All right, time for some Final Four picks as we head into the round of 16.
Midwest Regional (Friday and Sunday - Indianapolis)
I know that Louisville has been the shakiest of the #1 seeds. Should a championship contender really be struggling against the likes of Siena? And I know that there are questions out there about who is going to score for them when push comes to shove. I think since the Big East Tournament though, Terrence Williams has proven to be that guy. He is pulling a Kirby Puckett with this team, as everyone else is just jumping on his back while he makes play after play. He singlehandedly won that game against Siena. Pitino has strapped Sosa to the bench, and Samuels and Clark are making just enough plays to keep the Cardinals advancing. Louisville marches on to the Final Four.
Although I do not believe that Louisville is the best team this year, they appear to be a team of destiny. After all, the Cardinals were fortunate enough to avoid having to play the top television schedule in the Big East, which created an easier path to a regular season crown. Thereafter, Louisville was the beneficiary of a very manageable route to a Big East Tournament championship, particularly considering that Syracuse had nothing left in the tank by Saturday. Most recently, the Cardinals played a Siena team coming off a tough overtime battle against Ohio State and now Rick Pitino’s troops are rewarded with the relatively simple task of dispatching Arizona to reach the Elite Eight. Either Kansas, which was especially impressive against Dayton, or Michigan State could beat UL, but the Cards should be mentally fresh and, of course, well prepared by their head coach.
Doug: Michigan State
I'm headed to Indianpolis on Friday and Sunday for this regional. Looking forward to it. I've only been to two NCAA tournament sessions (Cleveland in 2005 and Greeneville, South Carolina in 2002) and enjoyed the heck out of both experiences. I'm expecting a great crowd in Indy. Three GREAT fanbases between Louisville fans, Kansas fans, and Michigan State fans. I really couldn't ask for any better. Hope they are in the mood to party it up a bit in Indy after the games on Friday night.
I'm actually mad at myself for falling into the Louisville trap before the tournament started because I have had it in my plans all year to take Michigan State as one of my Final Four teams. I've been solidly in the corner of Sparty all year. It's just a classic Tom Izzo team. They have a lot of good veterans, they grind and grind, clean up the boards, knock down big shots when they need them, they are impeccably coached, and they are probably the best team in the country at taking away what you do well. Michigan State completely took Tajh Gibson out of the game on Saturday. That's the only reason they won that game, but that's what they do. I actually thought Michigan State had the most impressive win of the weekend. USC is GOOD. They probably could have beaten at least half the teams in the Sweet 16. Michigan State just gets it done. If you are filling out a bracket and pick Michigan State to lose before the Sweet 16, just rip up your sheet.
And yet I talked myself into Louisville out of this region after watching them blow by Nova and the Cuse on back to back nights in Vegas. I got caught up in their athleticism and Pitino and how impressive they looked at Madison Square Garden. Louisville will play like garbage for 20 minutes and then blow you away for about 10 and completely make you forget about how poorly they looked in the first half. That's how it's easy to fall in love with Louisville even though I wasn't very high on them all year.
Anyway, now that Louisville has shown their true colors again, I'm bailing on them and reembracing Michigan State. Michigan State can play the halfcourt game, and Louisville can't. I actually would not be shocked to see Arizona knock off Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Michigan State isn't pretty, but they win. Sparty marches on to Detroit, which could be interesting considering that it would be a borderline home game for them in the Final Four. Has any team ever played that close to home in a Final Four game??
My only hedge on this Michigan State pick is that there's a chance that Louisville just coasted through the first two rounds and that they show up in Indy back on a mission with Pitino lighting a fire under them. Obviously that would not surprise me. When Louisville is at their best, they are as good or better than anyone.
East Regional (Thursday and Saturday - Boston)
Let me say that I think the winner of the Nova-Duke game is going to the Final Four. I just haven’t been that impressed with Pitt. Their guard play isn’t good enough to get it done. So let’s break down this Nova-Duke matchup. The way I see it, it comes down to Nova’s ability to guard Henderson. Duke doesn’t have a big guy (the pu-pu platter of Lance Thomas and Zoubek inspires fear in no one), so Cunningham will most likely guard Singler. Should be something to watch. Does Nova put their best defender, the undersized Reggie Redding, on Henderson? Or go with someone like Dwayne Anderson? Jay Wright is going to earn his money matching wits with K for this one.
