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March Madness Preview, 2017 Edition

Another year of college basketball comes to a close, and here we sit, on the eve of “The Big Dance”, once again ready to plunge into the greatest sporting event America has to offer. 68 teams enter, and 67 games will determine which one of them will be doing snow angels in confetti bearing their colors, wallowing in their newfound glory, on the platform court at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in just three short weeks. What a year it has been. We began the season with the Duke Blue Devils anointed as the prohibitive favorites for the crown, the unanimous preseason #1 team in the land, and oh how much has changed since that first poll was released. I’ll get to Duke in a little bit. But here we sit with Villanova, Kansas, UNC, and Gonzaga intent on hanging a banner, looking down at the rest of the field from their lofty perches as the tournament’s #1 seeds and Jim Boeheim relegated to doing SportsCenter interviews because his team was left out of the tournament. Without further ado, let’s dive into some storylines and the bracket itself.

They are who we thought they were?
Can we take a second to congratulate whichever member of the Duke Athletics’ marketing staff came up with the slogan “Uncommon” for this year’s team? He deserves a bonus, because I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate the roller coaster ride of tweets, flashbulbs, tripping incidents, back surgeries, lower leg injuries, shocking losses, and unfathomable ACC tournament runs that was the Duke regular season. Duke was heralded coming into the year as having perhaps the best blend of veteran and diaper dandy talent in a long while, but injuries to Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, along with another knee surgery for the #1 recruit in the class of 2016, Harry Giles, hampered the freshmen’s progress. Add in the fact that essentially the entire Duke roster, Coach K included, spent at least some of this season on the DL, and you find a team that has been trying to get healthy for about the last 3 months. We saw in spots how good the team can be: a 53 point victory over Georgia Tech, and of course the four game run through the ACC tournament in Brooklyn that catapulted the team to a #2 seed and back into the national title conversation. Is this Duke team the collection of McDonald’s All-Americans that we thought it would be at the beginning of the year? Most certainly not, but the most “Uncommon” college basketball season that I can think of just might have an equally “Uncommon” ending.

Will the glass slipper fit?
The task of identifying the “Cinderella” team, the nation’s underdog darlings that make a surprise run in the NCAA tournament, is one of the parts of bracketeering (I just made that word up by the way) that leads millions to pore over KenPom adjusted efficiency rankings, gut feelings, mascot comparisons, and animal handicappers’ picks to get any possible edge about who will ruin everyone else’s brackets. I’m here to burst your bubble and say that this tournament will be one run by the top seeds. Yes, we may have a surprise team in the 8-12 range make a Sweet 16 run, but beyond that, this was a season ruled by the power programs at the top of your brackets like Villanova and UNC: the 1-3 seeds of the tournament. This isn’t to say that I think this bracket will put the chalk in Rock Chalk Jayhawk, and in fact I’ll let you in on my 100% mortal lock of the century guaranteed upset specials (guarantee not guaranteed) as we get to the bracket now.

East Region: The Pilgrimage to Basketball’s Mecca
We begin with the East region, home to the tournament’s #1 overall seed, Villanova, and 15 other teams vying for the right to play in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. (As an aside: how did MSG get to be basketball’s most famous arena? What cool stuff has happened in there? Kemba walker’s buzzer beater? I guess that was kinda cool.) Duke, Baylor, and Florida, as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds respectively, will look to challenge Villanova’s quest to repeat as champions for the first time since Florida in ’06 and ’07. The media is seemingly willing a Duke Villanova Elite 8 matchup in MSG into existence, and I’ll go along with them, but here’s how we’ll get there.

