It’s that time of year again
Time for March Madness. Time to look at the brackets, think you know what you’re talking about, then watch some basketball neophyte clean house in the office pool because they pick teams that have cool names.It’s always difficult to make predictions on the night the pairings come out, but here’s a gut reaction after looking at the brackets for the first time and working through them a bit.Before I discuss the regions from east to west, here’s a sure-fire award for Jim Nantz as Ogre of the Year. After looking at the brackets, Nantz proceeded to lash out at tournament selection committee chairman Craig Littlepage for not putting enough teams from the power conferences into the bracket.Attaboy, Jim. Way to show how much basketball you watch. Nantz, who just finished calling NFL football games in late January and is probably looking past the whole tournament so he can scratch Hootie Johnson’s back at the Masters, maybe has called 10 college basketball games this year. And I’m guessing none of those games featured members of the Missouri Valley or the Colonial Athletic Association. And how about Billy Packer announcing teams from the Minneapolis bracket before CBS did? The Final Four is best watched with the mute button on if these guys are going to keep up this act. Give me Dick Vitale, who for all his "flat-out, sensational" hyperbole, still shows he knows something about a mid-major team like UAB besides how to spell it.OK, I’m past that. Let’s move on to the regions.
Washington RegionThe Top Seed: UConn – Still the best team in the country when they’re engaged and interested. After losing in the Big East quarterfinals, here’s betting they will be. Their frontcourt is the best in the country, and when Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson are making outside shots, they can’t be stopped.
Who Can Beat Them: Illinois – A well-coached team that has key players back from last year’s runner-up and a terrific leader in Dee Brown. Michigan State – Another team that seems to play in only high and low gear. Tom Izzo took them to the Final Four last year and the Elite Eight in 2003 from a five seed and a seven seed, respectively. North Carolina – Once their freshmen learned how to play the game, my, did they play it well. Roy Williams has the monkey off his back and his team will play loose.
Best First-Round Games: Kentucky vs. UAB – The Blazers upset the No. 1 seeded Wildcats in the second round two years ago. Wichita St. vs. Seton Hall – The classic battle of a good team from a mid-major conference and a middling team from a power conference. Tennessee vs. Winthrop – Bruce Pearl’s reputation (or his orange attire, a la Bruce Weber) must’ve gotten the Vols a No. 2 seed, because they haven’t played like it of late. The Eagles won’t be an easy out.
First-Round Upset: Utah State over Washington. The Huskies bowed out early in the Pac 10 Tournament. Meanwhile, the Aggies played their way into this tournament by taking Nevada to the wire in the WAC final. And their best shooter, Jaycee Carroll, wasn’t on his game. This could be the perennial No. 12 over a No. 5.
Bracket Champion: UConn – I just can’t pick anyone else, despite the Huskies inconsistency.
Atlanta RegionThe Top Seed: Duke – So, the Blue Devils and J.J. Redick were tired. Through. Finished. Not so fast. They won their seventh ACC tournament championship in eight years and did it with Redick hitting the type of shots that make everyone love – or hate – him. They beat a very good Boston College team and they’re a deserving No. 1 overall seed.
Who Can Beat Them: Syracuse – Wouldn’t we all love a Redick-Gerry McNamara matchup in the Sweet 16? Iowa – A very disciplined, senior-dominated team led by a fellow Bob Knight disciple. Texas – Duke won the earlier matchup by 31, but the Longhorns play the physical style that could wear Duke out.
Best First-Round Games: George Washington vs. UNC-Wilmington – A curious 8-9 matchup because the Colonials were ranked in the Top 10 most of the season, but they must get healthy. The Seahawks came out of a very good mid-major conference and have great guards in T.J. Carter and John Goldsberry, and you know how I feel about guards in March. West Virginia vs. Southern Illinois – About three weeks ago I would have put the Mountaineers in the previous group, but they’d better get their act together and they’d better do it fast against a solid defensive team like the Salukis.
First-Round Upset: Iona over LSU – A senior-dominated Gaels team is led by Steve Burtt, the type of player who can put a team on his back in a first-round game. LSU needs Tyrus Thomas healthy and must take advantage of its size up front.
