Monday, March 15, 2010
Your Date For the Big Dance
It's been a strange pre-NCAA basketball season. Names you could normally count on for relevance, such as North Carolina, UConn, and Arizona, entered Championship Week having to get their conference's auto-bid to sniff the field of 65. Fire up those NIT brackets!
The country's best player, Evan Turner, broke his back and missed five weeks mid-season, during which his Ohio State team went 1-3 in the Big Ten. Just two months later, he's the seemingly unanimous Player of the Year and his Buckeyes are outside candidates for a No. 1 seed.
The Pac-10 barely found two tournament teams and will get out-represented by the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. The ACC stunk for most of the season. West Virginia won the Big East tourney for the first time. The bottom line: this year, nothing is sacred.
Is there a single team you'd want to stake your life on reaching the Final Four? Heck, even the Sweet 16? Syracuse, Kansas, and Kentucky are, in some order, the class of this college hoops season, a backhanded compliment if there ever was one. And then there's everyone else.
So when you fill out your brackets, pick those upsets with confidence. And, of course, pay attention to my analysis below.
Best Round One Game: (8) UNLV/(9) Northern Iowa
Two tournament mainstays that, every year, seem to be in interesting first-round games. In fact, let's hope this will finally spawn what everyone's been begging for: the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge. Who's with me?
Geographic X-Factor: Michigan State and Maryland to Spokane
I'm not sure why the NCAA feels compelled to pick a Pacific Northwest first weekend site every year. Seattle and Portland, sure. Spokane and (I'm pushing Pacific here) Boise, hmm. They're tough to get to for fans and teams, and unless Gonzaga or Washington is really good, a leftover four-seed will get banished there because it's the only site left. I'm sure those itineraries from College Park and East Lansing to Spokane will be ugly.
Game I Wouldn't Miss: Ohio State/Georgetown
It seems pretty likely these two will find each other in the tournament for the third time in the last five years (they split the last two). Both sides have great size and athleticism on the wings. This will probably be the best Sweet 16 matchup. Unless...
Best Upset Potential: Georgia Tech to the Second Week
Always, always be afraid of those big conference teams that underachieved below their potential, especially if they get out of round one. I won't call the Yellow Jackets over Oklahoma State as a real upset, but Georgia Tech's front court could give Ohio State fits, especially if Dallas Lauderdale finds a couple of early fouls.
This is where I'll give you a preview of how the announcers will fill time in an ugly game. And when the Hoyas hammer Ohio U, you'll hear for the 72nd time that Austin Freeman was diagnosed with Diabetes a few weeks ago. Best of luck to him, of course. And best of luck to the producers in finding something a little more timely.
My Elite Eight Pick: Kansas over Georgetown
The Jayhawks will get tested after the first round, but their average level of talent across all five positions is too much for anyone else in the region. The Hoyas could give them a game if they can keep the tempo slow, but Rock Chalk rolls to Indianapolis.
Best Round One Game: (5) Butler/(12) UTEP
Brutal, brutal plight for both. UTEP cruised through Conference USA, and it would have been interesting to see where they would have been seeded had they beaten Houston in the conference finals. Butler ran the table in the Horizon League, but they don't get a lot of easy points and could struggle with UTEP's athletic advantage.
Geographic X-Factor: Can BYU Get to Salt Lake?
It's a stretch, but if BYU can somehow get through to the Sweet 16, they'll have one of the great home court advantages we've seen in the tournament in some time. Throw in the altitude, and there will be a very, very cranky coach on the other side of the scorer's table.
Game I Wouldn't Miss: Syracuse/Kansas State
Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, and Butler don't exactly bring out the best in anyone. Gonzaga and Syracuse could be fun in round two, maybe. Slim pickings here.
Best Upset Potential: UTEP over Butler
Good contract of styles; see above.
The last time Syracuse and Vermont met in the tournament was 2005, and wouldn't you know it, the Catamounts shocked the Orange. Not this time. Expect lots of 2005 clips to cover the carnage.
