My apologies for the long hiatus, life got in the way and then when it was done getting in the way, I struggled to regain routine.
But now that it’s March, my favorite sporting event of them all gets underway. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, often referred to as March Madness. This seems as good an excuse as any to get writing again.
I’m not going to preview every single matchup here, but I will give some general thoughts on each region and make my predictions for the Final Four.
I have been following college basketball and filling out brackets for 19 years. This makes my expertise on the matter nearly unprecedented (cough cough). My personal history would show that the more I know about the minutiae of a particular season, the worse my bracket ends up being. Hence, my best brackets were from the ages of 11 to 16 and have been a very mixed bag ever since. So this season, in an effort to improve my bracket, I pretty much only watched my favorite teams play (with a few exceptions). I suspect a pretty good bracket this year (but be warned about taking my advice on this sort of thing, I lost a bet in college and had to eat an onion like an apple).
Going into this year, many people thought that there were really only a handful of teams that had a legitimate chance at winning the title. But once the year really got going, rampant inconsistency (due to injuries in some cases and shoving Texas Tech fans in others) plagued many of the favorites. As a result, it seems that any of 10-15 teams could probably make a run to the title.
While the temptation might be to assume that means we’re headed for a wild tournament full of upsets (and it very well could), I’m going to actually play devil’s advocate and think we’re going to have a pretty chalky tournament. Now let’s have a look at the regions.
Florida is the No. 1 overall seed and find themselves in this region. I feel like I know too much by knowing that their only losses were to Wisconsin and UConn, but I can’t take back that knowledge, so I’m going to run with it. They dominated a weak SEC (Tangent Time: 2012 Kentucky also dominated a weak SEC that was actually rated below the Mountain West that year, but still rolled to a National Title. The argument by Kentucky proponents was that the team was very talented and had great chemistry, so playing in a weaker conference didn’t matter. Well that’s funny. I can’t imagine any SEC proponents saying anything like that about football. Those sound like the cries of the peasants from inferior conferences, even though the weak ACC won two BCS games this year, which happens to be one more than the SEC has won the previous two. Enough about that, back to basketball.), so they haven’t been challenged much lately. Nevertheless, I don’t think anyone in this region can really challenge them. Book them a trip to the Final Four.
A couple more points on this region. Stephen F. Austin has a 12-5 upset is a good bet. VCU isn’t as good as you think, and SFA was really good last year too. With that extra experience, they might be a solid upset Sweet Sixteen selection.
Without Joel Embiid, Kansas is good but won’t make it far.
Don’t buy Syracuse’s late-season slump as a reason to write them off. Nobody likes going against their zone on short notice. I like them losing to Florida in the Elite Eight.
If you’re looking for a region that might implode, this seems the most likely candidate. Virginia is the top seed, and let’s face it, they haven’t been anywhere near this good since the 80’s and nobody trusts them. They’re legit, but they have the misfortune of running into a fully healthy Michigan State squad in the Sweet Sixteen whom they won’t be able to beat.
The bottom half of the bracket is where things will get interesting. I think Villanova is overrated and have them out in the second round to UConn (keep in mind, a 2-seed goes out in the second round almost annually). Providence is my real Cinderella here, knocking off the kings of inconsistency, North Carolina, before taking down Iowa State.
Shabazz Napier will prove too much for Cinderella in the Sweet Sixteen before bowing out to Sparty in the Elite Eight.
Arizona might have been the best team in the country before the lost Brandon Ashley to injury. They didn’t lose a single game in a solid Pac-12 until he went down. And you know what? They still might be the best team in the country.
My poor Zags have the misfortune of running into a red-hot Oklahoma State team that might have been a 2- or 3-seed had they not dealt with off-court issues (can you call shoving a fan an off-court issue?). They certainly have the talent level for it. I think the Pokes give Zona a great game in the second round, but come up short.
I like North Dakota State as another 12-5 upset in this region, going to the Sweet Sixteen before bowing out to the mighty Wildcats.
I think Creighton is going to surprise people with an Elite Eight run that only ends because Doug McDermott hasn’t seen a defense as good as Arizona’s.
If nobody trusts Virginia, then what can we say about Wichita State? Despite being the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the Big Dance undefeated and featuring many of the same players from last year’s Final Four team, they’re being written off. There are some fair arguments there: their conference was weaker than it was last year, they didn’t have a particularly strong non-conference schedule to name a few. They’re being compared to last year’s Gonzaga team who was awarded a 1-seed (whom this Shockers team beat in the Third Round [Tangent Time: the Zags were called overrated after losing that game, despite the fact that they were the only team to have a second-half lead on WSU prior to the Final Four. That’s right, not the mighty Pitt Panthers or Ohio State Buckeyes managed to even briefly hold a lead in the second 2o minutes against Wichita State, while the Zags had them on the ropes and it took a miraculous shooting streak for WSU to pull it out]) and were considered overrated after losing early. In their favor, as any mid-major team will tell you, it’s always hard playing conference games, especially when you’re the big man on campus. All of your road games are the biggest game of the year for the home team, and you take their best shot each time out. Despite all that, WSU went undefeated; that should mean something.
Kentucky is being heralded as a big upset pick. I’m not really sure why. Other than playing well in the SEC tourney, nothing about their season (even their late season) screams “peaking at the right time.” Pencil them in for one win, followed by an embarrassing loss to the Shockers.
Louisville should cruise to the Sweet Sixteen where they’ll get a rematch of last year’s Final Four game against Wichita State. Last year the Shockers could/should have won that game, leading almost the entire way before the refs swallowed their whistles in the last seven minutes, allowing the ‘Ville to get slap-happy all they wanted (until of course, the refs recovered their whistles from their
esophaguses esophagi in time to blow them for a very quick “held ball” favoring Louisville when it seemed WSU would have possession with a shot to tie the game). Wichita exacts revenge and moves on.
You may remember me mentioning above that 1991 was the last time a team entered the tourney undefeated. The last time a team was an undefeated national champion was in 1976. Do you remember who beat that 1991 UNLV team? It was Duke. The much maligned Blue Devils do it again, giving underdog fans everywhere more reasons to hate them. But fear not Duke-haters (like myself), it would be absolutely hilarious if, given Coach K’s recent comments, Atlantic-10 member UMass upset the Blue Devils in the Third Round. Root for it, but don’t write it in your bracket.
If you’ve been keeping track, we have matchups of Florida vs. Michigan State and Arizona vs. Duke.
Despite MSU being fully healthy, it’s hard to pick against the tremendously balanced Gators. They play great offense and defense to go along with a coach who’s won two National Titles. Should be a good one, but I favor Florida here.
Arizona may not be as deep without Ashley, but they still play great defense and have adjusted well offensively to his absence. Duke’s Jabari Parker struggles to get going against the Zona D, and the Wildcats knock them out.
Florida vs. Arizona
With two good D’s in play, the game stays relatively low-scoring. Ultimately, I like Arizona to pull this out. Florida runs out of steam after a tight game with MSU, and they haven’t had to play back-to-back games against top-notch competition since ever. It’ll be hard-fought, but Zona pulls away to win 69-61.