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The NCAA Tournament
By Matthew L. Lofton
Here we are, the MAC Daddy of all post-season tournaments. Before I get into the analysis, let us take make some baseline suggestions on rules you should follow before filling out your bracket (and to alleviate confusion, whenever I refer to the first round, it is when the field is whittled down to 64. No reference to the “first four” in Dayton, Ohio).
– Do not get caught up in the toughest bracket, who got snubbed, who is under-seeded, who is over-seeded mumbo jumbo. This is the brackets: they are not going to change. Look at individual match-ups. Most people were surprised when Arizona beat Duke last year in the sweet 16, thinking Duke had an easy path to the four. Combine the fact Duke had problems with athletic teams that liked to make it physical with the fact the team never really gelled with Kyrie Irving back, and there you go.
– Never pick ahead rounds. Before you move on to the sweet 16 from round two, make sure you know who its opponent will be. For example, you might be tempted to put all number one seeds in the sweet 16. Well the Orange are not playing as well as before Fab Melo was suspended and Syracuse faces a tough second round opponent in most likely Kansas State. There are plenty of times I have heard “this team presents problems for this team if they meet up in the next round.” Guess what? More often than not, the match-up never happens. While everyone is salivating over a UCONN-Kentucky match-up in the round of 32, Iowa State has other plans.
– This will be a tough year. The one and two seeds separated themselves from the rest of the field this season, as the selection committee noted. Missouri was the last two seed, but was never in any danger of slipping to the three line. Three-14 all have the ability for upsets.
– To get it out of the way, pick all one and two seeds for the round of 32. One’s are self-explanatory and two’s might get some challenges (see Duke-Lehigh and Kansas-Detroit), but all four should get through. The last 15 to beat a two was Hampton over Iowa State in 2001. We may be overdue to see one as the last one happened 11 years ago, but I do not see an under-seeded 15 and a surprising two who could make bad decisions down the stretch like the Cyclones did that season.
Now that we have that down, let us go to the show that never ends.
Quick analysis says that this is the toughest bracket. The bottom half is a mine field, but the road to the elite eight is actually relatively easy for Kentucky. Most people point to a possible round of 32 match-up with UCONN, but the Huskies have its own handful with Iowa State in round one. The Huskies may be looking ahead and Iowa State is not a team to look past. Four players for the Cyclones have 50 threes on the season. And let us be honest, UCONN HAS the talent to be a threat, but the will has not been there for the whole season. The Huskies cannot get down double-digits AT HOME and then decide to play (Syracuse). You cannot get up by 20 on the worst team in the Big East (DePaul) and decide to let them back in the game. I do not like how UCONN stands around on defense and how individualistic this team gets at time. I believe it will be an Iowa State-Kentucky match-up in Louisville in the round of 32 with Kentucky on to the Sweet 16. But if you are a betting man and the Cyclones are getting double-digit points, I would consider ISU and the points.
The five-12 and four-13 games are where things get hairy down south (ironically games in Portland, Ore. I call this the “someone had to go west” pod). Wichita State-Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) in the five-12 match-up. Really committee? Two great mid-majors and you are spoiling the fun by pitting them against each other? I like VCU, I really do. Shaka Smart is a great coach. Where the Rams get you is pressing after everything, including made shots. Their 1-2-1-1 or diamond presses are tough. I would pick VCU against a lot of teams, but I am going with Wichita State over VCU. Yes, the Shockers were shocked by Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Tournament, but it was not the worst thing in the world as WSU navigated February without a loss. The Shockers have the senior guards to stymie the press of VCU. One intangible to look out for is that WSU will have not played in more than a week and a half while VCU will only have a little over a week. Will rust be a factor? Now on to Indiana-New Mexico State in the four-13. The loss of Verdell Jones for the Hoosiers is huge. And everyone is aware of Indiana’s lack of non-home success. Add the Hoosiers have to fly cross country and this has all the makings of an upset, but I am going with Indiana over New Mexico State. The Aggies do not have the best tournament history (but almost knocked off eventual final four participant Michigan State in 2010). Indiana is lights out better shooting the three then New Mexico State, hitting 43% compared to New Mexico States 32%. Let us put this in perspective: if Indiana hits average from three, New Mexico State has to go 64.5% from two just to match it. And Indiana has Cody Zeller. Indiana will be tested and survive.
