(Disclaimer: I am currently sitting in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus as I write this)
It’s good to be the king. Just ask LeBron. Or Kendrick Lamar (he just dropped an album a week early and does what he wants). I would argue that this is a year of kings in college basketball. A year in which the blue bloods are shining. Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, and Wisconsin were each ranked in the top 4 preseason, and here we are come tournament time and three of them are number one seeds and one, Arizona, deserved a number one seed but there simply wasn’t enough room for them. The top has been dominant this year, and I believe that will largely continue in this year’s Big Dance. (Side note: did you know it’s illegal to use the Star Spangled Banner as dance music in Massachusetts?) Let’s break down the most wonderful time of the year.
We begin in the Midwest region, Kentucky’s domain. To be honest, I really don’t need to name any other teams because, who are we kidding, Kentucky will get to the final four either way. But, let’s give credit to the other teams in their bracket. Kansas sits at #2, Notre Dame, fresh off its ACC tourney win, at #3, and Maryland at #4. The first round here may produce some memorable upset bids: I think the 4, 5, and 6 seeds better watch out: Maryland vs Valparaiso, West Virginia vs Buffalo, and Butler vs Texas. In the end, I think Maryland eeks out a victory over Valparaiso, but I think Buffalo can take down West Virginia and that Texas’ size will overwhelm Butler. But Texas is too undisciplined and too up and down to make a deep run. I see them losing to Notre Dame in the second round. A potential second round matchup would pit Kansas vs Wichita State and may very well produce Bleeding Kansas round 2. I think Wichita State’s veteran guards will get the better of Kansas and advance. Ultimately, I think Notre Dame will match up against Kentucky in the Elite 8, but the luck of the Irish will be no match for the fighting hyphens of Lexington (Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns).
Heading down to the West region opposite the Midwest, Wisconsin’s Big 10 Tourney run convinced the committee that they were worthy of a number one seed even though Joey Brackets (love the hair) had Virginia as a 1 seed for the longest time this year. In an interesting repeat of history, Wisconsin’s main challenge will come from a terrific all-around Arizona team, perhaps a rematch of last year’s terrific elite 8 matchup, but this time Wisconsin is the 1 and Arizona is the 2. In terms of potential first round matchups, I like the play-in winner, likely BYU over Ole Miss, to take care of Butler. BYU is an impressive club with a number of potent scorers that pose problems from everywhere on the court. Additionally, I think D’Angelo Russell and Ohio State will get past a VCU team that has been up and down this year in spite of claiming the A-10 championship. Can Harvard play spoiler again this year? I think not. They draw a UNC team that looked particularly inspired in the ACC tournament in spite of losing in the final to Notre Dame, and the Heels will outrebound and outrun them. The Crimson fall. Let’s advance to the Sweet 16. I like Wisconsin vs UNC and Baylor vs Arizona to be the matchups. It may be a bold pick, but I think that if UNC gets past the first weekend, they can beat Wisconsin. They have athletic bigs, notably Brice Johnson, that can match up with Frank Kaminsky, and terrific wing defenders like JP Tokoto that can shut down some of Wisconsin’s athletic wings. UNC also offensive rebounds tremendously and they pound the paint. I think UNC (if they get to the Sweet 16) will beat Wisconsin simply because they match up well with Wisconsin. Arizona will get the better of Baylor, and I think the Wildcats will advance to the Final 4 as their poise will overcome a determined Carolina team that will outperform most Roy Williams clubs in the postseason. Arizona goes to the Final 4.