Villanova will beat Mount St. Mary’s (it’s ok to write that one in Sharpie, Seth Davis) and face Virginia Tech after they beat Wisconsin. The Hokies boast a talented offensive club that will present matchup problems, like Zach LeDay, to Wisconsin and shoot the 3 well enough to move on. I’m identifying the Virginia vs UNC Wilmington and Florida vs East Tennessee State games as my annual “this section of the bracket goes to madness” section in which we get a couple of upsets and consequently a double digit seed moving on to the Sweet 16. I like UNC Wilmington, behind its efficient offense, to squeak past a Virginia team that is tremendous defensively but has its problems scoring. The problem with Virginia is that the Cavaliers are the ultimate front-running team: once they’re up 12-4 at the under 8:00 timeout in the 1st half, it’s impossible to come back on them because they’ll slow the game to a crawl and make just enough shots at the end of the shot clock to beat you. I think the Seahawks’ efficient offense does just enough as it wouldn’t surprise me if the first team to 55 wins this game. I like ETSU over Florida in spite of the fact that Florida is a really solid team because they’ve faded down the stretch somewhat after losing their interior force, John Egbunu. Madness ensues and we have UNC-Wilmington and ETSU in the second round. The ponies of SMU will dispatch the winner of Providence and USC to take on Baylor, who will defeat New Mexico St. Wojo, Steve Wojciechowski, a Coach K disciple, and Marquette will shoot the 3 just well enough to get past Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, and the Gamecocks to face Duke in the second round. I think Virginia Tech will give Villanova a game, but the Wildcats move on to take on UNC Wilmington, fresh off their victory over ETSU. I like SMU to get the better of Baylor, a team that peaked way too early and also wears highlighter-yellow uniforms, and take on Duke in the other Sweet 16 matchup in the Big Apple. Villanova eases past Wilmington, and Duke plays just enough defense to overcome a versatile but short-handed SMU team to set up the matchup with the defending champs. If it’s possible for any team to match up well with the tournament’s #1 overall team, I think Duke matches up decently with Villanova. Duke has gotten hurt this season by teams that drive the ball relentlessly to the basket and have enough quality big guys to scoop up rebounds and work a pick and roll effectively. Villanova isn’t a big team and relies a lot on the 3-point shot to score its points. Duke defends the 3 much better than you would think, and as a consequence, Allen, Kennard, and especially Tatum score enough for Duke to get to the Final 4 in a thriller.

West Region: Is Gonzaga for real?
The Zags (I think they’re actually the Bulldogs) look to finally break through and make the Final 4 after going undefeated almost the entire year before tripping over BYU in their final regular season game to finish the season with one loss. They face the likes of Arizona, the 2 seed fresh off of their Pac-12 Tournament victory, along with Florida State, and West Virginia. The Zags will best the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State to face Northwestern (have you heard that this is their first year in the tournament? Just a joke, if you’ve watched any ESPN since the bracket was released, the half of ESPN that went to Northwestern won’t let you forget it) after it dispatches a 15-loss(!) Vanderbilt team in the SAT bowl. Some are speculating that Notre Dame may be ripe for an upset by Princeton, but I don’t see it. The Irish are talented and don’t turn the ball over. They make it through to set up a really intriguing game with West Virginia in the second round. These teams were supposed to play each other in the second round last year too, but West Virginia went and lost to 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin, and thus it never coalesced. A hobbled Xavier team will make turtle soup out of Maryland and move on to face the Seminoles after FSU beats FGCU. The Eagles are another trendy upset pick, but I think this is mostly due to the fact that people remember their improbable Dunk City run to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed a few years ago. FSU is too big and too talented for that to happen. In a matchup of mid-major tournament darlings, I like St Mary’s to just squeak past a VCU team that I don’t know enough about to face Arizona in the second round. As we head towards the Sweet 16, Gonzaga is too talented to lose to Northwestern, and will move on to face Notre Dame in San Jose. The Irish are the kryptonite to Press Virginia’s Superman (that’s West Virginia’s nickname. Someone very creative gave it to them because they press a lot) in that they have great ball handlers, shoot well, and will hit their free throws down the stretch. Florida State is no Maryland, and will prove too much for the Musketeers of Xavier to handle, as they reach the Sweet 16. They will meet Arizona as they dispatch St. Mary’s in the round of 32. I went back and forth for a while about this Notre Dame Gonzaga game and I ended up going with Notre Dame. Although I think Gonzaga is very talented, I think the Irish present matchup problems to them as they do to basically every team. For every time Karnowski, Gonzaga’s big man, can take advantage of the size difference over Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s All-ACC 6’5″ center, Colson will be able to drag Karnowski or another Gonzaga big out to the 3-point line on defense and shoot just well enough for the Irish and Mike Brey, a low key really good tournament coach, to reach their third straight Elite 8. The Irish will meet the Wildcats as Markannen poses just enough problems to get past a Jekyll and Hyde Florida State team. I don’t think lightning strikes twice for the Irish, however, as Sean Miller gets the proverbial monkey off his back and gets to the Final 4 in the Wildcats’ home state of Arizona.

