With Selection Sunday behind us and the NCAA Tournament getting under way today, my esteemed colleague Nick Cicale and I thought we’d provide a few picks for your brackets. As always, it’s caveat emptor, so any cabbages you lose using our picks are your responsibility; of course, if our picks win you your bracket pool, we will be expecting some sort of gratuity.
Without further adieu:
Florida received the top seed in the South, and, in theory, the easiest road to the Final Four. Syracuse, the three seed, started the season on an incredible, unbeaten run; but, since then, they’ve faded like Greg Norman down the stretch of a major. The Gators are absolutely the best pick to win this bracket, but, in a pool setup, you can’t go with what everyone else is doing, so I’ll roll with Kansas--another team that has distinguished itself as a choking dog for years in this tourney. Nevertheless, I’ll gamble that their difference-making big fella, Joel Embiid, returns from injury after their first two games, and Florida’s overall paucity of deadeye shooters catches up with them in the regional final. Since winning is habitual, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion, I’ll take the prolific winners--haven’t lost since November-- of Stephen F. Austin (12) as my upset special in this region; they’ll pick off both Virginian Commonwealth (5) and U.C.L.A. (4) before losing in the Sweet 16 to UF.
This would be Tom Izzo’s first senior class not to reach a Final Four during their time in East Lansing, so Michigan St. (4) will win the East regional. Virginia (1) can’t score, and Villanova (2) is dressed up by a watered-down Big East, so I’ll take slick-shooting, free-wheeling, match-up nightmare Iowa State (3) to meet Mich St. in the Elite Eight. With his NBA background, Cyclones’ coach Fred Hoiberg is a master of using space and exploiting match-ups on the offensive end.
The strongest region is the Midwest. A Wichita State vs. Louisville Final Four rematch isn’t in the cards this year, but a Sweet Sixteen meeting will have to do. I love Wichita State, but the Cardinals have been dismantling good teams lately, and if anyone can stop the Shockers, it’s them. The Midwest is also home to the always-impressive Duke Blue Devils and an intimidating Michigan team. Unfortunately for these teams, the road to the Final Four might wear them down, and I think it’s unlikely any of them get into the final game.
The second team into the championship game should be Arizona, who has a relatively easy road ahead of them. I’m tempted to ride Doug McDermott and Creighton, but I can’t see their magic holding up through the Elite Eight, and other than the Blue Jays, the conference doesn't have too many teams to worry about.
My predicted Elite Eight match-ups are Florida beating New Mexico, Villanova beating Virginia, Louisville beating Duke and Arizona beating Creighton. I have Arizona edging Florida for the national title in a close one. Both teams are ranked one and two respectively in the Basketball Power Index, shoot well, and pride themselves on defense.
Wow, Nick, way to go out on a limb there, buddy--the two best teams in the country as your final two! I’ll take Arizona over Baylor (6) out West--though most people think Scott Drew can’t coach (and they may be right), he has managed to take the previously moribund Bears to a pair of regional finals in his time in Waco--and I’ll roll with Louisville (4) over the odious Duke Blue Devils (3) in the Midwest, a.k.a the “region of death.”
As mentioned earlier, I’ll take Michigan State over KU in the Final Four, and I’ll gamble that Pitino again falls just short of repeating by losing to Sparty in the title game. (In 1997, he lost in the national championship to Arizona the year after winning it all against the ‘Cuse.) Despite his seemingly constant presence in the Final Four, Izzo has only won one title--it’s a bit like an actor who keeps garnering Oscar nominations, but has only won once (I believe the ravishing Kate Winslet has a 1-6 mark at the Academy Awards, so that's not bad company to be in). Anyway, this year, Izzo finally gets that second title.