Breaking down the bracket and picking some upsets
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
The entire world right now is a blizzard of information, analysis and wild guesses. This is the beauty of March Madness: Everybody has the exact same chance of being really, really wrong. Which is actually my specialty.
If you want to see my own "expert" bracket, you can see it here, but my main piece of advice to bracket filler-outers is not to use mine. If you're in a pool (which I assume is only for fun, sans cash), you're better off playing it safe. I like to pick upsets -- although ironically, I have picked fewer this year than in the recent past. During a season in which we had a game of musical chairs at the top of the polls, a lot of people have predicted that the NCAA tournament is going to be a bloodbath for the top seeds. I disagree. The only safe prediction about the tournament is that it is unpredictable. Usually, the cream rises, and I expect the same will happen this year. That's why I have a Final Four of Louisville, New Mexico, Kansas and Miami, with Louisville beating Miami in the championship game.
So to get you primed for the Madness, I opened my Hoop Thinker's lid and let it all pour out, region by region. As usual, any similarities between my predictions below and the actual course of events is strictly coincidence. Herewith:
• I am one of the few people who had Indiana as the No. 1 overall seed. The main reason was its road wins: at Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, not to mention a neutral court win over Georgetown. Not only did the committee opt for Louisville, but it seeded the Hoosiers No. 3 on the overall list. It's worth remembering that back in January, the Cardinals lost four out of seven games, including three straight, and the big story was that something was wrong with this team. Just shows the foolhardy nature of instant analysis during the regular season.
It's also ironic that in a year when there is supposed to be no overwhelming favorite, Louisville has emerged as the overwhelming favorite. How did that happen?
• I went into Selection Sunday thinking I would really like to pick Saint Louis to go to the Final Four on the CBS Selection Show. The only thing that kept me from doing it was that the Billikens were in Louisville's region. But believe me, this is one team that nobody wants to play. I like Saint Louis so much that I picked it to beat an Oklahoma State team that includes my man crush, Marcus Smart.
• If the Billikens get Louisville in the Sweet 16, it's going to be a close game. Saint Louis is really good at slowing the tempo and getting physical, and in 6-foot-8 senior Cody Ellis and 6-11 junior Rob Loe, they have two highly-skilled bigs who can present matchup problems. Plus, they have a veteran point guard in Kwamain Mitchell who would be well-equipped to handle Louisville's pressure.
• There was very little griping with the committee's decisions this year, but I think their biggest mistake was seeding Oregon as a 12. Committee chair Mike Bobinski said the Ducks started out as an 11 and slid to the 12 line during the bracketing process, but that would still have put them on the same line as Belmont and Bucknell. Really? Here's a team that finished one game out of first place in its conference, with four of its six losses occurring while freshman point guard Dominic Artis was hurt. Granted, Artis has not exactly lit the world on fire since he has been back, but he was good enough to lead the team to a Pac-12 tournament title. The Ducks also beat UNLV in Las Vegas during the nonconference season. They should have been closer to a 7 than a 12.
• Let's talk about my Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee, shall we?
First of all, it's hilarious that for so long, all I've heard is people ripping the committee for following that awful RPI so slavishly. Now that the committee went outside the box and gave an at-large to a team with one -- one! -- top 100 win, people are ripping them for the opposite reason. So which is it?
There really is nothing confusing about what happened: It's the committee's job to pick what it believes are the best 37 at large teams. Period. Obviously, MTSU did not have a slam dunk case -- that's why they were assigned to the First Four -- but they won 28 games in a competitive league and had a nonconference strength of schedule ranked in the top 10 nationally. Plus, the committee members really do go out of their way to watch every team play, and if you have seen the Blue Raiders play -- as I have several times -- then it is not unreasonable to believe they were one of the top 37 candidates.
Moreover, let's ask another question: Is it fair for the committee to have an agenda? I say it is. Why do you think we have so many compelling games in November and December? Because the committee has gone out of its way to reward teams that play strong schedules and punish those that do not. And maybe the committee also believe that for a team like Middle Tennessee, it's harder to get to the NCAA tournament, so why not give them a shot instead of a team like Tennessee, which has a chance to get there every year. There is always going to be subjectivity and bias in making these final decisions about teams on the bubble. If the committee wants to get sentimental and tip the balance in favor of the quote-unquote little guy, that's perfectly fine with me. I happen to think it makes for a better tournament.
• A week ago, Duke would have been my choice to win the national championship. Now, I have the Blue Devils losing in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State. Overreacting to a single loss to Maryland, you say? Well, yes and no. There's no shame in losing, but it was the way that Duke lost that shook my faith. The Blue Devils came out of the gate with very little energy, and when it was apparent they were in trouble, they were unable to summon that energy and come back. Plus, they reverted to their bad habit of jacking up threes instead of getting to the foul line. So my sense is that they are more vulnerable to a bad shooting night than they were in 2010, when they had Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas to work the offensive boards and get extra possessions. Duke can still win the title if it shoots well, but Michigan State and Louisville are two strong, physical teams. It's going to be very hard to win those two games from behind the three-point line.
