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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

NCAA Men's Tournament Predictions

Okay, so I haven't weighed in yet on who was selected, who wasn't, whether Billy Packer and Jim Nantz were out of line with Craig Littlepage, head of the NCAA men's tournament selection committee, whether the pairings are fair, etc. Now I will address various topics, some of which I will handle in truncated fashion, and then I'll give you my tournament picks.

First, I think that overall the selections were fair. Every year there are gripes about who gets into the tournament and who gets omitted, but that's life. In the end, people don't remember that type of stuff or care that much. That the Missouri Valley Conference fared particularly well is a tribute to the hoops they play there. I didn't view the exchange among Packer, Nantz and Littlepage, but "good manners" and Packer are not frequently mentioned in the same sentence. Craig Littlepage is one of the nicest guys ever to walk the landscape of NCAA athletics, and his integrity is beyond reproach. Nantz, to me, is a lightweight on basketball, while I very much do respect the insight of Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis, not to mention ESPN's Andy Katz. At the end of the day, there's no such thing as a perfect bracket. Yes, perhaps Air Force and a few others were reaches, and, yes, I'm surprised that Tennessee got a #2 seed, but I wasn't in the room when the selectiosn were made and none of us follow the game as closely as those who get paid to do so. Let's get over that and get to the brackets.

Atlanta

First Round

Duke over Southern. Bambi meets Godzilla. Still, Godzilla has to worry that somewhere down the road someone will defend their two first-team all-Americans well, and then older fans will start hearing Don Meredith's rendition of "Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over."

GWU over UNC-Wilmington. Yes, GWU got blown out by Temple in the A-10 Tournament the same way St. Joe's, en route to an Elite Eight visit, got blown out early in that same tournament by Xavier two years ago. GWU still has the goods, even if UNC-Wilmington was one of five "upset special" teams named by ESPN The Magazine as capable of getting to the Sweet 16. The hoops gods certainly have put UNC-Wilmington in a position to make that run, but I think that they'll disappoint.

Texas A&M over Syracuse. This one pains me, because some of our best friends are either Syracuse alums or from the area. Still, the prime SportsProf theory is to bet against a conference "also-ran" who gets hot in the conference tournament and then wins it. Why? I think that Syracuse has already played its best hoops of the year, and I fear they'll get caught flat-footed in this game.

LSU versus Iona. It would be romantic to think that Gary Springer, Jr. and Steve Burtt, Jr. can help rekindle the magic that their fathers generated over 20 years ago when playing with Iona coach Jeff Ruland for the Gaels. But LSU is one of those formidable, athletic teams, and this is where the strength of a conference and the schedule its average member plays will combine to derail a mid-major team.

West Virginia versus Southern Illinois. Sure we love to watch Kevin Pittsnogle and his tattoes, but John Bellien, the Mountaineers' coach, is one of the top 20 strategic coaches in the country. His teams are usually well-prepared, and they have good tactics to break down opponents' defenses. Their lack of overall athleticism could hurt them in later rounds, but not now.

Iowa versus Northwestern State. Last year, the pundits dissed the Big 10, which did have a subpar regular season, only to find its teams have an outstanding NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes are just too good here.

Cal versus N.C. State. This should be one of the best first-round games. On the one hand, you have to like N.C. State playing close to home. On the other hand, Cal has Leon Powe, who is one of the top players in the nation. To me, the Wolfpack confound me, as they are frequently near the top 25 without making a serious run to the top 15. Cal is similarly confounding, as Ben Braun recruits some outstanding talent but apparently not enough of it. Somehow, I think that Leon Powe is just too good, and the Golden Bears will get a win here.

Texas versus Pennsylvania. Penn plays smart, has an outstanding wing guard in Ibby Jaaber, but has only one player in its rotation who is 6'8" or taller and now relies on 6 players. Texas has perhaps more talent in its starting five than anyone, including UConn and Duke. Penn might be able to give Texas fits for 30 minutes, but in the end, the 'horns will hook 'em -- by 20 or more.

Remaining games (as I won't post an endless post)

I like Duke to beat GWU and LSU to beat Texas A&M in the second round, and I like West Virginia over Iowa and Texas over Cal. The Sweet 16 matchups will pit Duke versus LSU and West Virginia versus Texas, and I do concede that I'm betting the chalk in a Duke-Texas regional final. Yes, the Selection Committee has picked a re-match, and yes, it's a revenge game for Texas. But something worries me about Rick Barnes and big games, and Duke is like the Yankees, they're hard to bet against and you have to knock 'em out. That said, neither Duke nor the Yankees have won the title in several years, and there's also the factor of the "best coach not to win a national title." In recent years, Jim Boeheim, Gary Williams and Roy Williams have shed that tag. I don't know if Rick Barnes will do it this year, but the Longhorns will beat Duke. They have the horses, 'er, the steers, to do so.

