If there is one thing that is true about the NCAA tournament, it is that things rarely go as people anticipate. Just take a look at my bracket, there is a lot of red ink on that page (and mine isn’t even among the worst in my office’s competition). Every year March Madness proves that on any given day a team like Louisville or Purdue can be beaten by teams like Morehead State or VCU.
This year there are more “Cinderellas” still alive than in recent years. Though I’m a bit reluctant to call Florida State/Marquette (power conference teams with double-digit seeds) or Butler (they were in the national final last year) Cinderellas. There are really only two teams that fit that bill still playing – VCU and Richmond. Oddly, as ESPN pointed out, both hail from Richmond, Virginia – not exactly a hotbed of college hoops. The biggest question is can either of these Cinderellas continue their journey, or will the clock strike midnight?
Let’s break down the Sweet Sixteen.
East Region –
Ohio State vs. Kentucky – No upsets here. This is a matchup that many predicted, including me and President Obama. Ohio State, ranked #1 in the country, comes into the game playing extremely well, easily defeating both University of Texas-San Antonio and George Mason. The Buckeyes are led by Final Four vet David Lighty and talented freshman Jared Sullinger, but are much deeper, with a cast of talented players that know how to play as a cohesive unit.
Kentucky, like Ohio State, comes into this game on a roll. While the Wildcats had trouble with Princeton in the first round, they haven’t lost since a 77-76 OT defeat by Arkansas in Fayetteville back on February 23. The Cats are led by two dynamic freshmen, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones.
Either team has the talent to make a run to the national title game, but I believe that Ohio State’s experience will win out. Kentucky is a young, raw team while Ohio State has several savvy veterans leading the way. As much as I would like to see the Buckeyes go down, I don’t see it happening.
North Carolina vs. Marquette – While many saw the first matchup in this region coming, this game comes as at bit of surprise. Marquette entered the tournament with a 20-14 record overall and a 9-9 record in the Big East. The Gold Eagles were inconsistent throughout the year, defeating West Virginia and Syracuse twice, Notre Dame by 22 points but losing to Seton Hall by 13. Perhaps the Golden Eagles have found some consistency, as they needed wins over Xavier and Syracuse (two teams ranked in the top 20) to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
North Carolina, the regular season ACC champions, were lucky to escape their 3rd round game with Washington. Other than this close call, and a thorough defeat by Duke in the ACC title game, the Tar Heels have played some good basketball. Led by impact freshman Harrison Barnes, and junior Tyler Zeller, the Heels have a high-flying offensive attack, averaging 77 points per game.
While Marquette is physical and plays some good D, I think their inconsistency will come back to haunt them in this one. Expect to see the Heels marching on to play the Buckeyes.
WEST REGION –
Duke vs. Arizona – Another matchup of college hoops heavy weights. The West Region saw no major upsets (only Arizona beating 4 seed Texas – if you can call that an upset), and has served up some intriguing games. The Blue Devils have lost just 4 games all season, but struggled to hold their lead against Michigan in the 3rd round. Duke’s own star freshman, Kyrie Irving, has played in both games after being out since early December. Irving’s return has altered the way the Blue Devils play, especially Nolan Smith’s role, and it will be interesting to see how this affects the Blue Devils against Arizona.
Arizona, like Duke, is a traditional power and is making their return to the Sweet Sixteen after failing to qualify for the tournament last season. The Wildcats, Pac-10 regular season champions, have won their games to get to this point by a combined 3 points. The Cats are led by 6’8” sophomore forward, Derrick Williams who led the team in points and rebounds.
This game should be a good one, with the Wildcats taking the Blue Devils down to the wire. That said, I think Duke’s size (when was the last time anyone could say that about the Blue Devils?) will ultimately be the deciding factor. The Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly give the Blue Devils the advantage.
UCONN vs. San Diego State – A match of the nouveau riche against old money. San Diego State, needed two overtime periods to defeat Temple in the 2nd round, but you can’t argue with the team’s success over the season. Led by sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard (who has one of the best names in the field of 68) the Aztecs have been ranked inside the top ten in the polls since the 6th week of the season. Steve Fisher has San Diego State in the tournament for the 4th time during his tenure, with this season being the Aztecs deepest run into March. The Aztecs also posted a school-record 34 wins this season.
UCONN is a bit of an enigma. Which team will show up against the Aztecs? The team that ran through the Big East tournament? Or the team that finished just 9-9 during the Big East regular season? If Kemba Walker keeps playing at his highest level, the Huskies are a very dangerous team. As Joe Lunardi points out in this article from ESPN, “… SDSU’s only two losses came at the hands of a single great scorer (Fredette) and Walker is probably the only other player left in the tournament with that kind of potential.” If Walker dominates, the Huskies could be headed to the Elite Eight.
