Sunday, March 27, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Elite Eight Hoops Picks

March 27, 2011 on 8:25 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

Saturday’s two Elite Eight games were memorable, exciting finishes.  Butler erased an 11-point deficit to stun #2 seed Florida 74-71 in overtime.  The Bulldogs buckled down on defense yet again when the going got tough, and guard Shelvin Mack played through pain to deliver another splendid performance with 27 points, four rebounds and four assists.  It’s the second straight trip to the Final Four for Butler, becoming the first ‘mid-major’ team since UNLV in the early 90’s to accomplish that feat.  And that UNLV team had three pros in Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon – - this Butler team probably has only one.  The fundamentally sound Bulldogs are now 9-1 in the NCAA Tournament the last two years, and Brad Stevens’ team, which was 6-5 in the Horizon League at one point this year, has given quite the sequel their storybook run to the National Championship game a year ago.  In a losing effort, Florida’s Vernon Macklin was close to unstoppable with a career-high 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting in his game with the Gators.

The other Elite Eight game on Saturday featured arguably the two best players in College Basketball in Arizona’s Derrick Williams and UCONN’s Kemba Walker.  Both are very deserving of National Player of the Year honors, should be first round picks in the NBA Draft (and if Williams chooses to declare early, should go #1 overall) and left it all on the floor.  In the end, it was Walker’s step-back jumper that gave UCONN some cushion, and Arizona couldn’t convert one of their two potential game-winning three-pointers on the final possession as the Huskies held on for a 65-53 win between two teams that have drastically improved after neither made the NCAA Tournament in 2010.  UCONN has now won nine games in 19 days after a 4-7 finish to the regular season, and in a game between two stars, it was the under control freshman Jeremy Lamb that really delivered in crunch time and was perhaps the Player of the Game with some of his clutch, smooth and heads up plays he made down the stretch.

Sunday’s Elite Eight Matchups:

2:20 PM:  #1 Kansas (35-2) vs. #11 VCU (27-11) – - Making their third appearance in the Elite Eight in just five years, the Kansas Jayhawks are trying to win their second National Championship in the Bill Self era.  That last title came in a thrilling comeback against Memphis in 2008.  Kansas did such a good job switching on screens and cutting off driving lanes in their 20-point rout of Richmond in the Sweet 16.  As long as they close out on open shooters and control the backboards like we’ve seen them do more times than not, the Jayhawks should be in great shape.  VCU is only the fifth #11 seed ever to make it to the Elite Eight.  The last one from the CAA to get this far was George Mason back in 2006 when the Patriots shocked UCONN in overtime to earn a spot in the Final Four.  An upset of Kansas here by the Rams would be as big a surprise as that one five years ago.  The Rams have gotten big shooting efforts from Brandon Rozzell and Brad Burgess in the tourney, plus fiery guard Joey Rodriguez has shown moxie and made key plays in the backcourt.  VCU will have their hands full stopping the Morris twins for Kansas as well as guards Brady Morningstar, Tyshawn Taylor and athletic freshman Josh Selby.  Unfortunately, I think the phenomenal run by VCU comes to an end.  To pull the upset, they must create points off turnovers and get a monster game from someone, just maybe that guy being multi-skilled forward Jamie Skeen.  Pick:  Kansas by 13

5:05 PM:  #2 North Carolina (29-7) vs. #4 Kentucky (28-8) – - These are two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport.  You also have two of the best coaches around in Roy Williams, searching for his third title since 2005 with the Tar Heels, and John Calipari, trying to win that elusive crown at a basketball power like Kentucky that accepts nothing but excellence.  Kentucky is three wins away from its eighth National Championship.  It is North Carolina’s 18th Elite Eight appearance, the most all-time in College Basketball history.  UNC is potent offensively, averaging 77.8 points per game.  Kentucky, which has lost each of its last four games in the Elite Eight, has gotten two game-winners in this NCAA Tournament including one in the Sweet 16 vs. Ohio State from freshman point guard Brandon Knight, who could be the Most Valuable Player of this East Regional.  Also critical has been the play of 6-foot-10 bruising senior forward Josh Harrellson, who’ll have a key matchup with Tyler Zeller and John Henson, two guys that can go for a double-double at any time for UNC.  The Tar Heels have a talented freshman point guard of their own in Kendall Marshall, and watch for DeAndre Liggins, a versatile 6-foot-6 guard, to defend him.  A 20 or 25-point night from Harrison Barnes would go a long way towards getting the win, while Kentucky knows they have to get strong contributions from their two other freshmen, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, to advance.  In the end, Kentucky’s defense if they’re able to keep the game in the half-court the final few minutes, I think will be enough for them to get the nod.  Pick:  Kentucky by 2

Saturday, March 26, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Elite Eight Hoops Picks

March 26, 2011 on 10:41 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

The first two games on Friday night were uneventful blowouts as North Carolina breezed by Marquette and Kansas pummeled Richmond in earning a spot in Sunday’s Elite Eight.  However, the games in the nightcap were incredible with Kentucky beating #1 overall seed Ohio State 62-60 on a game-winner with five seconds to go by freshman point guard Brandon Knight, and VCU continuing its magical run with a 72-71 win over Florida State in overtime, led by 26 points and six three-pointers from Brad Burgess.

There have been some fantastic finishes and close calls with 14 games decided by three points or fewer in this NCAA Tournament and 14 won on the last possession as well as four overtime contests.  The Madness resumes today with a couple of Elite Eight showdowns, half of the Final Four field will be known by late Saturday night . . . here are the Picks and Breakdown.

First Round Picks:  23-9
Second Round Picks:  10-6
Sweet 16 Picks:  4-4
Total:  37-19

Saturday’s Elite Eight Matchups:

4:20 PM:  #2 Florida (29-7) vs. #8 Butler (26-9) – - Back-to-back National Champs in 2006-07, the Florida Gators are in the Elite Eight for the fifth time and fourth since 2000.  Florida needed overtime to dispatch BYU 83-74 in the Sweet 16.  Alex Tyus really stepped up with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting to go with 17 rebounds.  Guard Kenny Boynton added 17 points and five assists, while Chandler Parsons came close to a triple-double with 16 points, nine boards and seven assists.  An experienced team that starts three seniors, Florida will need strong efforts from senior forward Vernon Macklin as well as junior guard Erving Walker to beat a Butler team that continues to defy the odds.  One thing Florida will have to do to be successful is not fall in love with the three-point shot too much.  The Gators connected on 11-of-34 attempts against BYU, and if they end up shooting above 20 3’s, that could harm them in this matchup. 