Midwest Region: (Rock) Chalk?
The Jayhawks, behind National Player of the Year candidate Frank Mason III, headline the Midwest region ahead of Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, who should be well rested after not playing any postseason games last year, Oregon, and Purdue. I fell into a trap a number of years ago of always thinking Kansas was going to win the title just because their bird mascot looks kinda cool and they’re always a 1 seed, but I’m not eating the birdseed this year. HOWEVA (in Stephen A Smith voice), they won’t become the first 1 seed to lose to a 16, and will face Miami after the Canes blow away a strange Michigan State team in the 8-9 game. I always mess up picking Iowa State’s games, so bear with me: I think they won’t fall victim to Nevada, and will make it through to the second round to face Purdue (this means of course that they will be upset and my bracket will spontaneously combust), which does just enough to get past the Catamounts (I think those are just fancy cats) of Vermont. Choo choo. A hobbled Creighton team that lost the NCAA’s assist leader, Maurice Watson Jr, to an ACL injury earlier this year, will fall to a veteran Rhode Island team that has come on strong at the end of the year after having been ranked in the Top 25 to start the year. Speaking of hobbled, the ACL monster bit Chris Boucher, Oregon’s shot blocking big man, but the Ducks are too talented to lose to Iona in the first round. Michigan and Oklahoma State will play a first-to-87 game in which defense will be optional. I like Michigan’s story, and I think Derrick Walton will provide enough veteran leadership to squeak past Oklahoma State to play Louisville in the second round. In my first shocking upset of the tournament, I like Miami to beat Kansas. The reality is that 1 seeds often don’t go as far as we think, and I see this matchup being problematic for Kansas: Miami is a veteran club that will clamp down on defense and slow the game down. They have three quality offensive players in Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy, and Bruce Brown that will compete with Kansas, and for some reason I just don’t trust the Jayhawks this year. In spite of rolling through the Big 12, they seem to be shrouded in controversy following the Josh Jackson story and their early exit from the Big 12 tournament (even though Jackson didn’t play). I like the Canes to upset the Jayhawks as Miami backs into the Sweet 16. Iowa State and Purdue is an intriguing second round matchup because there’s such a contrast in size: the Cyclones like to play small ball, whereas Purdue boasts Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, two enormous big men. I think Iowa State wins the battle in a testament to how weak the Big 10 was this year and moves on. In spite of losing Boucher to injury, I think Oregon has too much firepower, particularly in Dillon Brooks, to lose to Rhode Island, and so they march on to take on their avian friends from Louisville, who clamp down on Michigan’s offense to end the Wolverines’ season. In a matchup of oscillating weather patterns, the Cyclones get the better of the Hurricanes behind the Kansas City crowd to move on to the Elite 8. In what should be a tremendous contest, particularly between Oregon’s offense and Louisville’s elite defense, I think the Cardinals get the win. Louisville has a great formula for winning in March in that they boast two potent guards that can slash or shoot their way past you, and they have long, athletic players that guard like crazy. Pitino moves on to the Elite 8 after breaking out the white suit for the Sweet 16. I also like the Cardinals to clamp down on Iowa State in the regional final and make their way to the Final Four.