Oakland

First round

Memphis versus Oral Roberts. I'm not sure that Memphis has received as much national attention as the other #1 seeds, but they're a high-octane team that should breze past Oral Roberts.

Arkansas versus Bucknell. There are a bunch of Bison fans out there, and Bucknell has had an excellent year. Yet, they're not great at taking care of the rock, and they're not as athletic as Arkansas. While I would love to see them go to the Sweet 16, Arkansas is almost as good as anyone the Bison have played this year. Along the lines of "Mom, I'm comin' home, they're starting to throw curve balls," I'll take the Razorbacks.

Pittsburgh versus Kent State. The Big East is very strong, and Pitt fared well in the Big East Tourney and seems to have a lot left. I have tons of respect for the Mid-American Conference, but Pitt has some outstanding players and hasn't suffered from the weakness of its pre-season schedule. Conferenced-hardened, the Panthers win this one.

Kansas versus Bradley. Rock, chalk, Jayhawk! They play good hoops in Peoria, but Bill Self has his team ready for a tournament run.

Indiana versus San Diego State. Steve Fisher doesn't have the Fab 5 playing for him in San Diego, and Mike Davis is a better coach than many believe and his team has some talent. This could be a good game, but I think that Davis will do some of his best coaching because he has nothing to lose here. Hoosiers win.

Gonzaga versus Xavier. See, above, my theory on Syracuse. Easy, easy win for Gonzaga here.

Marquette versus Alabama. Something tells me that Marquette coach Tom Crean and Iowa coach Steve Alford are auditioning for the Indiana job. The Warriors get past the Crimson Tide for a date with UCLA.

UCLA versus Belmont. Ben Howland is restoring the wizardry to Westwood with his team's defense. The Bruins can alway get talent. The bigger question recently has been whether they can keep it for more than two years and whether they can win with it. Comfortable win in Round 1.

Remaining Games:

I like Memphis over Arkansas in what should be a spirited regional contest, and I like Pitt over Kansas because I think that the Big East will go deeper into the tournament across the board this year than last year. I'll take Gonzaga to end Mike Davis' career at Indiana, and then I'll take under-the-radar UCLA to beat Marquette in the second round. That leaves Sweet 16 matchups between Memphis and Pitt and Gonzaga and UCLA. I have Memphis getting to the Elite 8, and I have UCLA doing the same. To some, it might be a slight upset to have UCLA beat Gonzaga, but UCLA is a more athletic team, and they play tough defense. Gonzaga had too many close calls within its inferior conference to give me comfort that it can beat UCLA. Up until today, I would have bet the chalk and said Memphis goes to the Final Four, but I've had a change of heart. Ben Howland is an excellent coach who will get to many Final Fours, and this will be the first time that he gets his UCLA teams there. It won't be the last.

Washington, D.C.

First Round

UConn versus Albany. Albany's first trip to the Big Dance will be a quick one. UConn moves on.

Kentucky versus UAB. Okay, so I may not be going out too much on a limb in the 8-9 game, but I'll pick UAB in the slight upset. Kentucky has not played well this year, certainly not when compared to other Tubby Smith teams. This is their year to go home early.

Washington versus Utah State. One day soon Utah State's Stew Morrill will get a head coaching job in a Top-6 Conference and do well there. Somehow, I think that the Huskies just have too much for Morrill's squad this time around.

Illinois versus Air Force. One of the last teams in, Air Force will be among the first to leave.

Michigan State versus George Mason. GMU are one of the darlings of the upset pickers, but they drew a tough club in Tom Izzo's Spartans. Draw a team of a lesser coach and I think that GMU would have a chance, but this is George Mason, not George Washington, and as in the country's foundational national politics, one will go on to higher perches. It's not Mason.

North Carolina versus Murray State. ESPN The Magazine picks the Racers as one of their upset specialists. Mick Cronin, their coach, will probably end up at Missouri or a Top 6 conference after this season. He'll provide ample support for that statement if his Racers can run by the Tar Heels in the first round. Something tells me that they can, but I just like Carolina too much and don't see it. Heels advance.

Wichita State versus Seton Hall. I'm a Big East fan, but not over the top about it. Mark Turgeon, Wichita State's coach, is a Larry Brown disciple, and the Missouri Valley Conference will show why they got five teams into the Big Dance when Wichita State beats the Seton Hall team that saved Coach Louis Orr his job.

Tennessee versus Winthrop. I like Bruce Pearl, I like the way he gets along with Pat Summitt, I love his orange jackets, but I don't see the Vols as a #2 seed, and Winthrop is a pretty good program in its own right. I'm actually going to summon up some courage and say that Winthrop will pull off the upset of the tournament and send nouveau-riche Tennessee home early.