Butler has won eight of their last nine NCAA Tournament games, showing great defensive grit and toughness to be within one victory of a return trip to the Final Four.  This is a Butler team that takes care of the basketball, attacks aggressively on the offensive end, plays unselfish and shares the ball, and has incredible focus, too.  Senior forward Matt Howard is their heady, lunch-pail type of player that really drives them along with talented guard Shelvin Mack, who can create his own shot and hit a tough mid-range jumper late in the win over Wisconsin one game after scoring 30 on Pittsburgh.  Nobody jumps on Butler and puts them away early, and while I don’t expect that to happen here either, the Gators have too much length for the Bulldogs for 32 minutes.  That should play a major role in the outcome.  Pick:  Florida by 5

 

7:05 PM:  #3 Connecticut (29-9) vs. #5 Arizona (30-7) – - The only Big East team to reach the Elite Eight, the Big East Tournament Champion UCONN Huskies have beaten the likes of Bucknell, Cincinnati and San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament to reach the Elite Eight for the eighth time in school history.  In the win over San Diego State, star guard Kemba Walker was simply amazing with 36 points, slicing and dicing the defense and scoring in a variety of ways.  Freshman Jeremy Lamb was as cool as a cucumber as well, scoring 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 3-for-3 from downtown and making timely plays.  To get by Arizona, some more brilliance from Walker and Lamb would be great to have, but the Huskies have to be strong on the boards, beginning with 6-foot-9 sophomore Alex Oriakhi and 6-foot-8 freshman Roscoe Smith, who’ll step out and hit from the perimeter when left open.

For Arizona, it is their first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2005 when the Wildcats lost to Illinois in a dramatic overtime thriller.  That team had a couple of pros on it in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudemire.  This current version of the Wildcats has a potential first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft in 6-foot-7 sophomore sensation Derrick Williams.  Arizona was just too athletic and quick off the dribble in their 93-77 stunning of Duke where they outscored the defending National Champions 55-33 in the second half, shooting a blistering 58%.  Williams scored a career-high 32 points on 11-17 from the field and 5-6 from long distance to go with 13 rebounds, and the real surprise was the play of guard Momo Jones, who scored 16 points on 60% shooting, dished out six assists and didn’t commit a turnover.  In my opinion, Arizona is the more complete team and this is one of the few games where the wonderful Walker may not be the best player on the floor.  That title could belong to Williams, an animal right now that does it all.  Nobody might have an answer for him, plus the Zona bench is fairly underrated; the Cats are just as deep as UCONN is and Solomon Hill is the x-factor in this one.  Pick:  Arizona by 3

Friday, March 25, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Sweet 16 Hoops Picks

March 26, 2011 on 1:44 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

The Sweet 16 concludes on Friday night with four matchups as four teams look to punch their ticket to the Elite Eight to join Connecticut, Butler, Florida and Arizona.  Star performances were turned in Thursday night by Arizona’s Derrick Williams (career-high 32 points, 13 rebounds) and UCONN’s Kemba Walker (36 points), the Gators outlasted BYU in overtime and the magical run for Butler continued as they now are one win away from being the only team from the 2010 Final Four to return there in 2011.

Could there be an upset or two on Friday night?  Let’s get to the selections here on Hatfield Sports . . .

First Round Picks:  23-9
Second Round Picks:  10-6
Thursday Sweet 16 Picks:  2-2

Friday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:

7:15 PM:  #2 North Carolina (28-7) vs. #11 Marquette (22-14) – - One team wants to play fast, the other wants to keep it a slow-down type of game.  Looking to play pedal to the medal, North Carolina pulled out a close 86-83 win over Washington in a game where the Tar Heels trailed by 11 in the first half and five with seven minutes to go.  Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall continued to dazzle with his  savvy, poised play at the point, posting a double-double with 13 points and 14 assists – - the most by a UNC player ever in the NCAA Tournament, breaking the old mark held by Kenny Smith.  Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles of Marquette got a big surprising win over Big East rival Syracuse in the Round of 32 to get here, forcing 17 turnovers and taking the lead for good with 25.1 seconds left on a three-pointer from Darius Johnson-Odom, their deadly weapon from the outside.  Johnson-Odom has connected on 7-of-13 three-point tries in this tournament already.  Marquette trailed by 10 in that game and battled back to steal a 66-62 win, earning their first Sweet 16 trip since the Dwyane Wade days of 2003 when they made it to the Final Four.  While Marquette was the leading scoring team in the Big East this season, they want this to be an ugly game played mostly in the half-court.  Getting 15 to 20 points from 6-foot-7 senior swingman Jimmy Butler is going to be highly important.  Tyler Zeller has been playing quite well inside for UNC, averaging 27.5PPG and 7.5RPG to go with 60% shooting from the field in the tourney.  Future pro Harrison Barnes is a game-changer on the wing, and John Henson has to bounce back from a subpar performance versus Washington in the post.  Marquette’s scrambling defense will have to do a good job of getting back in transition against a high-octane North Carolina attack that scores points in bunches and in a hurry.  A game in the high 60’s or low 70’s would favor Marquette.  In this battle of wills, UNC’s speed and athleticism gives them a distinct advantage in my opinion, and I doubt Marquette is able to battle back again from a double-digit deficit like they did against Syracuse.  Look for the Tar Heels to win their tenth straight Sweet 16 game since 1993.  Pick:  North Carolina by 8

7:27 PM:  #1 Kansas (34-2) vs. #12 Richmond (29-7) – -Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks are back in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons.  On paper it looks like a cakewalk to the Final Four for Kansas as the highest seed they will have to beat to get there is #9 seed Illinois, who they defeated 73-59 in the last round.  Their next two opponents are double-digit seeds, provided the Jayhawks advance.  If Kansas gets to the Final Four, it’ll mark the 14th time in their history they get there, but they have to get past a solid Richmond squad.  Richmond runs a Princeton-type offense that is difficult to defend and they do an awful lot of damage from behind the three-point line.  It was seen in their win over #5 seed Vanderbilt, sinking 12 of 24 three-point attempts, and then beating Morehead State by holding their own on the boards.  Kevin Anderson (23PPG in the NCAA Tourney), the Atlantic-10 Tournament MVP, has made 130 consecutive starts, the most among all active NCAA Division I College Basketball players.  He’s the guy that gets the Spiders headed in the right direction more times than not.  Forward Justin Harper has to be on his game against a really tough Kansas front-line.  The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, carry the baton for Kansas, and senior guard Brady Morningstar along with Tyshawn Taylor provide the energy in the backcourt.  Unless Richmond is ice cold, the Spiders’ style will probably frustrate Kansas enough to make this a close game.  This game is similar to the Kansas/Davidson game from the 2008 Elite Eight, which means it could be played in the high 50’s or low 60’s.  Eventually the Jayhawks should be able to get on a flurry in the ladder stages of the second half to turn a close game into a three or four possession lead that gives them enough breathing room to put the pesky Spiders away.  What also is on Kansas’ side is history – - #1 seeds are a perfect 17-0 all-time in the NCAA Tournament against #12 seeds.  Pick:  Kansas by 10