South Region: Daggumit that’s a tough draw
Ole Roy commandeered the Tar Heels to another #1 seed, and luckily they wouldn’t have to see Kris Jenkins until the Championship game this year. The South is packed with marquee names in Kentucky, UCLA, and Butler that look to dethrone the Heels from their top spot in the region. The sweet tea-powered offense of the Heels won’t lose to a 16 seed, and they meet Seton Hall, fresh off of their roles as extras in Pirates of the Caribbean 5, in the second round. In a strange choice of seeding, the Golden Gophers were given a 5 seed and matched up against Middle Tennessee State, that team you know because they beat Michigan State last year, in this region. Doing their best Bill Murray impression, the Blue Raiders dispatch the Gophers so Bushwood Country Club is spick and span for the second round in a 5-12 upset. One of the many facts of NCAA tournament life is that Butler doesn’t lose in the first round, and thus they move past the Winthrop Eagles to take on Middle Tennessee. I like Kansas State, fresh off a win over Wake Forest in the First 4, to beat Cincinnati and continue the trend of at least one First 4 team making it to the Round of 32. Apologies, Mick Cronin. The Wildcats will meet UCLA, fresh off of defeating Kent State by an approximate final score of 882-66, in the second round. Wichita State, a 6 seed in a 10 seed’s clothing, gets the better of the Flyers to “upset” Dayton, moving on to face Kentucky in the second round. Resetting, Carolina proves too much for Seton Hall and moves on to face Butler in the Sweet 16 as, just like last year, the slipper will only fit for one night for Middle Tennessee. UCLA will once again prove too hot to handle as they blaze past Kansas State to head to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. Wichita State and Kentucky should be a tremendous second round game. The Shockers are the 8th best team in the country per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, and Kentucky is also in the top 10. I think the big stage overwhelms the freshmen of Kentucky as John Calipari can’t coach his way past imposter Tom Crean’s Shockers. They get revenge for the Wildcats’ win in 2014. Carolina is simply a better team than Butler and will move on to the Elite 8. UCLA and Wichita State should be interesting once again, but I think UCLA’s offensive firepower will push them past Wichita State and propel them to face UNC in the regional final as LaVar Ball proclaims Lonzo the second coming of Magic Johnson. In what should be a tremendous regional final, UNC demonstrates the need for defense in the NCAA tournament as it does just enough to mitigate the UCLA offense, holding them to a meager 80 points and moving on to Phoenix.

Final Four: Who gets hot in the desert?
To recap, I have Duke, Arizona, Louisville, and UNC, programs that are truly the sport’s blue bloods, in the Final Four. As I mentioned earlier, I see this as a year the cream of the crop rules in the end. Both semifinal matchups should be tremendous, and I see Duke, behind a tremendous defensive performance from Amile Jefferson with the assist from Harry Giles off the bench, doing just enough to stop Markkanen and the Wildcats and getting back to the National Championship game. Louisville and UNC should be a great test to see how well Carolina handles an elite defensive team, but I think UNC, a complete team, gets the better of Pitino and, daggumit, we might just have a Tobacco Road showdown in the tournament for the first time in forever (no, actually). This Final would likely cause the sports media world to self-destruct out of pure hype, but I think, both with my brain and my Duke-fan heart, that Duke gets the better of Carolina one more time behind its versatile offense as it finds its rhythm just in time to claim the 2017 National Championship. I don’t know how we got here, but we’re sure in for a tremendous NCAA tournament. Happy bracketeering, everyone, and Go Duke.

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Mad Marchness, 2016 edition

This year’s edition of The Big Dance, March Madness, Coke Zero’s 3-week ad campaign, or whatever you’d like to call it, got off to an auspicious start when the bracket was leaked before CBS’s two-hour(!) bracket reveal show. Try to tell me karma doesn’t exist after that. And yet, we must push on with all the tools available to us. BPI, SOS, RPI, and other assorted three-letter acronyms attempt to quantify the task before each and every one of us: to determine which team will cut down the nets in Houston three weeks from tonight. Herein, I will guide you through the murky waters that are this year’s bracket (I’m on a 1-year winning streak, so I must be an expert). And this time around, the field is wide open. Let’s do it.

Themes to look for:

Senior presence: This year’s crop of freshmen is not as outstanding as last year’s group was: two of the Final Four teams last year were led by freshmen, but this year’s top freshman, Ben Simmons, didn’t even make the tournament! The teams that have enjoyed the fewest upsets this year and have come out near the top of the field generally feature veteran presence. I like teams with veterans to have the edge this year.

Outstanding Guard Play: A great guard will always help a squad out. Some guards that might have flown under the radar this year include Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, Tyler Ulis of Kentucky (if only because he physically flew under the radar at 5’9″), and Kris Dunn of Providence. Look for teams with good guards to weather the storms and make good runs.

Let’s move on to the bracket itself!

