12 game, and then Butler. Wisconsin's weekend whacking of Villanova (an honorary V-school) will be the upset of most importance as the tournament quarters the field. Otherwise, there's a LOT of Virginia action that will make the wahoos proud of their state. Virginia getting past UNC Wilmington won't be an upset, but a win over Florida WILL be, albeit a slight one. Vanderbilt, an honorary V-School, will win the 8-9 West matchup with Northwestern.
Virgina Tech will be Wisconsin's first victim, falling to the Badgers in an 8-9 game. VCU's loss to Saint Mary's is expected in a 7-10 clash. But I think that game might be amongst the tourney's best in the round of 64.
I like Marquette to top South Carolina in a 7-10 pairing. That, and the Wisconsin toppling of Villanova accounts for all the East upsets. I'm passing on the popular picks of SMU to down Baylor this weekend and East Tennessee beating Florida because everybody picks on Florida ... including me. But not THIS round.
The West upsets are positively going to be rare. Vandy over Northwestern and then pfft! Maybe it's the Xavier Rathan-Mayes fan in me, but I can't see Florida Gulf Coast beating Florida State, although it'll be fun to watch. The FGC Eagles do have upset momentum in a LOT of brackets. Not mine.
Lots of opening upsets in the MidWest. Michigan State gets the 8-9 nod over the higher-seeded Miami for no other reason than picking against Tom Izzo is dumb. If they weren't playing Kansas in the second round, I'd like the Spartans to make a run. Michigan, not to be confused with Izzo's squad, will drop a decision to 10th-seeded Oklahoma State. And in keeping with the upsets that will dominate talk Saturday morning, will be Rhode Island taking out Creighton. I passed on the trendy Nevada over Iowa State 5-12 upset. Other-wise, it's Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk to the Final Four. Literally.
Now, the South is going to be uber-entertaining. Not only do the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee back their supporters in taking the 5-12 game, but also eliminate 4th-seeded Butler before succumbing to North Carolina. The last of the opening round upsets is the usual 8-9 pot boiler as Seton Hall stops Arkansas. I wanted to have Wake Forest in the 6-11 game with Cincinnatti, but the Deamon Deacons failed in a First Four matchup with Kansas State. So, I will take the Bearcats over the Wildcats. Lastly, I passed on another trendy pick, 10th-seeded Wichita State, which will be shocked by the 7th-seeded Dayton Flyers. Shocked, if you go by the Hail, Mary pickers who believe explicitly in the KenPom ratings. After the games Thursday and Friday, UCLA does the upsetting, nabbing 2nd-seeded Kentucky, top-seeded North Carolina and then ANOTHER One seed in Kansas.
Duke wins, and I already have the shirt for that.