9:45 PM:  #1 Ohio State (34-2) vs. #4 Kentucky (27-8) – - Basketball fans have to love this matchup because you have great athletes, physical teams and plenty of future pro talent on display.  For John Calipari, it is the sixth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.  For the Wildcats of Kentucky, they are in the Sweet 16 round for the 16th time since 1985, more than any other SEC program in the land by far.  His Kentucky team currently is highlighted by a few freshmen in Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.  Knight dropped a career-high 30 points in helping Kentucky erase an eight-point half-time deficit in a 71-63 win over West Virginia.  Meanwhile, the Ohio State Buckeyes showed thorough domination in beating George Mason, outscoring the Patriots 50-15 the final 16:09 of the first half on their way to a 32-point drubbing.  Ohio State simply couldn’t miss from long distance, hitting 16 of 26 from downtown and David Lighty was a perfect 7-for-7 behind the three-point line in piling up 25 points.  William Buford and Jon Diebler can strike from the outside to go with Lighty, and the duo of freshman Jared Sullinger, one of the National Player of the Year candidates, and the beefy James Lauderdale impose their will in the painted area.  To compete inside, Kentucky has to get a productive night from 6-foot-10 senior forward Josh Harrellson, who could get in foul trouble in this one.  Furthermore, Kentucky has to get off to a fast start and throw that first punch at an Ohio State team that will overwhelm you early if you stumble for a minute.  Right now Ohio State doesn’t look like they have a weakness, but Kentucky has the talent to give them a challenge and put them in a tricky game, especially if the jumpers aren’t falling for a stretch for the Buckeyes.  These two programs haven’t met up since December of 1996, and it’s sure to be a dandy.  In the end, the Buckeyes are just too strong and physical inside, plus can connect on the outside.  Their experience with three seniors that play major minutes and big roles should pay dividends in this spot as well.  Pick:  Ohio State by 5

9:57 PM:  #10 Florida State (23-10) vs. #11 VCU (26-11) – - One of these two underdogs will be headed to the Elite Eight in a rather surprise considering both were expected to be ousted in the first round, one of which had to win a play-in game if you will just to see Georgetown.  Here for the first time in the Sweet 16 ever, the VCU Rams are coming off a marvelous performance in a 94-76 thumping of Purdue in the last round where they put on a clinic and handed out 24 assists.  Small tough as nails guard Joey Rodriguez was big with 13 assists and no turnovers against the Boilermakers.  Coach Shaka Smart, only in his second year at VCU, is looking some kind of smart right now, getting his Rams to believe and he’s up for some coaching jobs in bigger conferences, especially as long as VCU continues to win.  Florida State is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1993.  The Seminoles cruised 71-57 against #2 seed Notre Dame in the last round, sinking 7-of-12 three-pointers in the first half.  Leonard Hamilton’s Noles aren’t flashy on offense, but are as good on the defensive end as any team in the country.  Derwin Kitchen is a stellar rebounding guard at 6-foot-4, and Chris Singleton, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has slowly but surely worked his way back from injury.  Michael Snaer really had a strong offensive game the last time out against the Fighting Irish, and it’ll be important he matches that type of performance this time around.  The x-factor for VCU will be Brandon Rozzell, who was money in their victory over Georgetown from three-point territory shooting the basketball.  VCU relies heavily on the jump shot, and they have been hitting at an incredibly high level of late, but does their luck run out here?  Florida State really gets after it defensively and they don’t give you many clean looks from the outside at all, so the Rams may have to get a super effort inside both scoring and rebounding from forward Jamie Skeen to move on to the Elite Eight.  To me, VCU has started to get some attention and love now after being criticized entering the tournament.  Having that same type of hunger will be important, but FSU has to feel they aren’t getting their just due and play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.  Getting some time to get Singleton healthier ought to help them, too.  Pick:  Florida State by 4

Thursday, March 24, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Sweet 16 Picks

March 25, 2011 on 1:48 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

The Sweet Sixteen is here as the NCAA Tournament that began just a little over a week ago with 68 teams has whittled its way down to just 16 remaining squads who will fight for the right by the end of this weekend to head to Houston and the Final Four.  There have been plenty of intriguing storylines to follow in this 2011 NCAA Tourney, perhaps none drawing more buzz than the Cinderella run by #11 seed VCU, which many experts and analysts said didn’t belong in the field, yet they are only two wins away from a Final Four appearance.  It was just five years ago that George Mason, another team from the CAA, made it to the Final Four as a #11 seed when they shocked Michigan State, North Carolina and UCONN along the way.  Giant names in the sport like defending National Champion Duke, UNC, Kansas, Ohio State and UCONN remain, a couple of Mountain West teams like BYU and San Diego State hope to make history of their own, and Sunshine State schools Florida and Florida State are still playing. 

Another surprise – - we have as many teams from the city of Richmond, Virginia in the Spiders of Richmond and Rams from VCU, as we do Big East schools still playing, left with only UCONN and Marquette.  Strap in and enjoy the ride as we breakdown these games and offer predictions here on Hatfield Sports . . .