In the bottom half of the south bracket, I think parity will take hold, but not until later rounds. Let us get the slam dunks out of the way. Baylor beats South Dakota State and Duke takes out Lehigh, but in a closer game than people imagine (If Lehigh getting upwards of 15 points, I would take Lehigh and the points for betting purposes). I am also going with Notre Dame over Xavier. The Musketeers have not been a good team since the suspension of guard Tu Holloway and the poor showing by the Irish in the Big East tournament was due in part to Louisville’s switching it up from the regular season and going to a full-court press with everyone healthy. Notre Dame was a bit under-seeded in this incident and head coach Mike Brey is an awesome motivator and is a wizard when no one is paying much attention. Now in the UNLV-Colorado match-up, it is very tempting to take Colorado. Colorado won the conference tournament of a major conference, but UNLV making its third-straight appearance. I expect it to be a Vermont-Syracuse of a few years ago. Colorado does not have enough offense to compliment a decent defense. All better seeds advance to the top 32.
Kentucky gets past Iowa State to get to the sweet 16. Iowa State has the three point shooters but no one to deal with UK’s Anthony Davis inside. Wichita State’s experience and Jones’ injury pushes the Shockers into the Sweet 16. Here is where things get interesting. If Baylor plays UNLV the way it should, this would be a Bears’ win. But, with bigs who like to roam the perimeter and with the game being in New Mexico (high altitude and very awkward set up), which UNLV is accustom to, I say UNLV upsets the Bears. Finally, we have Duke and Notre Dame. The tough part with Duke is that we have not seen them play since Ryan Kelly went down with injury. Sources say he should be back and Kelly’s presence should spread the ND offense and get easier shots than in the ACC tournament. Remember, Duke’s got some good looks the last game with Kelly (against UNC). Shots were just not falling. Again, Notre Dame puts up a fight but the Blue Devils win.
Kentucky plays sloppy in the sweet 16, but gets the win over Wichita State. Next, we have UNLV against Duke. I think UNLV will put quite the fight, but Duke is able to spread out the Runnin’ Rebels as Duke beats UNLV to reach the elite 8.
South Champion: Kentucky
The West may be the region of upsets. Michigan State, Missouri, Marquette and Florida should all easily advance to the second round. But how can you be so sure with a seven-10 game? Virginia is hurting with suspensions, injuries and transfers. If anyone can pull UVA together, it is head coach Tony Bennett. It is not going to happen. Colorado State may be riding the coattails of a great conference, but its defense is atrocious. Watch for Murray State, many of whom feel are under-seeded, to take care of the Rams.
With those five games taken care of, we might be staring a 12-13 matchup for a berth in the sweet 16 square in the face. The whole top of the bracket could see upsets (but is a nine beating an eight really an upset?) save Michigan State. Saint Louis is quite the stingy defensive team under head coach Rick Majerus. It had a bad defensive effort in a loss to Xavier in the Atlantic-10 semis, which will motivate this bunch more. Memphis has looked impressive as of late, all be-it in the weak Conference USA. Watch for Saint Louis to pull the eight-nine “upset.” Also in the top of the west bracket, what an interesting storyline arising in Portland, Ore. First is Long Beach State-New Mexico in one of those dreaded five-12 games. Long Beach State definitely has the chops to knock off New Mexico, but senior guard Larry Anderson will be a question mark heading into the tournament. Keep an eye on this one, if Anderson can come back coupled with Long Beach State’s experience against tough teams (and I do not care how bad Pitt was this year, they were a decent team when LBSU beat them on the Panthers’ court) propels Long Beach State to the round of 32 over New Mexico. Portland should have another treat with Davidson-Louisville in the 4-13 game. Louisville went to a stifling full court pressure that took at Notre Dame and a Cincinnati team that won its Super Bowl the night before over Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. But, the Cardinals offense leaves something to be desired. Davidson is just not the team we all remember from 2008. Louisville, a sleeper pick for the elite eight and possible final four, advances to the round of 32.