Moving on to the chaos that is the East region, headlined by Villanova, we meet more Wildcats. Nova has the likes of Virginia as a 2 seed to be concerned with and Oklahoma and hot-shooting Buddy Hield as the 3 seed. The first round of this bracket smells quite chalky, but I think another play-in team could get the better of another 6 seed when the winner of Dayton and Boise State (a home game for Dayton, come on now committee. What are you doing?) will take on Providence. Dayton is a strong club and I like them to advance past Boise State in the play in and then win another against Providence. Louisville seems vulnerable to an upset but I just have no idea how solid this UC Irvine club is. All I’ve heard about them is that their mascot is the Anteaters and they have a 7’6” center. Let me reevaluate that one but I think Louisville may make that game closer than it should be. Villanova will get a test from either of their potential second round opponents (NC State or LSU), but I think those teams won’t execute well enough to complete the upset over a strong Villanova team. I think we’ll get a Northern Iowa vs Villanova Sweet 16. It’s funny how the committee seemed to put a couple repeats from last year on a collision course again this year. If Michigan State wins its first game, it will face the Virginia Cavaliers (Wahoos? Pick a mascot jeez) in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game in which the Spartans advanced. I don’t think this Michigan State team is as talented as last year’s but I think Virginia is vulnerable in this matchup because this looks like a classic Tom Izzo team that is extremely tough, has big wings, and rebounds well. It looks like it won’t shoot itself in the foot and Virginia’s slow style keeps teams in the game. I think the Spartans can get the better of Virginia, especially if Justin Anderson’s hand doesn’t magically improve since his ho hum performance against UNC in which he looked like he was playing with 1 ½ hands. I guess my surprise here is that Michigan State, because of matchups, could make an elite 8 run and get past an Oklahoma team that has been up and down this year. I like Villanova and Michigan State in the elite 8, and I think we’ll be seeing more Wildcats in the Final 4. Villanova moves on.
Finally, the South. The Duke Blue Devils (sorry, they actually are the Blue Devils and not the Dukies) are the number one seed in spite of not winning the regular season or ACC tournament championship. They face competition from two good offensive clubs in Gonzaga and Iowa State potentially in the Elite 8, but I think Duke has an easy road to the Elite 8. They face a play-in winner (potentially the dancing band members of Northern Florida) and will get the winner of St John’s and San Diego St in the second round. The Blue Devils defeated St John’s on the road this year for Coach K’s 1000th win, and San Diego State doesn’t scare me as a Duke fan at all because they lack the offensive firepower to compete with the Blue Devils. The team that can beat Duke will do it because they can put up points with the Blue Devils and do enough to confuse them on offense that the game becomes close. In terms of potential Sweet 16 opponents, I think both the 4 and 5 seeds, Georgetown (overseeded in my opinion) and Utah are susceptible to losses to the 13 seeded Eastern Washington (with the nation’s highest scorer and owners of a 20 point road victory over Miami) and 12th seeded Stephen F Austin. There’s almost always one of those chaos groups in which two double digit seeds end up playing each other. I think this is where it will occur this year. I like Stephen F Austin to get the better of EWU and get a Sweet 16 matchup with Duke. I also like Davidson’s chances to beat an extremely Jekyll and Hyde Iowa team due to the strong guard play and motion principle offense of Bob McKillop. In a Sweet 16 matchup of two incredibly potent teams, I like Gonzaga to get the better of Iowa State due to the inside play of those eastern European guys. (Don’t ask me to try to spell or pronounce their names). In a terrific Elite 8 matchup, I think Duke will face Gonzaga. Here’s my take on Duke: they are their own enemy. The biggest factor in deciding whether they win or lose is their mindset. If you watched the game against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, they were asleep and slow in the first half and looked like Notre Dame should roll over because it said Duke on the front of their jerseys. I actually think that loss will be beneficial and a good motivational tool for Coach K. If Duke advances past the first weekend, they will have the right attitude and will be playing better defense because they want to play better defense and their effort is there. If that happens, I think they will get past Gonzaga, and they will be a scary team that can send wings to run zone trapping schemes and get transition points and win big games like they did all year on the road (see Wisconsin, Louisville, Virginia). They get by and head to Indianapolis.
So: the Final Four is set. Three Wildcats and some Blue Devils. Although I think Arizona will give Kentucky a good game, I think the fighting hyphens get by and go to the national championship. I think Duke will take care of Villanova in the other semifinal to set up a classic final.
The year was 1991. The Final 4 was in Indianapolis. Duke faced a club coming in undefeated and highly favored over the Blue Devils. What happened? Duke won in suprising fashion and went on to win the National Championship. I like how the stars seem to align again. Where is this year’s final four? Indianapolis. An undefeated team highly favored over everyone else? Check. A Duke team with a terrific point guard and big man combo with enough surrounding pieces to win a ton of games? Check and Check. I think Duke upsets Kentucky in the Final as history repeats itself. Maybe I’m picking with my heart as much or more than my head, but hey, whatever. Duke raises the banner and the quest for 5 is complete. Sorry John Calamari.