First Round Picks:  23-9
Second Round Picks:  10-6

Thursday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:

7:15 PM:  #2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. #3 Connecticut (28-9) – - It’s the first ever Sweet 16 appearance for the San Diego Aztecs, who are enjoying the best season in school history with 34 wins and will take on the Big East Tournament Champion Huskies from Connecticut.  The two coaches, Jim Calhoun of UCONN and Steve Fisher from San Diego State, have won a National Championship before and also are the two oldest coaches left in the tourney (Calhoun 68; Fisher 66).  Calhoun is 47-18 now in the NCAA Tournament, and if this team wins two more games to make it to the Final Four, would make for an amazing run to get there considered this was one of the few years where the preseason expectations weren’t that highly set.  UCONN has the star player in guard Kemba Walker, who is averaging 26.3 points per game in the month of March in over 38 minutes a contest.  Even more impressive is the fact he hasn’t missed a free-throw in the tourney (20-for-20).  San Diego State will rely on its very good and athletic front-line with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, who’s averaging a double-double in this tourney.  They’re tough on the backboards and on the inside scoring around the basket.  D.J. Gay at the guard spot brings them leadership and is a solid decision maker.  UCONN has gotten solid efforts from Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith, which will need to continue to advance.  Alex Oriakhi is the x-factor inside for the Huskies; if he has a big game they can get a win.  Oriakhi averages nine rebounds a game, second most in the Big East.  This game is closer to home for San Diego State, only 93 away compared to the 3000 miles UCONN has to travel.  In a tight game, that home-court type of advantage should favor an Aztecs team that won a close double-overtime nail-biter with Temple the last time out.  Pick:  San Diego State by 2

7:27 PM:  #2 Florida (28-7) vs. #3 BYU (32-4) – - These two teams have tangled before as it was just last year in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament that the BYU Cougars outlasted the Florida Gators 99-92 in double-overtime .  BYU is coming off a convincing 89-67 rout of Gonzaga in the last round to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981.  The Cougars got another splendid performance from their All-American hopeful Jimmer Fredette, who scored 34 points on 7-of-12 shooting from three-point distance and dished out six assists.  Florida has 28+ wins for the fifth time since 1993-94, and Coach Billy Donovan is seeking his third National Championship.  His Gators have a balanced attack, led by lightning-quick guard Erving Walker, who was superb in the Gators’ 73-65 second round win over UCLA as he scored 21 points, including the game’s final seven points in a span of 1:30.  Kenny Boynton is another nice option in the backcourt, and Chandler Parsons brings versatility and plenty of skills to the table, too.  Florida’s length can give them the option to throw some different bodies and defenders at the scoring star Fredette.  For BYU, it’s not all about Fredette as Jackson Emery is a weapon from beyond the arc.  Noah Hartsock on the boards must play at his full potential as well.  BYU is the much better foul shooting team of the two and if it’s close that could be a major factor.  This is the game where I think BYU will miss Brandon Davies inside, and the Gators will turn to Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus to deliver in the paint for key run in the closing minutes to allow them to pull away.  Pick:  Florida by 11

9:45 PM:  #1 Duke (32-4) vs. #3 Arizona (29-7) – - It’s the first meeting between these two teams since that 2001 National Championship game that Duke won 82-72 over the Wildcats.  Arizona is making its sixth Sweet 16 trip in 11 years.  For Duke, the Sweet 16 is nothing new either.  Coach K, who just picked up career win #900, is making his 20th appearance in the Sweet 16 round.  The star for Arizona has them thinking they have a great shot to go to the Final Four.  Potential #1 NBA Draft pick Derrick Williams has put up 39 points and 19 rebounds in two NCAA Tournament games.  Williams scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half in Arizona’s 70-69 escape against Texas.  To complement Williams, it’ll be crucial that Momo Jones hits open jumpers from the outside to stretch the defense.  Senior guard Nolan Smith really came through for Duke in their 73-71 win over Michigan, finishing with 24 points on an efficient 8-for-13 from the field.  The Wolverines committed only seven turnovers in that game and gave the Blue Devils fits with their 1-3-1 half-court trap and zone defenses they threw at them.  For Arizona, their defense has to be able to somewhat contain both Smith and Duke forward Kyle Singler, another dangerous offensive threat that can hit for 20 on any night.  Freshman guard Kyrie Irving is expected to play more minutes for Duke than in the last two games as he improves from the injury he sustained that kept him sidelined the past couple months.  Although the ball-handling can be a little sloppy for Arizona at times and their perimeter shooting is up and down, they have a deep, underrated bench that gave them a lift in the last game, and Williams gives them a matchup problem that Duke may be unable to solve.  The Blue Devils are the clear favorite in this one, but I definitely can see the upset occurring.  Pick:  Arizona by 1

9:55 PM:  #4 Wisconsin (25-8) vs. #8 Butler (25-9) – - In this Sweet 16 matchup we have a couple of teams that are really mirror images of one another.  Both are physical, grind-it-out teams.  The National runner-up a year ago, the Butler Bulldogs are trying to make another incredible and improbable run to the Final Four.  Butler’s last four NCAA Tournament games have been decided at the buzzer.  Their 34-year-old Head coach Brad Stevens is 8-3 in the NCAA Tournament, including 7-1 the last two years.  His team is coming off a bizarre ending where the Bulldogs won despite Pittsburg rallying from an eight-point half-time deficit, shooting 56% from the field and assisting on 21 of their 26 field goals.  For Wisconsin, it is their fifth Sweet 16 appearance since 1985 and they overcame a 38-point performance from Jacob Pullen to defeat Kansas State 70-65 in the previous round.  It was a back-and-forth game with 15 lead changes, and what proved to be big for Wisconsin was the three-point shot.  It’s the great equalizer, and the Badgers were 9-for-20 from long range, including a big one by red head Mike Bruesweitz down the stretch.  Two prolific guards will be squaring off in Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Butler’s Shelvin Mack.  The key for Butler is getting the same kind of shooting performance they did in the last round as they were 8-for-16 from the three-point line with Mack hitting for 30 points on 7-of-12 from deep.  Butler’s been a resilient bunch and they have three starters back from their team that made it all the way to the National Championship game.  One of them is the hero the last two games in forward Matt Howard, a smart player with a tremendously high basketball IQ.  But the Badgers have plenty of experience of their own with six seniors on its roster.  Wisconsin also leads the nation in free-throw percentage at 82.7%, plus commits only 7.5 turnovers per game, which places #1 in the land as well.  Pick:  Wisconsin by 6

Sunday, March 20, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Round of 32 Picks

March 20, 2011 on 11:57 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

Saturday’s Round of 32 College Basketball March Madness action was as exciting as it gets with several dramatic finishes as Butler stunned top seeded Pittsburgh in a wild one 71-70, San Diego State outlasted Temple in double-overtime and Wisconsin overcame a vintage 38-point points performance from Kansas State star Jacob Pullen in a down-to-the-wire, back-and-forth affair.  Both Florida and Kentucky out of the SEC advanced after close calls, #12 seed Richmond continued its surprising run, Connecticut continued its brilliance behind Kemba Walker, and BYU led by its star Jimmer Fredette was mighty impressive in a convincing 22-point blowout of Gonzaga.

Without further ado, here are my Picks for the remainder of the Round of 32 matchups that comes our way on Sunday . . .

