Thursday, March 15, 2012

Midwest Preview


The field of 64 was finally set Wednesday night with the last of the play-in games in Dayton. UVM comfortably beat Lamar for the right to play sacrificial lamb to North Carolina on Friday (Go Cats Go!), but the big story was South Florida, which absolutely demolished California in the night game. A lot of people didn't think the Bulls belonged in the field despite a 12-6 Big East record, and some of those same people were probably grumbling that the Pac-12 got just one at-large bid. So such a convincing win was pretty surprising.

Frankly, of all the #1/#2 pairings in the tournament, I thought North Carolina and Kansas got the biggest break from the committee. Their paths to the Elite 8 look pretty clear to me.

First-round upsets
#14 Belmont over #3 Georgetown -- This just feels like a bad matchup for Georgetown, who I frankly think is over-seeded, based on when I've seen them play. Henry Sims has been really good at the point forward/center position that John Thompson III's offense revolves around, and Jason Clark has played at a level much higher than I ever thought him capable of. But they are methodical, a dangerous style against a high-octane team like Belmont, who is very deep and can really fill it up. Plus the Hoya point guard is a freshman, and if Belmont can succeed in speeding the game up, they may be able to force some turnovers. I actually like Belmont to the Sweet 16, beating San Diego State in the second round.

#12 South Florida over #5 Temple -- Honestly, I don't know anything about Temple, other than the Atlantic 10 is kind of a weak conference and the Owls, the regular season champs, fizzled out in the quarters against Massachusetts. I'm making this pick solely on how well South Florida played on Wednesday. That may be foolish, but I think that momentum has to count for something. The Bulls are outstanding defensively and their freshman point guard, Anthony Collins, was described by Villanova head coach Jay Wright as "impossible to guard."

Other games of note
#8 Creighton vs. #9 Alabama -- Haven't seen Creighton and only caught a few minutes of one or two Alabama games. All I know is that the Blue Jays are a terrific offensive team and the Tide are an excellent defensive squad. Should be an interesting contrast of styles. I'm picking Creighton, for what it's worth.

#7 St. Mary's vs. #10 Purdue -- I have to confess that I was a little surprised when I saw Purdue's name in the field, not because they were on the bubble (they weren't), but because they have had such an unspectacular year that I had assumed that they were out. (This says a lot about how little attention I've been able to pay this season.) St. Mary's has a terrific squad that won the West Coast championship over Gonzaga. Matthew Dellavedova, who from seeing him in previous season I assumed was overrated, has become a very good passer and floor leader in addition to being a knockdown shooter. I don't see this game being that close.

#6 San Diego State vs. #11 North Carolina State -- Don't know much about the Aztecs, but the Wolfpack didn't impress me when I saw them. They had a strong run to the ACC semis where they were very competitive with Carolina, but before that they probably weren't in the field. A lot of people are picking NCSU, but I am not.

#4 Michigan -- Give John Beilein enough time and I like his chances against anyone in an elimination game setting, so while D.J. Cooper and Ohio are a dangerous opponent, I feel good about the Wolverines' chances. A second-round matchup with South Florida, if it materializes, would be fascinating in a kind of excruciating way, with two methodical teams plodding along for 40 minutes. I'd love to see Collins and Michigan freshman Trey Burke go at it. If Michigan makes the Sweet 16, Beilein would have a few days to prepare for Carolina, and when your remember that he almost beat Duke last year with a team that wasn't as good as this one, it's tempting to think they can take out Carolina. But UNC has something Duke didn't -- a monster front line -- and Michigan really doesn't have much up front. I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it'd be a huge upset.

The challenger
#2 Kansas -- As I said above, I think the bracket sets up perfectly for Kansas and Carolina. For weeks, I've been convinced that senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor would be the Jayhawks' undoing; he's sloppy with the ball and makes terrible decisions. Swap KU with Missouri and the Jayhawks would likely match up with Florida in the second round and either Marquette or Murray State in the Sweet 16, with the potential to face a guard-heavy team in the regional final (or a deeper version of itself in Michigan State). Very little chance they run that gantlet, in my opinion. But the bottom half of the bracket doesn't really have a team that could exploit Kansas' weaknesses. St. Mary's is good, but aren't really known for their perimeter defense; Belmont plays that frantic style, but there just isn't enough talent there -- and while I have the Bruins in the Sweet 16, they a still a long shot to get there. Kansas has a deceptively tough first-round game against Detroit -- it's shocking to me that the Horizon League champion is a #15 seed after what we've seen from Butler the last two years -- but the Jayhawks' historical first-round failures should have them on high alert, and they won't be surprised by how good the Titans are. If they can get past that one, I think it's smooth sailing til Carolina.

The winner
#1 North Carolina -- I've been banging the same drum about the Heels ever since Roy Williams took over as coach: they don't focus enough on defense. They're vulnerable against teams who can score and who defend a little bit. But their draw is favorable. In the second round, they'll get either Creighton or Alabama. The former doesn't defend enough and the latter doesn't score enough to be much of a threat. In the Sweet 16, Michigan wouldn't have the bodies up front to compete; South Florida wouldn't have the offensive firepower; and I certainly don't know enough about Temple to pick them to beat Carolina. Kansas is a big challenge, but Kansas is not excellent defensively and games with that amount of talent on the floor tend to get won by the team with the most. North Carolina is deeper and bigger, and so I'll take them.

That's a Final Four of Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio State, and North Carolina. I'll get into more if it materializes, but for the sake of memorializing it, I have Kentucky over Ohio State for the national championship. I want to take the Buckeyes, but UK is just too good. And John Calipari has to get a title sooner or later. Right?

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