Villanova is probably my favorite team to watch this year. I can’t even believe there is a debate going on on NDNation regarding the comparison of Brey and Wright. Come on people. Jay Wright has taken Nova to four out of five Sweet Sixteen’s! End of discussion.
How great is it to see the dominance of the Big East. They play a different brand of basketball than everyone in the country. Did anyone see that Villanova-UCLA game? The Bruins were TOTALLY unprepared for the physicality that Nova gave them. Collison was whining to the refs and the press afterwards. They just don’t play that way in the PAC 10. Even further reason that Notre Dame is a fish out of water with their style of play. The next sign of physicality or defense I see out of the Irish will be the first in a long time with Brey roaming the sideline.
Sorry for the soapbox moment, but has the Duke vitriol become unbearable or is it just me? I’ve never had any strong feelings about Duke, either positive or negative, and I understand that fans tend to dislike the traditional powers, but I am not really sure why so many people harbor such overwhelming contempt for the Blue Devils. Perhaps Coach K is a bit self righteous, but he runs his program the right way: he recruits good citizens who work hard, attend real classes and stay out of trouble. Would you rather see a program like Duke get rewarded or would you rather have the spoils go to those coaches who flout the rules and bring in a bunch of illiterate criminals? I’ll go with the former.
All four of these teams in the East Region have flaws, so this bracket was probably the one I had the most trouble with. I came down to Duke and Villanova, and I'm sticking with Nova here even though I'm wavering a little on it.
I've been stuck all year in the "Duke has a flawed roster with too many white guys" mindset that I can't get rid of, but the reality is that Duke is good this year! Henderson is a lottery pick, and Singler and Scheyer are very good college players. The days of Greg Paulus slapping the floor and playing 35 minutes while his man blows by him are in the rearview mirror for this year. They had their little rough patch, but it seems like they have turned the corner.
In retrospect, Duke has been pretty legit all year. They blew out Purdue and Xavier in OOC play. I definitely would not be surprised if they end up in the Final Four.
I'm going with Villanova though. For some reason, I just like their matchups. Duke has a lot of really good wings, and Nova is going to counter them with bullet quick and tough guards. I like that matchup for Nova. I think guys like Fisher and Reynolds can get to the bucket on those Duke wings. And they have Cunningham down low.
Should be a great game. Probably the game I'm most looking forward to in the Sweet 16 matchups. Both teams are really evenly matched. There's some serious conference bragging righs on the line. If Nova knocks off Duke, I think it sends a strong message that the Big East is far and away the best conference in America these days.
I really don't have a ton of thoughts on that Xavier-Pitt game. Xavier has been getting it done, but they are still a year away. Pitt hasn't shown me enough to think they are a title contender.
South Region (Friday and Sunday - Memphis)
Dan: North Carolina
UNC was a totally different team when Lawson was dominating in the 2nd half against LSU. That game was really close in the 1st half and Lawson was a total non-factor. But in the 2nd half, UNC just took it to another level that no other team in the country can do. Ellington is playing out of his mind (and making himself a lot of money come Draft time), Hansbrough is doing his same routine of flailing on every shot and getting to the foul line, and Ed Davis has stepped up along with Deon Thompson.
The game that I’m most looking forward to is UNC-Syracuse. The ‘Cuse has totally raised their game to another level. Devendara has become as clutch as any player in the country. Rautins is draining every open look he gets. And Jonny Flynn is playing the point guard position as well as it’s been played in the postseason in recent memory. A UNC – Syracuse game would be epic.
Mike: North Carolina
Assuming that Ty Lawson can pick up where he left off against LSU, there is no team in this bracket that can hang with the Tar Heels. Although I expect Syracuse to defeat Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 (perhaps even handily), Carolina will be too much to handle. As an aside, it will be interesting to see whether Jonny Flynn decides to return to SU for his junior season. If Syracuse somehow manages to make the Final Four, I believe that Flynn will bolt. Either way, after witnessing the saga of Chris Thomas, I would not blame Flynn for turning pro if he believes that he will be a top 20 pick. Moreover, Flynn hails from Niagara Falls, which is a very depressed town, and it would serve his financial interests to strike while the iron is hot.