 

First Round Picks:  23-9
Saturday’s Second Round Picks:  5-3

Sunday’s Second Round Matchups:

#2 North Carolina (27-7) vs. #7 Washington (24-10) – - National Champions just two short years ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels have a group of heralded youngsters with freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller leading the way.  Zeller scored a career-high 32 points against Long Island, it was a brilliant game for Barnes too with 24 points and 16 rebounds (this the same guy that dropped 40 in an ACC Tournament game), and Marshall has helped this team flourish in the starting point guard role.  They’re up against a high-octane Washington team led by guard Isaiah Thomas, who had 19 points and seven assists against Georgia in the last round.  Champions of the Pac-10 Tournament, the Huskies are seeking their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the past seven seasons.  Meanwhile, UNC is looking for its record 24th ever Sweet 16 trip.  Inconsistent outside shooting has plagued the Tar Heels in spots this year, and when they struggle to make from the perimeter, they are vulnerable to being beat by anybody.  Not to mention, as great as the offense is for UNC when they are humming – - 102 points against Long Island in the previous round – - their defense has had its lackluster moments, even surrendering 87 in that game.  It’ll be up to the Huskies’ defense and taking care of the basketball to win in Charlotte.  Pick:  Washington by 2 in OT

#1 Duke (31-4) vs. #8 Michigan (21-13) – - One team was expected to be here, the other not so much.  Coach K at Duke recorded win #899 as his Blue Devils rolled past Hampton University 87-45 in the return of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving from injury.  Irving scored a game-high 14 points in only 20 minutes of action.  John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines blitzed Tennessee 75-45 on Friday to move on to the Round of 32.  Michigan, picked last in the Big Ten in the preseason, became the first team to win an NCAA Tournament game without a made free-throw.  They better make sure they get to the foul line against a powerful Duke team with All-American performers like Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, plus knock down their share of three-pointers.  Beating a defending National Champion like Duke in Charlotte is a tall task for anyone, especially a Michigan team that plays no seniors and will dearly miss having some of that big-game experience in crunch time.  Much like UCLA on Saturday, this is a Wolverines team that has a bright future, so look for them to play hard, be in it for a half, but fizzle out.  Their Final Four chances will be much better come 2012.  Pick:  Duke by 11

#1 Ohio State (33-2) vs. #8 George Mason (27-6) – - Five years ago, the George Mason Patriots were the darling of the NCAA Tournament, making it to the Final Four as an 11 seed when many felt they didn’t deserve to make the tourney.  Along the way, Jim Larranaga’s team took down giants like Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut.  Here’s another giant standing right in their way in the tourney’s number one overall seed, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who’ll be right at home playing this game in Cleveland.  Mason is going to have to play close to flawlessly to pull it off, and that means Luke Hancock playing as well as he did in the comeback win over Villanova, and even better levels for the likes of Cam Long, Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison.  Problem is the Patriots aren’t a great foul shooting team, the Buckeyes have a monster inside in freshman Jared Sullinger, and the complementary parts like David Lighty, William Buford and three-point threat John Diebler are playing really well right now.  One cold spell against Ohio State and you’re doomed.  While you can never count out Larranaga’s team, they look to be overmatched in this one.  Pick:  Ohio State by 15

#4 Texas (28-7) vs. #5 Arizona (28-7) – - No matchup in the Round of 32 fascinates me more than this one.  You might not find a better matchup of athletes, future pros and great basketball skill on display than in this game.  Arizona 6-foot-8, 240-pound versatile sophomore forward Derrick Williams could make a push to be the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.  Williams, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, can do it all – - dribble, shoot, rebound, defend, and an inside-outside threat without a glaring weakness or flaw in his game.  His performance against Memphis with 22 points, 10 rebounds, a perfect 9-for-9 at the foul line and a game-saving block was nothing short of superb.  Memphis hit Arizona in the early going with stellar speed and got off to an explosive start.  Full of talent, at one point in the season the Texas Longhorns had the look of a National Championship caliber team, defending at a high level and clicking on all cylinders.  They had a mini wall, but with five players averaging between 9.8 points and 18.6 points per game, led by Jordan Hamilton, they have great balance.  Tristan Thompson, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, is a future pro as well.  For the Cats to meow and pull out a win, they need sophomore Momo Jones to be on target from the outside shooting the basketball.  Making someone other than Williams beat them will be what Texas tries to do.   Don’t be surprised to see the winner of this game make it to the Final Four, and regardless of who prevails, I see the victor giving Duke fits in the Sweet 16.  Pick:  Arizona by 3

#3 Purdue (26-7) vs. #11 VCU (25-11) – - Few teams in this NCAA Tournament have generated more buzz than Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams.  Some felt they didn’t belong in the tourney, and they won the play-in-game with USC, and then followed that up with an even sharper performance, shooting lights out in a 74-56 upset of Georgetown.  VCU shot 12-for-25 from long range in that game, 26-for-39 at the foul line and limited the Hoyas to 5-for-26 from downtown while forcing 17 turnovers.  Forward Jamie Skeen has been big all year with his ability to strike inside and outside, and guard Joey Rodriguez gives them that pesky, gritty competitor in the backcourt.  But the guy who did the most damage was Brandon Rozzell with 26 points and 6-of-10 on 3’s.  Purdue was rather quietly strong in their opening round win over St. Peter’s, comfortably winning 65-43 as they played excellent defense in the first half in holding the Peacocks to just 17 points.  Forward JaJuan Johnson is a double-double waiting to happen, E’Twaun Moore fills the stat sheet too, and when they get Lewis Johnson to be that consistent #3 contributor, this team has Final Four potential.  If the Rams are able to go a long stretch without a turnover like they did in the previous round, their chances of the upset go up, but shooting as well as they did and defending Johnson will be a tricky task.  Pick:  Purdue by 6

#3 Syracuse (27-7) vs. #11 Marquette (21-14) – - After seeing UCONN and Cincinnati on Saturday, we get another rare Big East battle in the Round of 32 with Syracuse taking on an upset-minded Marquette team that as an 11 seed ousted #6 seed Xavier in the previous round.  When these two hooked up in the regular season, Marquette won, but circumstances are a little different this time, and the Orange look to make it a tight squeeze with that 2-3 zone defense of theirs.  Their big, physical front-line gives plenty of teams problems.   Rick Jackson is a handful in the paint, and Scoop Jardine really becomes tough to guard when he’s hitting that three-point shot.  Coach Jim Boeheim is now 45-27 in the NCAA Tournament, and some believe this is his best team since that 2003 squad led by Carmelo Anthony that won the title.  I’m not going to go that far, but they are in position to get to the Final Four, even though it may require getting through North Carolina and Ohio State in a three-day span.  Marquette has a three-point ace in 6-foot-2 junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom that hey will lean on, and Jimmy Butler makes things happen on both ends of the floor (11 points, 3 steals in the first half vs. Xavier).  Buzz Williams’ team will have to limit their turnovers to keep this close and have a shot at the upset.  Pick:  Syracuse by 10