Remaining Games:

I'll take UConn over UAB and then Illinois over Washington. I'll take UNC over Michigan State, and then I have Wichita State beating Winthrop. That leaves a Sweet 16 of UConn versus Illinois and Carolina versus Wichita State, and to me UConn is just too strong and Carolina has just played too well. So that makes it a Jim Calhoun-Roy Williams regional final, chalk versus chalk, but more seasoned chalk beats rookie chalk, and the Tar Heels are essentially rookie chalk. Put the Huskies -- the nationally known Huskies -- in the Final Four.

Minneapolis

Villanova versus Monmouth. I still think that Fairleigh Dickinson, whom Monmouth beat in its conference tournament, is a bit better than Monmouth, which played a great game last night. This is a good first-round tuneup for the 'Cats, for whom Monmouth doesn't pose any particular matchup problems.

Arizona versus Wisconsin. Should be one of the best first-round games, featuring a team long on talent and flakiness this year against a team that's always been long on grit. This isn't a great Lute Olson team, and I'll take Bo Ryan's Badgers in a close game.

Nevada versus Montana. This isn't NCAA Rodeo, but perhaps it's the "yee-haw, yipee" game of the year. This should be another excellent (if little-watched) first-round game, and I like the Wolfpack of Nevada here.

B.C. versus Pacific. Now, again, ESPN The Magazine loves Pacific (I love their colors), and thinks that they can win a first-round game, but BC just took Duke to the mat in the ACC final game and is perhaps the worst type of draw for Pacific. Look for the Eagles to be Screaming Eagles here and thrash Pacific's upset hopes early.

Oklahoma versus Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Score another win for a Big 12 team.

Florida versus South Alabama. Tough game for Bill Donovan, whose one-time top assistant, John Pelphrey, coaches USA. But that's the only way this game should be tough -- on the sentimental level. Look for the Gators to advance.

Georgetown versus Northern Iowa. I respect John Thompson III too much to see his team bow out in the first round, but Northern Iowa is one of those teams that can give you fits. My head tells me the Hoyas, but my heart tells me UNI. I'll go with my head here, although I confess it might hurt after this game is over.

Ohio State versus Davidson. I love the way Davidson plays, and in Brendan Winters they have a bona fide star at shooting guard. Ohio State has flown under the radar all year. Davidson is a good mid-major, but not nearly good enough to defeat the Buckeyes.

Remaining Games:

The Villanova-Wisconsin game will be a brutal affair if the Wildcats try to trade punches with the Badgers. Jay Wright is adept enough at having his team play its game, so I'll take Villanova to advance here. I like B.C. over Nevada, because B.C. is just one of the toughest teams around. I like Florida over Oklahoma because ironically, while Billy Donovan has famous names on his team, they're not perhaps the "big" names that got spoiled through the recruiting process. Put another way, this Florida team plays well together and should advance. Finally, I like Georgetown over Ohio State, if for no other reason than John Thompson is good at winning games that people don't expect him to. His Hoyas will rise to the challenge and have Thad Matta home early enough to design a great offense around incoming frosh Greg Oden. In the Sweet 16, Villanova and B.C. could play the best game of the tournament. Here, my heart tells me Villanova, but my head tells me that it's Al Skinner's time to get the national attention. His Eagles are about as tough a team as I've watched, and Villanova's inside guys won't have an answer for Craig Smith and B.C., in a very close affair. I like Florida over Georgetown, because I think that Billy Donovan has learned a thing or two since the heyday of having over-talented clubs, if there is such a concept. In the regional final, I like Boston College to beat Florida in a very spirited contest. This will be the toughest region from which to escape.

Final Four

Texas versus UCLA.

UConn versus Boston College.So, I have a #1 seed, two #2 seeds and a #4 seed. That means I've honored the chalk without getting drunk on the Super Chalk. That leaves a Texas-UCLA matchup and a UConn-BC matchup. Going into the season, I honestly though that Texas had more talent than anyone and was shocked when Duke put Texas away by more than 30 early in the season. I'm not sure any more, but their talent ranks within the Top 5. I like Ben Howland more than I do Rick Barnes (not having met either of them, but I'm talking about their coaching), and yet, you have to be the horse and not the jockey. Texas has enough to get by UCLA and make it to the final game I also think that both UConn and B.C. are worthy of the national title game, I really do. I loved what B.C. showed against Duke, and I like the way that UConn came back to soundly defeat a Villanova team that had beaten it in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier. If Texas isn't the most talented team in the country, UConn is. The UConn-B.C. game will be a fierce contest, but UConn will emerge. That leaves UConn and Texas, and I'm afraid that unlike coaches Boeheim, Williams and Williams, Coach Barnes will not get his first national title. No, instead, Jim Calhoun will get his third. The game could be in the high eighties, and the Huskies will win it.

Call it UConn 94, Texas 90.

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