South Region: The Committee Failed Maps

We begin in the South Region, headlined by the overall number one-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. The committee did the Jayhawks no favors by loading their bracket with potential roadblocks in Villanova (#2), Miami (#3), Cal (#4), and Maryland (#5), and on top of the difficulty of playing against those teams, the committee forgot that Kansas should have been in the Midwest region, in which the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 will be played in Chicago, and instead decided to send them to Louisville. Kansas will beat its 16-seed victim (you can write that one in with pen) and will play the UConn Huskies after they defeat Colorado in the 8-9 matchup. Cal and Maryland, 4 and 5 seeds respectively, will also advance to the second round. This region seems quite chalky early on, but I think the First Four winner, likely Wichita State, will take down Arizona in the 6-11 matchup. Also, Temple should beat a shaky Iowa team that lost to the 12th seeded Fighting Illini in the Big 10 tourney. I think UConn will give Kansas a run for its money in the round of 32, but the Jayhawks will have just enough to squeak past and play Cal in the Sweet 16. On the other side, Miami and Villanova will advance to play each other in the Sweet 16. Kansas gets by Cal, and in a mild upset, Miami will beat Villanova behind its veteran guard play and experienced, athletic big men. I think Miami has a decent chance to beat Kansas, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it. The Jayhawks finally overcome their early exits and make it to the Final Four in Houston.

West Region: Duck Duck Sooners

Most pundits will agree that the West region seems to be the weakest of the four this year, likely because its one seed, Oregon, seems a step behind the other three number one seeds. Oregon will be tested by Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Duke among others. I see a couple first-round upset opportunities here: in my obligatory 5-12 upset this year, I like Yale to beat Baylor (I don’t trust any teams that regularly incorporate highlighter-yellow into their uniforms), Northern Iowa to take down Texas, and VCU to beat Oregon State. The fact that Oregon State is a 7-seed is a travesty, by the way. Duke gets past UNC-Wilmington to disrupt its current streak of losing in the first round in massive upsets every other year to play Yale in the second round. As a Duke fan, I must address the fact that aside from a potential second round matchup with Baylor, Duke got a pretty friendly draw: Duke has struggled this year against big teams that hit the offensive rebounds hard, and none of the other top seeds really do this: Oregon, A&M, and Oklahoma are all guard-oriented, and so Duke has what I would qualify as a decent chance to make a run. The Sweet 16 here will feature Oregon, Duke, A&M, and Oklahoma. Look out for a feisty St. Joe’s team in the second round against Oregon. I think the Ducks squeak it out, though. I like Duke to surprise Oregon and get to the Elite 8, in which it will play Oklahoma. In many ways, Oklahoma is a lot like Duke: they rely on good shooting from the outside and lack a solid interior presence besides Ryan Spangler. If Duke is here, I think they’ll have found something shooting-wise and they will be able to get past the Sooners. I put Duke through to the Final Four mostly due to their favorable path. If you, unlike me, are not a Duke fan, I welcome you to pick Baylor to beat them. If there is a team that has a good chance to beat Duke here, it seems to be Baylor. In this alternate scenario, I would have Oklahoma in the Final Four.

East Region: Blue Bloods

The East region is headlined by UNC and pits them against the likes of Xavier, West Virginia, and Kentucky, among others. The strength of the higher-seeds here is quite apparent, and so I don’t foresee too many opening round upsets. Of the top six seeds, I think Notre Dame has the best chance to be upset in the first round, but I am not picking that upset. The Friars of Providence will give Carolina a test in the second round, but I think Carolina’s interior strength will prove too much for the Friars, and so Carolina proceeds to the Sweet 16. Indiana and Kentucky will light up the ratings board in the second round, and I think Kentucky gets by Indiana because of its hot guard play behind Tyler Ulis and our friend from the Great White North, Jamal Murray. In the bottom half, I actually like Notre Dame to get by West Virginia. This may surprise some people, but I think Notre Dame is built to beat Press Virginia’s system because it has a tremendous point guard in Demetrius Jackson and other capable ball handlers in Steve Vasturia and others. Notre Dame will meet the Musketeers of Xavier, who will dispatch Wisconsin in the second round. Carolina and Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game will be memorable. Kentucky seems to be a trendy pick for the Final Four, but I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid: Carolina’s veteran, interior presence has the athleticism to beat Kentucky, and the emergence of Joel Berry as a real outside shooting threat gives Carolina a dimension it didn’t have even six weeks ago. Carolina gets by Kentucky in a great basketball game to play Xavier in the Elite 8. Carolina also will dispatch Xavier in the Elite 8 behind its athleticism and up-and-down game to get to Houston as the East’s Final Four representative.

Midwest Region: Third Time’s the Charm?