#1 Kansas (33-2) vs. #9 Illinois (20-13) – - Oh that tournament committee is clever.  When they did the brackets, it must have come into their thought process that Kansas Coach Bill Self could face his former team, Illinois, in the Round of 32.  The Jayhawks got quite a tussle from Boston University, a #16 seed, in the first round, leading by only four at the half as BU shot 6-of-13 from three-point land.  Kansas got the inside-outside ball movement they needed in the second half though, drilling three consecutive treys to go up 15 and eventually winning 72-53.  The Jayhawks have the most seasoned player in the Big 12 in Brady Morningstar, the Morris twins are terrific players too, and junior guard Tyshawn Taylor is a wonderful passer averaging seven assists per game on the year.  Illinois couldn’t have played much better than they did in their 73-62 rout of UNLV.  Demetri McCamey was impressive off the dribble, both shooting and dishing, and big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale gave them quality efforts on the inside, effective scoring and on the glass.  Kansas’ transition game should be the difference here; it’ll be too much for Illinois to handle, and in the half-court they will do a better job of breaking the Illini down as well as limiting their high-percentage shot opportunities than UNLV did.  Pick:  Kansas by 14

#2 Notre Dame (27-6) vs. #10 Florida State (22-10) – - Contrasting styles go at it in the nightcap of the Round of 32 action on Sunday in Chicago with Notre Dame, more of an offensive-minded team, taking on a Florida State squad that gets it done with defense first and foremost.  Notre Dame is looking to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003; Florida State for the first time since 1993, and really when these two teams are at their best they have Top Ten potential in the country.  Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of former UNC standout Tyler, headlines the Fighting Irish attack, which is experienced, efficient and hard to catch when they get a lead.  Hansbrough finished with 15 points and six assists, and Carlton Scott collected 14 rebounds in their 69-56 win over Akron in the first round.  The Seminoles blocked 10 shots in their 57-50 triumph over Texas A&M, earning their first NCAA Tournament win since 1998.  ACC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Singleton is back from injury, and he ought to give the offense a boost as well to go with 6-foot-4 senior Derwin Kitchen, one of the best rebounding guards in the nation.  FSU has held 99 of their last 103 opponents under 50% shooting, so it’s going to be a real challenge for the Irish to shoot as well as we’re accustomed to seeing them shoot.  Pick:  Florida State by 3

Saturday, March 19, 2011 – NCAA March Madness Round of 32 Picks

March 20, 2011 on 2:18 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

Wow!!  What a first two days of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament here in 2011, one of the best starts I can remember in recent memory with the usual buzzer-beaters, surprising upsets, down to the wire finishes and exciting moments.  Some of the storylines so far include . . .

Thrilling Finishes & Close Calls – - Just in the first day alone, there were six games decided by three points or less and five by two points or fewer, tying the record for one day in the NCAA Tournament.  A shot at the buzzer in the Butler/ODU game, also game-winners at the end in three others with Temple/Penn state, Morehead State/Louisville and Kentucky/Princeton . . . can it be topped in the Round of 32?

CAA Takes Down Two Big East Giants – - At one point in the season, the likes of Villanova and Georgetown were ranked in the Top Ten in the nation.  But neither is headed to the Round of 32 as George Mason erased a six-point deficit in the final two minutes to stun Nova 61-57, and VCU put it to Georgetown 74-56 behind blistering three-point shooting (12-for-26).  Mason has been here before, getting to the 2006 Final Four under Coach Jim Larranaga.  VCU also is no stranger to this, having knocked off Duke a few years ago behind Eric Maynor.

Mason & Morehead Magic – - Not only did George Mason get some magic with Luke Hancock, now known as ‘Cool Hand Luke’ hitting a pivotal three-pointer to put the Patriots up two points late in their win over Villanova, but Morehead State’s stunning comeback win over #4 seed Louisville on Thursday marked the second year in a row a team from the Ohio Valley Conference won in the NCAA Tournament.  Going for the win instead of the tie down the stretch is something these underdogs aren’t afraid of doing, and Morehead’s magic got this tourney off to a fine start for the Cinderella’s of the world.

San Diego State Makes History – - Steve Fisher’s Aztecs won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in school history, and 33-2 overall, they continue their chase of a Final Four berth.  But they may have to get past red hot Connecticut, the Big East Tournament Champion, and defending National Champion Duke to get to the Final Four.

Big East Muscles Flex – - By getting 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Big East as a conference set a new record, which they previous set a few years ago.  But even though they went only 7-4, the league did produce a couple of Round of 32 matchups with Connecticut set to take on Cincinnati Saturday night, and Syracuse versus Marquette on Sunday.  Don’t be surprised to see the league get multiple teams to the Final Four, and at least three of those seven to the Elite Eight.

Most Impressed With In Defeat – - Memphis and Princeton, pushing the likes of Arizona and Kentucky to the brink as double-digit seeds, impressed me.  These two teams led in the second half and lost in the final seconds.  Each program is on the rise, and it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see both teams return to this tourney next year with another great shot to advance in an underdog role.

Disappointments – - To me, the likes of Villanova, Vanderbilt, Georgetown and Tennessee were the most disappointing in the first round.  All are from power conferences.  For Georgetown and Vanderbilt, we’ve seen this before.  It’s the third straight year Vandy has fallen in the opening round of the NCAA’s as a Top 5 seed.  And it’s not like Richmond or Murray State are powerhouse programs, same goes for the teams that have beaten the Hoyas (Ohio and VCU) – - each doing so with comfortable 20-plus point leads.  And as for Tennessee, the distraction surrounding Bruce Pearl caught it up with the Vols, who simply didn’t play hard or with desire.  Michigan outscored them 42-16 in the second half on their way to a 30-point romp.

