Men’s basketball writer
If championship week served as any early indication, then this year’s NCAA Tournament should be as wacky as ever.
If you’re looking for sleeper picks to bust open your tournament pools, look no further than the dreaded five-versus-twelve match-ups. The best upset special involves the Cinderella of Cinderellas, Gonzaga, in the South Region.
Gonzaga is one of five teams to reach the Sweet Sixteen or beyond in the last two seasons. What is even more astonishing is that the Zags accomplished this feat despite terribly high seeds.
Their opponent, fifth-seeded Virginia, committed the cardinal sin of backing their way into the tournament. In their last two games, they were trounced at Maryland by 35 points and lost to Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament.
The Cavaliers have all the markings of a high seed primed for an early exit.
Other good sleeper picks include the Midwest 11th seed Xavier — who could surprise Notre Dame and possibly go as far as the Sweet Sixteen since they are playing close to home in Dayton — and the East’s 12th seed Utah State — who will square off against fifth-seeded Ohio State.
The team that will win it all this year is a preseason favorite that many people have forgotten about: The Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona has quietly won 15 of its last 17 games, including two huge road victories over Stanford and California. The Wildcats arguably boast the best starting five in the nation, and Luke Walton is an excellent sixth man off the bench. Arizona also plays in the weakest region of the four, with the one and three seeds being Illinois and Mississippi, respectively.
Joining Arizona in Minneapolis will be Duke from the brutal East Region, Michigan State from the South, and (surprise) Maryland in the West.
Why not Stanford in the West you ask? Stanford has lost in the second round the last two seasons and they were just as good. The Cardinal will break the round of 32 this year, but should run into a hot Maryland team that is peaking at just the right time.
The Blue Devils should barely squeak by Maryland in a potential Final Four classic, but will finally run out of gas against the highly athletic Wildcats.
Last year was the year of the upset and Duke was not immune. The Blue Devils fell in the round of 16 and their NCAA championship hopes were pushed back a year.
Now we come to this year’s NCAA tournament where Duke is once again the choice for national champion.
The only barrier for the Blue Devils to win it all will come against Kentucky when the teams meet in the regional final.
The game will be a few hundred feet from where Blue Devil Christian Laettner hit a buzzer-beating miracle shot to reach the Final Four in 1992 over the Wildcats.
Duke won’t need miracles this year on its way to an easy national championship.
Maryland should come out of the West. My upset pick here is St. Joe’s over the perennial chokers from No. 1 Stanford.
Michigan State should find its trip back to the Final Four easy unless North Carolina fully recovers from its drudging by Duke last week.
The Midwest is the toughest bracket to call with both No. 1 Illinois and No. 2 Arizona capable of taking it.
In the closest call of the tournament, my pick is for Illinois to make the Final Four but fall to Michigan State.
Nothing about this year’s NCAA Tournament will be easy.
With the current state of college basketball, the operative word must be “parity,” as evidenced by consistent upsets in the conference tournaments. That being said, the No. 1 seeds selected by this year’s committee are there because they are tested and consistent.
I think two No. 1 seeds—Michigan State out of the South and Duke out of the East—will reach the Final Four in Minneapolis on April 2.
In the West, the No. 3-seeded Maryland is everyone’s pick. The Terps were shockingly close to beating Duke three times this year, including in the ACC semifinals. Iowa State is a weak No. 2 seed in that region, and top-seeded Stanford is famous for choking.
The Midwest could be the most difficult region. But personally, I don’t have a good feeling about any of the teams that actually have a chance to win. No. 2-seeded Arizona is probably the hottest squad in the country with five future pros in the lineup, so the ‘Cats could emerge, but it could be Illinois, or Kansas, or anybody.
If Michigan State makes it to Minnesota, it will be the defending champion Spartans’ third straight Final Four. That sort of seasoning is precious in close games, and Arizona’s group of talented individuals will come apart as a team under the pressure.
Duke and Maryland will wage the fourth battle of this season’s most dramatic war in possibly the best game of the season, with the boys from Durham claiming final victory. The Blue Devils are just too focused and too damn good to lose once they get to Minneapolis.
Duke’s victory over the Spartans for the national title will be a mere anti-climax, much like its win over Kansas for the crown in 1991. That year, the Blue Devils toppled an undefeated UNLV team in the national semi a year after the Runnin’ Rebels blew them out in the 1990 title game.
I believe Temple will, ironically, advance exactly as far as last year: to the second round, where the No. 11-seeded Owls will have a chance to play the Seton Hall role this time around.
No. 6-seeded Texas has a dearth of experience at guard, and the Owls should be able to exploit that. And though the Big Twelve is full of large, corn-fed teams, nobody out there plays a defense like Temple’s.
Though I can imagine plenty of scenarios where the Owls upset No. 3-seeded Florida, I don’t have the wherewithal to pick them. I picked Temple to advance into the national championship game last year, and broken hearts mend slowly.
As someone that knows absolutely nothing about sports, I am attempting to pick the winner of the NCAA solely on factors outside of how these teams actually play.
Michigan State is a popular team and although the Spartans have their act together, Michigan has too many damn rivers, which are distracting. Penn State on the other hand, is on a boring campus where there is not much else to do but drink and play basketball, which is why the Nittany Lions will beat the Spartans and make it into the final four. Penn State also has lots of school spirit, which helps encourage the players to do well. I know, because my cousin goes there.
I grew up in the St. Joe’s area, and I remember in high school when I had to drive to my guitar lesson during a basketball game. The traffic was so heavy, that I didn’t make it to my lesson until two hours later. Cars wouldn’t jam up the streets for a team that sucked, so St. Joe’s will make it to the Final Four. But the Hawks can’t survive against the USC Trojans because Trojans have condoms named after them. There isn’t much named after Hawks, except Hawk brand rodent control pellets; which isn’t very sexy.
The Arizona Wildcats are another favorite, observing a lot of people wear their T-shirts, so these people will probably be upset when I predict that the Wildcats will lose. See, the Wildcats don’t have the “luck of the Irish” behind them. What other team would St. Patrick pass his blessing down to other than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? This luck will push the Irish to win against the Trojans and become National Champion.