The Wahoos of Virginia secured the 1-seed in the Midwest region behind the play of Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, Malcolm Brogdon. The Hoos, unfortunately, drew a potential Elite 8 matchup with their postseason nemesis, the Spartans of Michigan State, which has knocked out the Hoos the last two years in the NCAA Tourney. Utah is the three seed here, and Iowa State is the four. My upset special here is Iona over Iowa State in the 4-13 matchup. Iowa State succumbed to a 3-14 upset last year and I think they were over-seeded (as do my colleagues) as a 4. Iona and AJ English get past the Cyclones and open up the slate of games in Denver with a nice upset. Syracuse and Butler (though only technically) are the only other lower seeded teams that I think will make it through to the second round here. Many are picking Seton Hall to lose to Gonzaga, but I liked what I saw out of the Hall in the Big East tournament: veteran guards are always a good thing to have. I also like Seton Hall to get to the Sweet 16 by beating Utah in the round of 32: although Utah benefits from the inside presence of Jakob Poeltl, their guards won’t be able to keep up with Seton Hall as the Pirates advance to Chicago. They will meet Michigan State. Virginia will play Purdue in the other Sweet 16 matchup. I think Purdue has a decent chance to beat Virginia: those with more intestinal fortitude than I might be willing to pick that upset, but I’ll put the Hoos through to face the Spartans of Michigan State in the Elite 8. Alas, I do not think the third time will prove to be the charm for the Hoos, as Denzel Valentine and the Spartans will get the better of Virginia and get to the Final Four.

Final Four: Who stands alone in the Lone Star  State?

To recap: I have Kansas meeting Duke in one semifinal and UNC meeting Michigan State in the other. I think Duke’s luck runs out as Kansas beats them to face UNC in the finals. The UNC-Michigan State game should be tremendous, but I’m giving UNC the edge again because of its athleticism and inside presence. The Wooden Award candidate for Michigan State, Denzel Valentine, usually provides matchup problems for other teams due to his size and ball-handling ability. I think UNC’s defensive presence has improved a lot this year and the athletic wings/bigs of UNC will be able to mitigate Valentine’s effect on the game offensively. UNC will draw Kansas in the Roy Williams’ Sweet Tea Invitational presented by Lipton Tea (aka the National Championship game). I give Carolina the edge. They put something special together towards the end of the year. They are deep, athletic, veteran, and have found a new guard in Joel Berry to help them shoot from the outside. As much as it deeply pains me (I will likely be excommunicated from Duke University), I think the Heels cut down the nets in Houston.

My overall sentiment on this year’s tournament is that most of the traditional mid-major teams aren’t overly scary for the higher seeds. If the bracket will get mucked up, it’ll occur in the second round and later: we’ve seen throughout the year the shuffling that has gone on in the top 25 rankings, and so I think there’s a shot that someone unlikely in the 1-8 range will make a run to the Final Four. Look for veteran guards to fuel the run. As always, Go Duke (2017 national champions).

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The Madness of March

(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.

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Some Musings on March from a Humbled Guest

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! (No, not Christmas. It’s March Madness.) We are about to embark upon a three week adventure in which all but one of the 68 teams waltzing upon the big dance floor will end their seasons with a loss. Millions of brackets will be filled out. In all likelihood, no one will even pick all of the first round (round of 64, whatever. It’s still the first round) games correctly. Warren Buffett will not lose $1B. The bracket was released today much to the chagrin of some teams (I hear your desperate cries, SMU) and to the elation of others (TJ Warren sends his thanks to Mike Krzyzewski for his politicking on behalf of the ACC). So, there are 68 teams. Here are some thoughts for you on who might just win the whole dang thing, or at least a game or two.

We begin in the South region, headlined by #1 overall seed Florida fresh off their SEC tournament win. They will be challenged by the likes of Kansas (#2), Syracuse (#3), and UCLA (#4) among others. A couple of first round games to watch might come from the 6-11 matchup, Ohio State vs Dayton, and the 8-9 matchup featuring Colorado and Pittsburgh. For me, most of the bracket smells quite chalky, but I see Dayton as the most likely lower seed to win, though I think OSU will win. The big question marks here come from Syracuse and Kansas. Can the Orange score even 60 points a game? Where will they find the points to advance deeper into the tournament? Be wary of a 2nd round matchup with OSU. Perhaps the biggest question mark of the tournament comes in the form of Joel Embiid’s absence for Kansas. Can the super scintillating sensational Kansas survive a potential game with New Mexico before possibly getting him back? No one knows, but to me, this seems like Florida’s region to lose. I think Florida comes out of the region due to their guard play and the unevenness of the other top seeds in the region.