 

. . . The Madness continues today with eight games, and here’s our picks on each:

First Round Picks:  23-9

Saturday’s Second Round Matchups:

#4 Kentucky (26-8) vs. #5 West Virginia (21-11) – - This is a re-match from last year’s Elite Eight game that West Virginia won 73-66 when in the Mountaineers they shot 10-for-23 from three-point range, whereas Kentucky misfired on their first 20.  There are some new characters on both teams though, and Kentucky has a freshman trio leading the way for them in Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, who shook off that 0-for-7 shooting to hit the game-winning shot to eliminate upset-minded Princeton in the first round.  The Wildcats will get contributions from 6-foot-10 senior big man Josh Harrellson and junior sharp shooter Darius Miller as well.  West Virginia under Bob Huggins reached the Final Four a year ago, and this team will go where experienced guards Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant and tourney veteran Joe Mazzulla take them, but they may not have as much as outside firepower or inside play to stave off the run-and-gun Wildcats, who scored under 60 points for the first time this season in their opening round win over Princeton.  Pick:  Kentucky by 7

#2 Florida (27-7) vs. #7 UCLA (23-10) – - This is the third meeting ever between these two programs.  Florida beat UCLA in the 2006 National Championship game and also in the 2007 Final Four.  The Gators are thinking about cutting down the nets yet again, thanks in large part to an experienced, well-balanced attack that features forward Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons (coming off a near triple-double in the round of 64 win over UC Santa-Barbara), Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton.  Florida really plays unselfish, team basketball, assisting on 15 of their first 18 field goals in the win over UCSB, grabbing a 24-point lead at half-time.  Meanwhile, the Bruins jumped all over Michigan State on Thursday in building a 23-point lead with 8:20 to go that eventually shrunk down to just one with 4.4 seconds remaining.  UCLA is an amazing story to get this far without a single senior on the roster, and Ben Howland’s Bruins should be a Final Four contender in 2012.  However, this is where it ends against a Florida team that will make the necessary plays for victory in crunch time.  Pick:  Florida by 9

#12 Richmond (28-7) vs. #13 Morehead State (25-8) – - It’s rare you get a #12 seed fang a #13 seed for the right to go to the Sweet Sixteen.  How rare?  Well, it’ll be only the ninth ever meeting in this scenario.  History is on the side of the Richmond Spiders as only once has the #13 seed taking down the #12 when Valparaiso beat Florida State in 1998.  Morehead State got here in amazing fashion with that three-pointer by Demonte Harper with 3.6 seconds to go to beat Louisville after falling behind by eight in the second half.  Kenny Faried, the nation’s top rebounder, had 17 boards and a game-saving block in that game.  As for Richmond, the Spiders dial it up from long distance, shooting 12-for-24 from three-point territory to stun Vanderbilt.  Richmond has five wins as a 12 seed or lower in the NCAA Tournament.  Kevin Anderson, the Atlantic 10 Tournament MVP, makes them go.  In the end, I see Richmond making it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988.  Pick:  Richmond by 12

#2 San Diego State (33-2) vs. #7 Temple (26-7) – - The Owls of Temple come in off their first NCAA Tournament win since 2001 after defeating Penn State 66-64 on a game-winning jumper by Juan Fernandez with 0.4 seconds to play.  San Diego State won by 18 over Northern Colorado in the previous round to earn their first ever NCAA Tournament victory, and most impressive was the fact they committed only three turnovers the entire game.  Kawhi Leonard recorded his 40th career doube-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.  San Diego State is a relentless offensive rebounding team with great athletes and scorers as well.  Temple is 6-0 this season when Raheem Moore scores 20 points or more, so he’ll be the key to them springing the upset.  But I’ve got a feeling D.J. Gay snaps out of his funk and really plays a big game to give the Aztecs a boost when this game gets tight.  Not only is San Diego State a threat to reach the Final Four in my opinion, but if they get all five starters on the same page, it’s conceivable they win the National Championship.  Pick:  San Diego St. by 5

#1 Pittsburgh (28-5) vs. #8 Butler (24-9) – - As the call said on TV, “The Butler did it again.”  That was after the Bulldogs, National runner-up a year ago, beat a solid Old Dominion team 60-58 on Matt Howard’s game-winning put-back at the buzzer.  Butler did such a great job in that win over the Monarchs of getting numerous offensive rebounds against the #1 rebound margin team in the country.  In this one they face the #2 rebound margin team in the land in Pittsburgh, which behind the likes of guards Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs, rolled past UNC-Asheville 74-51.  They pulled away after leading by only five at the half.  If the Panthers are hitting their outside shots, Butler will struggle immensely.  Butler does do a really good job of defending at a high level, getting steals, and the likes of Howard, Shelvin Mack and company aren’t afraid of the big stage at all.  That ought to make for a rugged, physical and entertaining basketball game that is close the entire way.  The difference may be Pitt’s ability to punch the ball inside, create plays off the dribble and get a couple of Butler’s key starters in foul trouble in the second half as the game progresses.  Pick:  Pittsburgh by 6

#3 BYU (31-4) vs. #11 Gonzaga (25-9) – - One thing is for sure and that’s BYU and Gonzaga aren’t strangers at all to great players.  Gonzaga had such NBA players as Adam Morrison and Hall-of-Famer John Stockton.  For BYU, they are led by National Player of the Year candidate Jimmer Fredette.  He’s as lethal a scorer as there is in College Basketball currently.  Fredette dropped 52 points in a Mountain West Conference Tournament game and 32 in the round of 64 victory over #14 seed Wofford.  This Gonzaga team is probably under seeded at #11, and as long as they are shooting somewhat close to the level they did in the opening round, they should be enough to match and squeak by Jimmer in a shoot-out that could require extra fun in overtime.  Mark Few’s Bulldogs have won 10 consecutive, out-rebounded St. John’s 43-19 (that’s where BYU will miss inside presence Brandon Davies) and even their bench contributed significantly on 6-of-7 shooting.  Gonzaga also has Stockton’s son, David, out there to help them in this battle.  Pick:  Gonzaga by 2 in OT

#4 Wisconsin (24-8) vs. #5 Kansas State (23-10) – - Of all the Round of 32 matchups on the board on Saturday, this one intrigues me the most.  You have Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers, who run that Flex style offense to precision with ball screens, cuts and terrific movement against a gritty Kansas State team coached by the fiery Frank Martin, who has a gutsy competitor at the guard spot as good as any in senior Jacob Pullen.  Kansas State has made it to this round of the tournament for the third year in a row, and off Pullen’s 22 points, six assists in a 73-68 win over Utah State, appear to be in position to make another serious Final Four run after coming up one victory shy of that a year ago.  It’ll require a big effort from their front-court pieces, namely Curtis Kelly, who had 15 points and six boards the last time out.  We have two of the finest guards in the country in this matchup, and Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin is someone fully capable of getting on a hot streak to take a game over.  What Wisconsin did so well against Belmont besides sinking 7-of-14 three-point tries in the first half was protect the basketball by not turning it over the first 8+ minutes of the second half, but they’ll see tougher, pressure defense by the Wildcats in this one.  Provided KSU has the lead with under four minutes to play (they are 22-0 in that scenario this season), they will pull it out, but if Wisconsin is able to dictate the tempo and win the battle on the boards, punch the Badgers’ ticket to the Sweet 16.  Pick:  Kansas St. by 1