Bracket Champion: Iowa – Redick and Shelden Williams didn’t stick around four years for anything less than a Final Four. But watch the Hawkeyes, exactly the type of rugged Big 10 team (Michigan State 2005, Indiana 2002) that has taken the Blue Devils out before.Minneapolis RegionThe Top Seed: Villanova – The great mystery with the Wildcats is Allan Ray’s health. The good news is, after a horrifying injury, he has his vision back. ‘Nova will need his shooting and quickness in the most difficult bracket in the field. Fortunately, of all the top teams, Villanova displays the most consistent tenacity and effort. They’ve lost when they haven’t shot well. This is the team with the best chance of beating UConn – if they get to face them.
Who Can Beat Them: Boston College – Jay Wright couldn’t have enjoyed seeing the Eagles in his half of the bracket. BC showed Duke and the rest of the ACC how good they are. It’s a veteran team with a nasty streak, and it certainly knows Villanova well from its days in the Big East. Florida – Another inconsistent team but the Gators put it together to win the SEC Tournament and beat South Carolina after losing twice previously. ‘Nova beat them in the second round last year. Georgetown – The Hoyas potentially beating Villanova in an NCAA tourney upset? The world has been turned upside down. Georgetown is young but athletic. They’ve played ‘Nova (a 75-65 loss in Philadelphia) and they’ve beaten Duke. Ohio State – Before next year’s ballyhooed freshman class arrives, this senior class can send them a message. Kudos to Thad Matta for picking the Buckeyes up from the specter of probation and forging a Big Ten champion.
Best First-Round Game: Arizona vs. Wisconsin – Interesting battle between contrasting styles. Oklahoma vs. UW-Milwaukee – The Panthers wouldn’t surprise anyone with another trip to the Sweet 16.
First-Round Upset: UWM over Oklahoma. But also watch out for Montana over Nevada, if Nick Fazekas’ defense against Montana big man Andrew Strait is as bad as it was in the WAC title game. And if Florida isn’t ready, a deep South Alabama team could spring a surprise.
Bracket Champion: I’ve written more about this bracket because it could go about 10 different ways. Thus, a qualifying pick – Villanova moves on if Ray is healthy. If not, Ohio State goes from one Big Ten city to another for the Final Four.Oakland RegionThe Top Seed: Memphis – Say what you will about the Tigers waltzing through the remains of Conference USA. But they did everything asked of them – play a tough non-conference schedule, dominate their conference and win their conference tournament. Memphis practically played an NCAA tournament before 2006 was a week old – UW-Milwaukee, Alabama, UCLA, Duke, Gonzaga, Texas and Winthrop. Toss in a road win at Cincinnati and this young, athletic team is ready for its close-up.
Who Can Beat Them: Pittsburgh – A tenacious defensive team that tries to frustrate its opposition. Memphis is young and therefore susceptible to frustration in this setting. Kansas – Playing as well as any team right now and yearning to forget last year’s opening round loss to Bucknell. Gonzaga – The Bulldogs must prove that they can play in this tournament as a favorite. They’ve played their best as an underdog. But in Adam Morrison, they have Danny Manning with a bad mustache. UCLA – Again, go with the guards. Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are a formidable tandem.
Best First-Round Game: Arkansas vs. Bucknell – The Razorbacks get a short trip to Dallas. The Bison are looking for another first-round upset. The winner has a decent chance to beat Memphis. Marquette vs. Alabama – The Tide played one of the toughest non-conference schedules, and the Golden Eagles showed coming up with a school nickname was tougher than playing in the Big East.
First-Round Upset: San Diego State over Indiana – The Hoosiers will play win-one-for-Mike Davis, but the Aztecs have frontcourt players, in Mohamed Abukar and Marcus Slaughter, who can neutralize Marco Killingsworth.
Bracket Champion: Memphis – Though the Tigers are vulnerable, no one in this bracket is as complete.
Again, a gut reaction. Look for more as the week goes on. I'm now starting to prep for Monmouth-Hampton on Tuesday night.