• If you're in one of those (non-cash) pools that multiplies a team's seed by the round if you pick it correctly, then I would recommend picking all four No. 10 seeds to win their first games. The 7-10 games are evenly matched across the board, but even if the No. 7 seed wins, it is likely to lose its next game against the No. 2 seed. So even if you're wrong on the upset pick, you won't cost yourself much in the long run.
• Choosing between Gonzaga and Miami for that last No. 1 seed could not have been easy, but I think the committee got it right. If we stipulate that Gonzaga took care of business in the nonconference, and if we give the Hurricanes a mulligan for losing to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State at less than full strength, then we should make the call based on the conference season. Both teams won the regular season and conference tournament, and while Miami obviously plays in a tougher league, I believe there is something special about going undefeated. Every team Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference is primed to beat them, and yet the Zags rolled through the competition like a No. 1 seed should. And while there are no Dukes or Carolinas in the WCC, there are plenty of Wake Forests and Georgia Techs -- and Miami lost a game to each of those teams, both times at full strength, and the Georgia Tech loss came at home. Plus -- and do not underestimate this -- Gonzaga passes the eye test for a No. 1 seed. They wouldn't be ranked No. 1 in both national polls if they didn't.
• Having said that, if you're going to pick a non-No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, this is the region to do it. Not only is Gonzaga the weakest No. 1, but I also think the Zags drew a bad batch of teams. Their corner of the bracket is loaded with tough, physical teams who like to slow tempo -- Pittsburgh, Wichita State, Kansas State and, especially, Wisconsin. It's not that Gonzaga can't get physical, but that is not the type of game the Zags prefer. They want to outscore teams, and that's hard to do when there are fewer possessions. I think Wisconsin would be an especially uncomfortable matchup, but then again, Wisconsin is an uncomfortable matchup for everyone. Just ask Indiana.
• Speaking of Wisconsin, let us all stand back in amazement at what Bo Ryan's team accomplished this season. This is a team that had only one true point guard on the roster in Josh Gasser, and he tore his ACL before the season's first game. Traevon Jackson (Jim Jackson's kid) has stepped in admirably, but what really happened is that Ryan's system of recruiting, developing and teaching players has once again prevailed. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
• Here is something you may not know: Arizona is ranked dead last in the Pac-12 (and 276th nationally) in three-point percentage defense. That is going to be a big problem against a Belmont team that ranks 18th in the country in three-point percentage (38.6) and 12th in threes made per game (8.5). Not only does this play right into Arizona's weakness, but it also means Sean ("He touched the ball!") Miller will have to sacrifice his size advantage so his players can chase Belmont's drive-and-kick offense. Plus, this will be the third consecutive NCAA tournament for the Bruins. If they are able to put game pressure on Arizona, then the Wildcats (and especially their point guard, Mark Lyons) will have to maintain their poise and execute in their halfcourt offense. In other words, this one has all the makings for an upset -- which is why I picked it. Heed my prediction at your own risk.
• I'm guessing that when New Mexico beat UNLV to win the Mountain West Conference tournament last Saturday on CBS, it was the first time a lot of casual fans have really watched the Lobos play. Impressive, huh? The thing I love about the Lobos is they almost never takes a bad shot, and there aren't many teams you can say that about. It would be a pleasure to see New Mexico play Ohio State in the Sweet 16 because they have similar styles, but the difference to me would be New Mexico's frontline presence of 7-foot sophomore Alex Kirk and his Glue Guy partner, 6-9 junior forward Cameron Bairstow.
• The road to the Final Four is never easy, but Kansas has as comfortable a path to the final weekend as I have seen in some time. The top corner of this bracket is chock full of teams that like to get out and go, which means the Jayhawks won't have to worry as much about running their halfcourt offense. That has been their biggest weakness this season. On the other hand, none of those guard-oriented run-and-gunners have a defensive presence on the interior like Jeff Withey. Florida is arguably the most overrated team in the bracket. The Gators benefited from a down year in the SEC, and yet they still couldn't win away from home. (Or beat a mediocre Ole Miss team in the SEC tournament.) That leaves smart, efficient Georgetown, but aside from Otto Porter, the Hoyas would be at a talent disadvantage against Kansas.
• Ironically, the most dangerous team in this region for the Jayhawks would be VCU. The Rams' fullcourt pressure would be a severe test for Jayhawks point guard Elijah Johnson, who has been up and down this season. But while a VCU-Kansas rematch would be tantalizing, I don't expect VCU to get by Michigan -- that is, if Michigan can get by Nate Wolters and South Dakota State, which is no gimme either. Michigan might have suffered this season from mediocre post play, but the Wolverines would still have an advantage in the frontcourt over VCU. And it's not hard to see Trey Burke beating the Rams' pressure for buckets. If this matchup happens, it could be the most watchable game in the entire tournament.