My Elite Eight Pick: Syracuse over Kansas State
They'll need Arinze Onuaku along the way, but the Orange are the class of the region. If Pitt could overcome its nasty underachieving tournament habit, a Big East Elite Eight tilt could be competitive if not pretty. I'd be very surprised to see anyone else out of this quarter.
Best Round One Game: (5)Temple/(12)Cornell
More non-major conference intrigue! I think the Owls will win respectably, but I'm mostly intrigued to see the Big Red get a crack on the big stage. They've heard about the squeaker at Kansas for months now; has it been enough to make them believe?
Geographic X-Factor: Three Teams Laying in Wait For Marquette
Don't pity the poor Golden Eagles because they got sent out to San Jose; pity them because all three other teams in their pod probably had half the trip.
Game I Wouldn't Miss: Kentucky/West Virginia
Not only would it open the way for 48 hours of banjo jokes, it would be a great game. I don't think we could see a better matchup outside of the Final Four. Kentucky's talent is well documented, but West Virginia has a stable of guys that seem like they've been there for a decade. It would be a fun youth vs. experience subplot.
Best Upset Potential: Washington over Marquette
Yes, the Pac-10 blows. But Marquette likes to fling it from deep and those teams can get picked off by anyone. And in this case, Washington really would be as bad as anyone. Besides, if it wasn't this one, I'd have to try to explain why Texas beating Wake Forest would somehow still be an upset even though they're seeded higher. Let's move on.
Wofford's first trip to the tournament. To review, as of this week: Wofford, 1 tournament appearance; Northwestern, 0. I have a feeling we'll see a little too much "We're just happy to be here!" in this one. Badgers roll.
My Elite Eight Pick: Kentucky over West Virginia
I touched on it above, but this is probably the second best matchup (you'll have to get to the end of the column for the best) we could see in the whole tournament. Plus, you know Bob Huggins has no love saved up for UK after his Cincinnati days.
Best Round One Game: (4) Purdue- (13) Siena
Poor Boilermakers. They won at Ohio State a few weeks ago, looked poised to own the Big Ten title outright and possibly a No. 1 seed. Now they're just a few days removed from being disemboweled by Minnesota as they try to fill Robbie Hummel's shoes. On CBS' selection show Sunday, Seth Davis actually wondered aloud if Siena might be favored. Hey, a 13 over a 4 is still an upset, no matter how contrived it is.
Geographic X-Factor: Texas A&M or Baylor in Houston
Now here's a realistic Regional site factor. Either Big 12 team would get a big boost from being close to home for rounds three and four. A&M is within two hours drive, and Baylor is a little closer to four, but could you imagine...
Game I Wouldn't Miss: Duke/Baylor
This would be clearer-cut than the Empire versus the Jedi. Baylor, overcoming the aforementioned history, in their home state, taking on everyone's favorite heels. And, of course, Gus Johnson would have to be involved somehow.
Best Upset Potential: Siena
Poor, poor Purdue.
Baylor's recovery. This is the story that will actually be worth the time. You remember the disaster at Baylor. Player shoots player, coach tries to cover up shooting, NCAA turns program into glass desert. They were banned from playing non-conference games for a year! Somehow they've risen out of the ashes. And most of all, do you really see Sam Houston State making it a game?
My Elite Eight Pick: Texas A&M over Baylor
It's been painfully obvious for five years that Duke lacks athleticism. Perhaps Coach K has made a concerted effort to not recruit one-and-done guys, but for whatever reason, the Blue Devils are at an athletic disadvantage to top teams. This is a very weak region (then again, they all are this year) and Duke is far and away the best team here, but I just can't get past the measurables. This Blue Devil team is more than the sum of its parts, but as in years past, those parts will get exposed. I like the Aggies to do that exposing and ride that wave past the Bears to a surprise Final Four berth, a reward for their ambitious out-of-conference work.
The Championship: Kentucky over Kansas
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have money to make and this is the stage to make it on. Now whether NCAA investigators will allow either program to acknowledge this happened in five years, that's a different story.