#3 Connecticut (27-9) vs. #6 Cincinnati (26-8) – - There’s no arguing that the Big East will push a team on to the next round here.  The Connecticut Huskies blitzed #14 seed Bucknell two days ago on their way to an 81-52 win, where superstar guard Kemba Walker nearly recorded a triple-double with 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high 12 assists to bring Coach Jim Calhoun career victory #850.  An ultra confident playmaker, Walker hasn’t been stopped lately, and look for that to continue against a Cincinnati team that handled Big 12 member Missouri 78-63 by imposing its will on the inside, plus utilizing a zone defense that made it tricky for the Tigers to function in the half-court.  UCONN has better outside shooters, and Walker’s ability to penetrate the zone or any defense will open scoring chances for talented freshmen like Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith, a duo that combined for 21 first half points versus Bucknell.  To me, this is the biggest mismatch on Saturday, and that’s strange given that you have two Big East teams going toe-to-toe with plenty of familiarity with one another, so one would be inclined to think it’ll be difficult for either team to pull away from the other.  UCONN, which won those five Big East Tournament games in five days on a win to a title, is playing at such a high level right now, and it’ll be extremely interesting to see them face off against San Diego State in a possible Sweet 16 classic encounter.  Pick:  UCONN by 13

Thursday, March 17, 2011 – NCAA Basketball Tournament March Madness Picks!

March 17, 2011 on 8:07 pm | In Uncategorized | No Comments

It’s the greatest time of year for a basketball fan – - March Madness!  The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament is officially underway and the Field of 68 will be narrowed down to the Sweet 16 by Sunday night, and then a Final Four the subsequent Sunday.  These next two days are a basketball fan’s dream – - 32 games of wall-to-wall action.  This year’s tourney has a new feel with the games on four different networks:  longtime partner CBS as well as newcomers TNT, TBS and TRUTV. 

Here are my Hatfield Sports Official Bracket Picks . . . it’s probably a foregone conclusion that my bracket will be officially ‘blown up’ by 2PM on Thursday afternoon.  Anyways, the fun of filling out multiple sheets, the buzzer-beaters and on the edge-of-your-seat excitement is what keeps us coming back for more.

These are Five Storylines I’ll be following on the Opening Weekend:

#1 – - Will Duke Repeat?  My answer would have originally been no, although the potential return of freshman phenom Kyrie Irving at the guard spot could give Duke a real shot in the arm or boost if you will on their quest to repeat.  Florida did it winning back-to-back just a short few years ago, but it’s really trick to do, you need some luck along the way as well, and you can’t ever predict injuries or someone getting in foul trouble unexpectedly.  That’s what is unique about this tournament; that you have to often expect the unexpected.  In the end, my feeling is you have some teams with bigger, more imposing front-line that will be not only physical, but too athletic for Duke – - such as San Diego State, Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, maybe even Texas or Arizona – - that derail them or pick them off on their journey.

#2 – - How Far Will San Diego State & Jimmer-Led BYU Go?  Everybody remembers Steve Fisher at Michigan when he guided the Wolverines, led by Glen Rice, to a National Championship as well as trips to the National Championship game when they had the ‘Fab Five.’  The team has now with the Aztecs of San Diego State are better than most people realize with a stellar front-line that goes 6-foot-9, 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-7 across the board.  Five starters are back from last year’s team that made it to the NCAA’s, and this team has a guard that will be steady in the crunch in D.J. Gay, who went a stretch of over seven games without a committing a turnover, plus hit three game-winning shots this year.  Their outside shooting, which is not great, does worry me some, but I think they have all the tools and pieces in place to make a serious Final Four run.  BYU will go as far as Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s most lethal scorer, will take them.  The guy has scored over 50 points in a game, it wouldn’t shock me to see him drop 40-plus in a tournament game, and the Cougars could get to the Sweet 16 . . . but without an enforcer on the inside like Brandon Davies, going any further than that will be hard for me to envision.

#3 – - Who Is This Year’s Butler or George Mason?  What makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the underdog stories, the Cinderella teams that make a deep run that you learn about in this march through March.  In recent years, it was George Mason’s stunning run to the Final Four as a #11 seed in 2006, knocking off giants Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut along the way.  A year ago, #5 seed Butler from the Horizon League came within a whisker of shocking Duke and winning the National Championship.  If you are looking for this year’s George Mason, look no further than George Mason.  Jim Larranaga’s Patriots would likely have to beat #1 seed Ohio State in Cleveland in the second round to advance to the second week of the tourney, but they’ve got a dead-eye shooter in Cameron Long and a strong, experienced nucleus that plays unselfish team ball.  Staying in the CAA, watch out for #9 Old Dominion, which faces Butler in the opening round.  Blaine Taylor’s Monarchs are also seasoned, and led the nation in rebounding margin behind Frank the ‘Tank’ Hassell.  Another possible sleeper – - #13 seed Morehead State behind Kenny Faried, the most prolific rebounder in recent NCAA history, could pose a problem for Louisville, and if they win that one, their opponent in the second round well.

#4 – - The Star Of the Tourney Will Be?  There are several candidates to look at, such as Fredette at BYU, fellow National Player of the Year candidates Nolan Smith from Duke and Kemba Walker at UCONN.  Guards like Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, Terrell ‘Tu’ Holloway at Xavier, Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Isaiah Thomas of Washington are capable of penetrating the teeth of the defense, scoring at will and just being the type of playmakers that put a team on their back in a run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and possibly beydon.  Three names really stand out to me – - future pro Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State, Ohio State freshman beast Jared Sullinger and ultra-skilled Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson.

#5 – - And When It’s All Said & Done:  Predicting the Final Four this year is no easy task simply because there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team or no-brainer pick to get to Houston.  My Final Four isn’t complete Chalk like some people who have four #1 seed reaching the Final Four (like my Dad and President Barack Obama) – - I’ve only got two in Ohio State and Kansas.  I have #2 seed San Diego State continuing its rise and knocking off defending National Champ Duke in the Elite Eight to make it to the Final Four.  My lowest seed to reach the Final Four is my preseason National Champ choice – - that’s #5 seed Kansas State.  In the end, the Buckeyes outlast the Wildcats in the Title Game on a memorable Monday night in April for the Columbus faithful.

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