• I believe that if UCLA had a healthy Jordan Adams, the Bruins would have been at least one seed higher. If they had won the Pac-12 tournament with Adams healthy, they might have climbed up to the 4 line. Even without Adams, I still think they will beat Minnesota, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them knock off the Gators.
All that aside, I would be surprised -- and frankly, disappointed -- if Ben Howland gets fired should the Bruins fail to make the Sweet 16. That was the slant of a column that Bill Plaschke wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times. Plaschke is a good reporter and an L.A. institution, and he is obviously talking to people around the program who want to see Howland gone. But I just find it hard to believe that a school would fire a coach after his team just won an outright conference title. And in a weird way, the injury to Adams should make Howland safer because it would make an early exit more excusable. If Jamie Dixon leaves Pitt to coach USC, I understand why Howland would be tempted to go back to Pitt, where theoretically he'd be more appreciated. But I truly believe he wants to be the coach at UCLA, and I predict that no matter what happens in the NCAA tournament, that's what he will be next season.
• If you're looking to get really crazy, you might want to take a flyer on Florida Gulf Coast beating Georgetown. Even I'm not nutty enough to pick that one on my bracket, but if there is going to be a second-round shocker, that will be the one. I say this more because of my respect for Florida Gulf Coast than skepticism about Georgetown. The problem is that the Eagles love to push the tempo (and since they're not a good outside shooting team, they need to do that), but the Hoyas are not going to let them get out and go. However, Florida Gulf Coast did beat Miami (although the Hurricanes were without a starting guard, senior Durand Scott) and they played road games at Duke, VCU, Iowa State and St. John's, so they are not unfamiliar with high-level competition.
• Yes, I picked Montana over Syracuse. Yes, the Grizzlies do not have their leading scorer, 6-7 senior forward Mathias Ward, who was lost in mid-February to a broken foot. But this team still went 19-1 in the Big Sky and won the league tournament without him. I believe winning is a habit. In truth, I am probably overreacting to Syracuse's second-half meltdown against Louisville, but after watching that unraveling from courtside at Madison Square Garden, I can't help but suspect the Orange could come apart in the NCAA tournament if they faced some adversity. Montana is not a great jump shooting team, and that's what you have to do to beat Syracuse's zone, so this is a tall order. But that's why they call it an upset. If you're looking to play it safe, you're gonna have to look elsewhere.
• My other upset in this region is Bucknell over Butler. A man could go broke betting against Brad Stevens in the NCAA tournament, but I think the Bison fit the profile of a team that could pull this off. To start with, they will have the best player on the court in 6-11 senior center Mike Muscala, who ranks fourth nationally in rebounding (11.2 per game) while scoring 19 points per game. I like that Bucknell is so good at taking care of the ball -- it ranks second in the country in turnover percentage. And I really like that Bucknell came within a basket of winning at Missouri this season. (And yes, the Tigers were at full strength in that game. Laurence Bowers hadn't gotten hurt yet.) With the way Butler and Bucknell like to slow things down, and with their mutual ability to hold onto the basketball, this should be a low-scoring game. So as long as it's going to be relatively close, you might as well take a chance on the Bison.
• When Miami climbed to No. 2 in the rankings in early February, there were a lot of people just waiting to proclaim this team a fraud. And the Hurricanes appeared to give their doubters some fodder when they barely scraped by in wins over Clemson and Virginia before losing to Wake Forest, Duke and Clemson. But it is understandable that a team should drop a few games during the dog days of February. The bottom line is that Miami did what it needed to lock up the ACC regular season title, and it looked terrific in romping to the ACC tournament championship. Don't look now, but Shane Larkin could be the best point guard in America, and he is surrounded by tough, hungry seniors who have never played in an NCAA tournament. Every team had a hiccup or two during the season, but very few are heading into this tournament with more wind at their backs than Miami. Unless you think all four No. 1 seeds are going to the Final Four, you could do a lot worse than penciling in the fifth No. 1 seed to make it to Atlanta.
• For the record, my Miami pick is not a knock on Indiana. I would not be the least bit surprised to see the Hoosiers cut down the nets on April 8. Every team has potential flaws. In the Hoosiers' case, those flaws are a tendency to turn the ball over, a short bench, a lack of offensive patience at times, and below-average defense at the rim. But this is nitpicking. For the Hoosiers, the bottom line is the same as it is for everyone else: If their shots are falling, they can win the whole thing. If they're not, they can get clipped. The NCAA tournament comes down to matchups. When I picture Indiana playing Miami, I picture Larkin out-playing Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, I picture Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble getting physical with Cody Zeller inside, and I picture Durand Scott, one of the nation's best defenders, locking up Jordan Hulls. Most of all, I picture a great game, and one I truly hope to see.