We move to the East region, home to #1 seed Virginia fresh off an ACC tournament championship victory over the Duke Blue Devils (darn.) They face competition from Villanova (#2), Iowa State (#3), and Michigan State (#4) among others. Don’t get me wrong: I think Virginia’s a really good team, but I don’t see them getting out of this region. The key player here is Michigan State, a 4-seed that was ranked #2 in the preseason polls but slipped due to injuries and the brutality of a Big 10 schedule. Michigan State can play right with Virginia’s bruising defense and should be able to score enough while playing solid defense. I see Michigan State advancing in the Sweet 16 matchup with VA. I’ve gotten burned personally by putting too much stock into teams that win conference tournaments (I’m talking to you, Miami and Florida State), but I think Iowa State is for real and could easily test the waters and make it all the way to an Elite 8 or Final 4. A couple interesting first round matchups will come when Cincinnati and Harvard square off and UNC takes on Providence. Cincinnati boasts numerous talented players, most notably Sean Kilpatrick (I will feel sorry for you too next year, Mick Cronin), but Harvard boasts a solid team with many potential scorers and a Duke disciple in Tommy Amaker. I like the chances for an upset. In addition, Providence gets perhaps the most inconsistent team in the country, UNC. If Providence can rebound and defend and Mr. Cotton plays a good game, Providence can get by UNC. In the end, though, I see MSU coming out of the region.

Now we move to the West, featuring #1 seed Arizona. The Cats will be challenged by #2 seed Swissconsin, #3 seed Creighton, and #4 seed San Diego State. These top seeds puzzle me, particularly because of the disparity in talent between these four seeds and the top four seeds in the upcoming Midwest bracket. In my opinion, Arizona, Creighton, and Wisconsin will vie for the region’s bid in the Final 4. Upset bids here might come from North Dakota State (#12) over Oklahoma and Nebraska over Baylor (11 over 6). Even though they lost the tournament championship, I like Creighton to make a run to the Elite 8 behind Doug McDermott’s fantastic play. I like them more than Wisconsin because I think it’ll be difficult for Wisconsin to match up defensively with Creighton’s versatility. Wisconsin isn’t as “Bo Ryan” as they have been in years past, with more athleticism and less defensive prowess. This is a bit difficult to pick, but I like Arizona to advance to the Final Four because of their team concept and darn good guards.

Finally, we come to the Midwest, the Group of Death for you soccer fans. Undefeated Wichita State takes the #1 seed and will face stiff competition from #2 Michigan, #3 Duke, and #4 Louisville. This is easily the most stacked bracket out there, and I would have liked to see this bracket a bit more balanced, perhaps by switching Duke and Creighton’s positions. In my opinion, Duke is easily the best 3 seed in the tournament. The game makers here want to see if Wichita State is for real. They face potential matchups with Kentucky in the 2nd round and Louisville (don’t touch them, they’re too hot) in the Sweet 16. I can’t see the Shockers getting out of this bracket and think Louisville is playing as well as anyone. St. Louis will have to deal with a play-in winner in the 5-12 matchup here, possibly Xavier or NC State. I could easily see State winning two games, one over Xavier and another over St. Louis, who has struggled of late and seems vulnerable to TJ Warren an company. I like Duke to get the better of Michigan in their Sweet 16 matchup, but I think the Cardinals are playing as well as anyone right now and probably get out of Indianapolis unscathed.

As far as a champion goes, it’s a bit tough. I like Florida a lot, but I think if Michigan State gets on a roll, they’ll be incredibly tough to stop. I like Louisville to potentially take care of Zona in a Final 4 game. Ultimately, I think Florida will cut down the nets, but don’t quote me on that. I have until Thursday to rethink all of this.

This bracket to me seems like one that will feature more late round upsets than first round ones. There seems to be a lot of parity among the teams seeded in the 1-7 range and I think the upsets will come in the rounds of 32 and 16 this year. Sure, we’ll have our fair share of upsets and I’ll eat my words in a few days, but I see this as a year that will see major conference teams winning out at the end, but perhaps not the ones you thought originally.

My humble thanks to this blog for letting me write as a guest. Thanks, and Go Duke. (Had to get that in there.)

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