In the two games at the top of the bracket, we get a match-up of and Tom Izzo. How does Izzo constantly overachieve? This game is full of intrigue and Saint Louis has the defense to pull off the upset like Northern Iowa in 2010. Sorry, the NIU shooters are not walking through the door and MSU is a master at slowing teams down. Michigan State wins a grinder against the Bilikens. Long Beach State is satiated with its win over New Mexico and Louisville rolls to the Sweet 16. Marquette also reaches the Sweet 16 by downing the Racers and Missouri takes out Florida with a four guard offense that spreads the Gators out.
In the regional out west, we will have four teams with a Midwest flavor when Michigan State, Louisville, Marquette and Missouri descend upon Phoenix. Louisville’s pressure D knocks out Michigan State while hot Missouri takes advantage of an over-performing Marquette. Missouri’s four-guard set prevails in the West.
West Winner: Missouri
The madness will start in the round of 32 when Kansas State will knock off Syracuse. The Orange are not playing well and the rebounding prowess of the Wildcats knock out the ‘Cuse. The top-seeded teams all win out in a rather uneventful first round (St. Bonaventure makes life interesting for Florida State) except an intriguing four-13 match-up. Wisconsin-Montana is one of those Thursday match-ups one should keep an eye on in that quirky Albuquerque gym, sight of one of the biggest upsets of all time in the NCAA tournament (NC State over Houston in 1983). If the game is called very loose, it is a big advantage to Wisconsin. The Badgers and head coach Bo Ryan like games ugly. Montana does not have the bodies to bang and cannot get in foul trouble. But if Bo Ryan’s legs are cut out from under him and the game is called tight, advantage Montana. The Grizzlies advance with a shocker over Wisconsin.
As mentioned earlier, Kansas State’s rebounding advantage works perfectly against a not-so-good rebounding team in Syracuse, so down go the Orange in the round of 32. As long as Ohio State plays the game it is capable of and Sullinger continues his realization it is not a perimeter player, the Buckeyes easily punch out the Zags en route to the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt in a closer game then people expect, ends the run of Montana.
This leaves an intriguing three-six contest between Cincinnati-Florida State. Cincinnati’s offense is a bit better, but not by much. The Bearcats’ defense is not bad, but FSU has the defense to overcome any offensive deficiencies. FSU has shot lights out in wins against UNC, but UNC’s defense is suspect. Florida State triumphs in a thrilling game to round out a two, three, five and eight Sweet 16 in the east.
In the first East semi-final, Kansas State rides it defense it displayed in arguably the best conference in the nation to go to the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons as the Wildcats knock off Vanderbilt. Florida State continues its streak in the postseason with the Seminoles knocking off Kansas State and advancing to the Final Four.
Winner: Florida State
In the bottom of the bracket, it will all play to seed as San Diego State knocks off NC State. The Wolfpack showed something in the loss to UNC, but its propensity to commit silly fouls and lack of depth is no match for Steve Fisher’s Aztecs. Georgetown struggles but knocks off Belmont. Saint Mary’s completes the seven-10 sweep for the seven seeds by knocking off Purdue, while Kansas survives Detroit (if the Titans getting double-digits points from Kansas, run with Detroit). North Carolina and Creighton will meet in the round of 32. But like 2010, we have an intriguing match-up involving Ohio. Ohio was seeded 14th and took down Georgetown then, but this time the Bobcats face a similarly slumping Michigan team. Look, Ohio has a free-flowing offense and guard DJ Cooper (and most of the rest of the Bobcats) do not have a conscience and will shoot from anywhere. Ohio shoots lights out and takes down the Wolverines. Temple will be in a dog fight, but the trio of guard play and with fifth-year center Erik Meet adding nine points and nine boards a game, Temple beats the winner of California/South Florida. Both South Florida and California has done nothing and South Florida’s inclusion in the field was a bit of a head-scratcher. From here, all the higher seeds advance until the Elite Eight. Kansas has the D and North Carolina looks lackadaisical with at times and can also hit shot. The Jayhawks were due for a loss after the miraculous comeback at home against Missouri and they succumbed to a very hungry Baylor squad in the Big XII tournament. North Carolina once again looked under-whelming in the ACC tournament. It should also be said that Roy Williams two national championships came after ACC tournament semifinal exits. This was a championship-game of the ACC loss.
Final Four Winners: Florida State and Kentucky.
Kentucky wins its eighth title with the fifth different coach.
* Feel Free to ask questions and make comments. March Madness is just getting started at Beast Dome as there will be articles all tournament long.