COLLEGE HOOPS BAROMETER: TOURNEY EDITION
This week's Barometer will serve as a quasi-preview of the Field of 68. With no particular rhyme or reason, and in no particular order, let's look at some of the storylines for this year's NCAA Tournament. Perhaps I'll throw in some predictions and sleepers to help you get that upper hand in your office pool, too. Of course, there's no money involved in those, as we do not condone betting. A few helpful pointers when perusing your brackets, though. You know, for fun.
1. When we're talking upsets, we're not talking about No. 10 seeds over No. 7 seeds. Teams seeded 7 through 10 are basically even. No patting yourself on the back for those shockers. Show a little backbone in your brackets and pick at least one seed lower than a 10 to make the Sweet 16.
2. In the same vein, pick at least one 12-5 trap game. At least one of these upsets is likely to occur. In fact, since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1986, a No. 12 seed has bested a No. 5 seed 35 times, or about once every three games. Since there are four of those matchups per year, I trust you can do the math. Last year, Richmond took down Vanderbilt, then beat Morehead State to make the Sweet 16 (see Rule No. 1).
3. Do not pick all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Only year since seeding began in 1979 that four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four was 2008. In fact, three No. 1 seeds have made it just three times in the same year in the modern era. Last year, not a single top-ranked squad was among the last four teams standing.
4. A friend once told me, if you don't like a high-seeded squad, pick it to go out as soon as reasonably possible. So, if you don't believe in, say, Duke, pick it to lose once it gets past the No. 15 seed. You'll be the only one who picks that game correctly, and even if it's incorrect, you wouldn't have had the Blue Devils going that far anyway.
Now that I've given away all my strategies, let's look at the regions, one-by-one.
I'll call this the "Classic Power" region. A Kentucky-UConn matchup looms in what is now termed the Third Round (thanks to the "first-round" play-in games), with two talent-filled lineups that could possibly beat the Charlotte Bobcats if combined. If the seeding holds, we would get a Wildcat-Blue Devil Elite 8 rematch, almost exactly 20 years after Christian Laettner's foul-line buzzer beater. Cue the Grant Hill full-court pass.
For the upset-minded, a couple of my Cinderellas are VCU and Xavier. If you read last week's Barometer, you are well-aware of my affinity for the Rams and the job coach Shaka Smart has done. It appears VCU is still getting overlooked and will play in the dreaded 12-5 trap game against a solid Wichita State squad that is not used to being the favorite. Meanwhile, Xavier has the guards to match up with Duke in the second round in Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. The difference could be the play of Kenny Frease on the interior. If Ryan Kelly is still banged up, the Dukies could be in for a dog fight. In my humble opinion, Duke is one of the most overrated teams in the field.
Kentucky should still make it out of New Orleans alive due to the dynamic freshman tandem of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, but the committee did the Wildcats no favors.
Tom Izzo has taken Michigan State to the Final Four six times. The Spartans locked up the top seed in the region with yet another Big Ten championship. Other than MSU, though, this is the "Lightning" region. Mizzou, Marquette and Louisville can all get up and down the floor and have excellent guard play. Missouri in particular might not have to face a big, bruising squad that would normally be its kryptonite until possibly the Spartans in the Elite Eight. Nevertheless, a Marquette-Mizzou Sweet 16 matchup would be an exciting track meet.
Two players to watch out for in this region are Long Beach State's Casper Ware and Davidson's Jay Cohen. Ware poured in 33 points in the Big West championship over UC Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, Cohen is a double-double machine who can score inside and out. Murray State is a little low as a No. 6 seed, but it still hasn't beaten many power conference squads. I wouldn't want to play the Gators either, largely returning their entire team from a year ago.
Mizzou looks like the chic pick in the West, but it's dangerous to bet against Tom Izzo during March Madness.
This is the Jayhawks' region, and we're all just living in it. That's my view at least, and I'm sticking to it. John Henson's wrist, UNC's choke job earlier this year against Duke and the lack of superior play from preseason All-American Harrison Barnes has me questioning whether the Tar Heels can reach Bourbon Street. However, the Tar Heels have a pretty sweet ride to the Elite 8. It would be surprising to see them lose before then.
Fittingly, Michigan gets to play an Ohio squad, albeit the Bobcats and not the Buckeyes. This bracket should hold pretty true to form, though; the winner of the Cal-USF play-in game has the best shot at an upset in taking down Temple, but neither of those teams has been particularly impressive.
Thomas Robinson is an athletic freak, and he can handle Tyler Zeller and John Henson with the help of Chris Withey. Tyshawn Taylor on Kendall Marshall will be fun to watch, with Rock Chalk moving on to N'Awlins.
Syracuse was the class of the Big East this season, but failed to win the Big East tournmaent, and the Orange have been victims of upsets in recent years. 'Cuse struggles to score at times and needs a big tournament from future star Dion Waiters, especially with Fab Melo ineligible to play in the tourney. Kansas State could be a tough contest in the Third Round, and Ohio State or Florida State in the Elite 8 provide excellent defensive pressure combined with unique offensive prowess. In fact, the Seminoles became just the fifth squad in the last 30 years to beat both Duke and North Carolina twice in the same year.
Meanwhile, many are riding the Vanderbilt train after its SEC championship victory over Kentucky. I'm not sold, though, particularly with the storied upset game against No. 12 seeded Harvard. The Commodores have been bounced out in the first round of the tourney in three of the last four years. The Crimson were ranked in the Top 25 for much of the season.
Texas-Cincinnati is one of the most intriguing games in this region, though the Bearcats have turned their season around since the brawl with Xavier. Ohio State will also love not being talked about; last year the Buckeyes were bounced early as the top overall seed in the dance. This season, they are not even in the conversation among the elite teams in the nation. Jared Sullinger may take this as a personal challenge to will the Buckeyes to the Final Four. Don't sleep on William Buford, either.
In the end, Florida State is my lowest pick to make the Final Four in NOLA. Offense gets the fame, but defense wins the game.
Kentucky is the most talented team on paper and likely will prove the most talented team on the court, as well. Don't let the SEC championship loss fool you; John Calipari is notoriously sour on conference tournaments and does not put much emphasis on them. A final game of Kentucky-Kansas would make the Selection Committee giddy. While all four No. 1 seeds hardly ever make the Final Four, a No. 1 seed has won the whole enchilada in more than half of the last 25 tournaments. Last season was an aberration with an incredibly hot UConn squad, a determined Butler team and a disrespected Virginia Commonwealth; a return to normalcy appears in the cards. Coach Cal should get his first championship with an NBA-caliber squad.