This bracket is LOADED. My god, you have UNC with NBA players all over the roster, an OU team with the #1 pick in the draft, a Syracuse team that is loaded with talent, and a Gonzaga team that has multiple NBA players. For the NBA junkies out there who just watch the NCAA Tournament to look at future stars, this bracket is for you. If you are a tournament promoter in the Memphis area, it's a dream group.
What if Memphis had been the #1 team in America this year?? Would they have played a regional semifinal and final in Memphis?? I think that would have been completely bogus. In fact, I'm not a huge fan of these "pod" regions in general. I understand the argument that the best teams deserve a break for great regular seasons, but aren't they already getting a break by getting a good seed?? Why do you get a virtual home court as well?? I think it's bogus that UNC and Duke get two borderline home games every year in the NCAA Tournament, and the home cooking for Villanova was ridiculous. The Villanova-UCLA and Villanova-American games should not have even read as "UCLA vs. Villanova" or "American vs. Villanova." It would have been more appropriate to substitute "vs" with "at" there. It's the NCAA Tournament. These games should be somewhat neutral. I definitely think that has contributed to the lack of upsets in the first two rounds in recent years. Then again, maybe it's better that there are fewer upsets. Fewer upsets means better games in the Sweet 16. For the record, I realize that ticket sales are also a huge factor here, so the pod regions are probably not going away anytime soon.
Gotta go with the Cuse here. I think this Oklahoma game is a great matchup for Syracuse. They are going to zone up on OU and have some sort of game plan to limit Griffin's touches. Say what you want about Boeheim, but he's one of those coaches who just gets on a roll at times. He'll have something drawn up for OU, and they have enough big bodies to frustrate Blake Griffin. The guards are a complete mismatch for the Cuse.
Seems like everyone is back on the UNC bandwagon, but we'll see. I think they still have issues. For all the fuss about UNC's talent, do they have the big men to beat Gonzaga?? Gonzaga has some serious size. Hansborough doesn't play any defense. I could see Gonzaga trying to take it to the Heels inside.
I'm going with the Cuse. When Boeheim gets the right type of team, he's not the type of coach I want to bet against in the NCAA Tournament. Flynn and Devendorf are red hot, and I gotta go with the hot team. My only hope is that the Cuse come out of the locker room singing "Cuse is in the house, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!"
West Region (Thursday and Saturday - Glendale)
UConn has gone from the pre-tournament ‘#1 seed most likely to lose early’ to ‘most dominant team in the tournament’. There is no denying that they are playing well, and as Doug pointed out, Stanley Robinson has elevated his game to another level. When Notre Dame played them in Storrs, Robinson almost singlehandedly delivered the game to ND with a combination of bad shots, turnovers and general lousy plays. Now, he is right there with Adrien and Price as key players.
But…I picked Memphis to win the tournament, and I see no reason to back of that now. Roburt (love the spelling!) Sallie has given them a whole ‘nother dimension. The guy has been absolutely unconscious. Evans has looked really good running the point, and Taggart and Dozier provide the muscle down low. Am I crazy to say that Taggart is a more complete player than Thabeet at this point? If I’m an NBA team, I wouldn’t draft Thabeet. The guy is a bust. He can’t score and disappears against most good competition.
I am obviously taking a flyer here, but I just sense that something is still missing for UConn. While the Huskies ran roughshod through their overmatched opponents in the first two rounds and A.J. Price appeared primed to make a run at M.O.P. of the tournament, there is a chance that they will be exposed with this week’s class jump. Meanwhile, Purdue is finally starting to exhibit the defensive tenacity and offensive balance that many envisioned for the Boilers at the start of the season. On the other side of the bracket, my head says “Memphis” but my heart screams “anyone but Memphis.” Regardless, both Purdue and UConn have the capability of locking down Memphis in a half-court game, which will be good enough to save this great sport from another Final Four turning into The Longest Yard: Basketball Edition.