Also like Lunardi mentioned, “This is a classic encounter of “team” versus “individual,” and I’m going with the better team (especially in Anaheim).”
SouthEaST REGION –
Butler vs. Wisconsin – This is a battle of two teams that are tournament tested. When Butler lost their star Gordon Hayward to the NBA following their loss to Duke in last season’s final, many predicted the Bulldogs would struggle this season. They were right, as the Bulldogs struggled out of the gate; however, since February 5, Butler has won 11 games in a row. While the Bulldogs have won their two tournament games by a combined 3 points, they are deep and experienced.
Wisconsin is a team that plays great defense and tries to win by wearing their opponents down. For example, the Badgers, led by Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, lost to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament 36-33 (one of the lowest scoring games since the shot clock was implemented). The Badgers aren’t flashy, but they are smart. They play within their system and they do it well.
It will be interesting to see how two veteran teams match up against each other with an Elite 8 bid on the line. Both have to think that if they can win this game a Final Four trip is a realistic possibility. Given Butler’s experience and hot streak, I’m picking the Bulldogs.
BYU vs. Florida – A rematch of a first round game from last season (BYU beat Florida 99-92 in 2OT, and the world met Jimmer Fredette) this should be a fun game to watch. BYU is 8th in the country in scoring at nearly 82 points per game and Jimmer Fredette (the country’s leading scorer) is a one man wrecking crew. The Cougars have responded well to Brandon Davies‘ suspension, beating Wofford and Gonzaga, but have yet to play a team of Florida’s caliber in the tournament.
The Gators get a chance for revenge against the Cougars. The SEC East champions have been on roll with just two losses (both toe Kentucky) since February 1. Florida won their second round game comfortably, but UCLA hung with the Gators in the 3rd round. If Florida is to win this game, somebody needs to stop Jimmer Fredette.
I’m picking the Cougars here. I think Jimmer will throw BYU on his back and take down the Gators just like last season.
SOUTHWEST REGION –
Kansas vs. Richmond – Finally we’ve come to the Southwest Region. The Region of upsets. This is the first time that 3 double-digit seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen in one region since the tournament expanded to its current format in 1985. While there have been upsets galore in this region, don’t expect the run to continue with this game. The Jayhawks are, in my opinion, the best team in college basketball. With just two loses (1 to Kansas State, the other to Texas), the Jayhawks are one of the most powerful offensive teams in college hoops. Led my the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), Kansas will be looking to prove last year’s loss to Northern Iowa in the 2nd round was a fluke. The Jayhawks are deep, talented and on a mission
Richmond, despite what their coach might say, is just happy to be in the Sweet Sixteen. Making it this far is a triumph for the Spiders, the Atlantic 10 champions. The Spiders’ signature win this season is an 11 point victory over Purdue back in November. Of the double-digit seeds, the Spiders had the easiest road to the Sweet sixteen. They defeated an overrated Vanderbilt team in the 2nd round, and knocked off fellow Cinderella, Morehead State in round 3. While the Spiders have’t gotten much press, they do have some talented players, particularly Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson. If Harper and Anderson can get hot, the Spiders could scare the Jayhawks.
That said, I expect the Jayhawks to continue their march to the Final Four.
Florida State vs. VCU – There is one thing we know about this game – a double-digit seed will make the Elite Eight. Which one will it be?
VCU finished the season 23-11 and many complained about their inclusion in the field of 68 (this blogger is included). The Rams easily defeated an undeserving USC team to make it into the second round and hasn’t looked back. With back-to-back, convincing victories over Georgetown and Purdue, the Rams are for real. They have won both by playing good defense (against G’town) and by attacking (against Purdue). Jamie Skeen, who leads the Rams in both scoring and rebounding, is the man to watch for VCU. He has been quiet in the tournament, but he is capable of big things. Others to watch are Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez, who killed my beloved BU Terriers last season in the College Basketball Invitational semifinals.
Florida State, under Leonard Hamilton, have become a thorn in the side of North Carolina and Duke in the ACC. The Seminoles are a dogged defensive team, probably the best in the tournament. They allowed just 61.7 points per game this season, but have trouble scoring. Chris Singleton, the ‘Noles’, best player has played very little since breaking his right foot in early February, but has played in both of FSU’s games in the tournament. How large a role will he play against VCU? If he plays, I think the Seminoles will find an answer for their scoring woes. If he doesn’t it may not matter that the ‘Noles only give up 61 points, they might not be able to score that many.
I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here and pick VCU to win this game. They seem to have a swagger about them.
March has been mad this season, with upsets aplenty. And I see a few more coming this week. Here’s, a quick recap of my picks:
San Diego State
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.