Man, tough call here. I like all four of these teams a lot. I really wanted to get bold here and take Purdue. Purdue is a really good team this year with this JaJuan Johnson guy in the middle. He has changed them into a legitimate contender. If you took off the Purdue uniforms and put UConn uniforms on them, I think there would be a better perception of that team. I definitely think they can beat UConn if they play the way they've been playing lately. Big fan of Matt Painter. You can tell that he has his teams prepared to play. Their trend in March this year has been to jump ALL OVER teams. They'll be 10 minutes into the game and Purdue is up 19-8. They've been doing it throughout the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
I love this Memphis-Missouri game. Doug Gottlieb has been saying it's the best game of the weekend. If Gottlieb is saying that, I'm a believer. I have no idea who I think is going to win this one. Seems like Gottlieb is leaning toward Missouri, so I might have to take them here. Missouri can pretty much score points on anyone, and Mike Anderson has had success against Calipari.
Speaking of Calipari, I wanted to get in a couple thoughts on this Billy Gillespie thing at Kentucky. If Kentucky wants to get a head coach who is a LOCK to put them back on the map and back in the top 10 on the regular basis, go get Calipari. That's your guy. Go offer him $5-6 million a year and give him full control. Calipari is the safest bet of anyone out there, and he's probably the one guy who I could see wanting to take the next step to a place like Kentucky. Calipari is bringing the types of guys to Memphis (Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, etc) that Kentucky used to get under Pitino. Look at what Calipari is doing out on the recruiting trail right now. He has already recruited the #2 and #3 players on Rivals.com for 2009, and he's the frontrunner for the #1 player, John Wall. It's absurd! He's putting the rest of college basketball to shame. Those guys aren't even sniffing at Kentucky these days.
Those are the types of players that Kentucky needs to get to be relevant again. If you look at Kentucky's roster, it's not a whole lot different than the typical mediocre SEC roster. Kentucky's roster should look like Kansas and Syracuse and UNC and Duke. If you look at UK's players, they have Alabama/Georgia talent right now. Kentucky has some athletic guys, but where are the skilled players?? Where are the Antoine Walkers and the Tony Delks and the Ron Mercers and the Jamal Mashburns and Rajon Randos?? Those guys weren't just athletes. They had ability. Kentucky doesn't have the players right now. Part of that was Tubby, but Gillespie is not really cleaning up either out on the trail.
I thought Gillespie was a great hire when it happened. I didn't know anything about him, but I liked his track record and his progression. If a guy can win at Texas A&M, I figured he'd win at Kentucky. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to fit at UK for whatever reason. UK plays sloppy basketball. Maybe Gillespie really is a good coach who just hasn't worked out at Kentucky and will go down to Texas Tech and thrive again. I don't know. All I know is that he's not working out at UK. It sounds like they are going to pull the plug on Gillespie within the next couple days. I think it's the right move.
Sounds like Billy Donovan is also on the list, but isn't there some level of concern that he's now made back to back NIT trips now?? How does that happen?? They have to talk to Billy Donovan, but they also probably need to make sure they are getting a lock if they hire Donovan. Kentucky needs a lock. I think Donovan is probably a lock to do great things at UK, but you never know. Maybe he was just incredibly lucky to land Horford, Brewer, and Noah all in the same class and have them all blossom into NBA lottery picks.
The other guy that I think they have to talk to is Travis Ford. I know he's young, I know he's inexperienced, I know he's got a little bit of a Gillespie in him with some rumors of boorish behavior, and I know he hasn't been at any particular job for more than a couple years, but everything about this guy screams out that he's a rising star in the coaching world. It would be one thing if he was this self-made man who learned the game his own way, but Travis Ford is a disciple of the best Kentucky coach since Adolph Rupp. He would be coming to UK to bring back the Pitino system. That is the kind of system that recruits like. Up tempo, aggressive, attacking. That's what you see at Kansas and UNC and Memphis. That's what UK needs to get back to. The good news is that Kentucky can probably pass on Travis Ford if they have a better candidate and then go after him in 10 years if he's still having success at Oklahoma State. Travis Ford would drop everything and come home to UK whenever it is offered in my opinion.
I'm taking UConn here in this region, but I don't have much to say about UConn other than what I said about them already earlier in the week. Calhoun broke this team down in February, and now he's building them back up. I like the Huskies a lot. I'm more interested in this recruiting scandal that seems to be bubbling up at UConn. Does this surprise anyone?? I always wondered how a guy like Calhoun could recruit as well as he does. If you were a stud recruit who could go anywhere, why would you play for some curmudgeon like Jim Calhoun?? I always wondered if there was some shady stuff going on up there. I'm interested to see if more scandals come out of this story.