Kentucky (37-2) vs. #2 Kansas (32-6): It’s
Monday night and time for the 2012 National Championship. We’ve gotten through March Madness, all the
crazy upsets, unpredictable drama and excitement with two teams on the brink of
reaching the pinnacle of College Basketball.
For Kentucky Coach John
Calipari, he is seeking that elusive title, the one that got away in 2008
when he was the Head Coach at Memphis and his Tigers blew what appeared to be a
safe lead in the closing moments against Bill
Self’s Kansas Jayhawks. Calipari’s
Cats are the prohibited favorite, taking on a Kansas team that rallied from 13
down in the Final Four on Saturday night to stun Ohio State. Kentucky got past in-state rival Louisville
in Saturday’s National Semifinal to set the stage for a fascinating clash
between the two winningest programs in College Basketball history.
There will be several future pros on the floor with all
five starters for Kentucky expected to go in the first round of the next NBA
Draft, headlined by the likely #1 and #2 picks in Anthony Davis (15.2PPG, 11.6RPG, 4.6BPG in NCAA Tournament) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist respectively. Kansas has their share as well with at least
three projected to be picked, highlighted by All-American forward Thomas Robinson (16.4PPG, 11.6RPG in
NCAA Tourney). These two teams met
earlier in the season at Madison Square Garden in a matchup where the scored
was tied at half-time, then Kentucky pulled away in the second half for a
Before we get to the analysis, Keys to Victory and pick,
let’s review the records of how my predictions have gone to this point in the
2012 NCAA Tournament.
Total: 49-13 (.790)
Round of 64: 22-10 with 13-3 on Day 1
and 9-7 on Day 2
Round of 32: 14-2
12 of 16 Sweet 16 Participants Predicted before start of NCAA Tournament
Sweet 16 Picks: 8-0
Elite Eight: 4-0
Final Four: 1-1
Keys to Victory: Kentucky
Defensive Rebounding: It
is imperative Kentucky limits Kansas to one shot and done. In Saturday’s win over Louisville, the
Cardinals got 16 offensive boards. The
Wildcats can’t let Kansas get that many second chance opportunities.
Maximize Transition Opportunities: Kansas
had 17 turnovers versus Ohio State and still won. Turn it over that many times versus Kentucky
and they’ll make you pay with terrific athletes and finishes like Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist,
Terrence Jones, point guard Marquis Teague and even shooting threats
in Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Kyle
Wiltjer that will make you pay from the outside. Kentucky wants to push the pace, get the
score up and have those type of hustle and energy plays off dunks and 3’s that
Contain Robinson: He’s
Kansas’ best player and most dangerous in terms of scoring and rebounding. His strength in the low block gives him a
chance to maybe get Davis, arguably the nation’s best shot blocker, in foul
trouble. With him rebounding and junior
center Jeff Withey controlling the
paint as a shot blocker, Kansas’ defense on the front-line is mighty tough. But if Robinson finds it hard to score in the
paint, Kansas may be unable to keep up offensively.
Keys to Victory: Kansas
Survive that Early Punch: Kansas
has gotten down double-digits in this NCAA Tournament to the likes of Purdue
and Ohio State. They can’t afford to do
that in facing a giant like Kentucky, which overwhelms opponents with their
speed, size and athleticism. If they do
that and the longer they stick around, then their confidence will go up against
a Kentucky team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores.
Control the Tempo: This
is huge because if this becomes a track meet, then Kansas’ chances of winning
are slim to none. Kentucky wants to get
out and run, push the pedal to the metal, and score as many easy baskets as
possible. For Kansas to be successful,
they have to milk the shot clock down, try to get someone in foul trouble for Kentucky
(preferably the interior force Davis), and slow the pace down to where it gets
the Wildcats out of their comfort zone.
This is where point guard Tyshawn
Taylor really becomes vital, being able to distribute and score.
Win the 3-Point Battle: In
College Basketball, the three-point shot is the great equalizer. It’s something that is overstated at times,
but also true. Kansas may not be able to
win the points in the paint battle.
However, if they can finish +9 or better in three-pointers, then it
enhances their odds of winning. Knowing
the shot blocking Kentucky has inside and length on the front-line that allows
them to rebound, their best source for points could come on perimeter jumpers
from Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. It’ll just be a matter of taking them in
rhythm and knocking them down, enough so to keep Kentucky from building a substantial
lead and running away.
Pick: Kentucky 72, Kansas 61. It’s Kentucky’s time and Calipari’s time in
my opinion. His Wildcats bowed out to
UCONN in the Final Four a season ago on a night where foul shooting plagued
them, much like it did his ’08 Memphis squad.
This team has shot free-throws well for the most part, save their
Saturday night performance against Louisville.
I don’t see this game being all that close because Kentucky’s talent is
superior, and barring a lack of focus or really poor shooting stretch, they
have the ability with their lethal transition game to blow people away, even
the strongest of competition. On the
grand stage, expect their best effort.
Their versatility on the offensive end, unselfishness, shot blocking and
athleticism around the basket and commitment to defending should give even a
resilient, tough-minded Jayhawks bunch trouble.
At the end of the night, expect UK to claim its first title since 1998.
Four teams have punched their ticket to the Elite
Eight. Four more will on Friday night as
we’ll find out who gets to join Louisville, Florida, Ohio State and Syracuse
this weekend with a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four.
Before we get to the analysis and picks, let’s review the
records of how my predictions have gone to this point in the 2012 NCAA
Round of 64: 22-10 with 13-3 on Day 1
and 9-7 on Day 2
Round of 32: 14-2
12 of 16 Sweet 16 Participants Predicted before start of NCAA Tournament
Sweet 16 Picks on Thursday Night: 4-0
7:15 PM – #3 Baylor vs. #10 Xavier: These are two programs on the rise with
Baylor from the Big 12 and Xavier in the Atlantic-10. Xavier started 8-0, and then went 15-12 after
the brawl, but they have come on after getting an at-large bid, led by talented
guard Tu Holloway (21.5PPG in March in six games). It is Xavier’s fourth Sweet 16 trip in five
seasons, so getting to this point in the tourney has become almost a routine
for them. For Baylor, the Bears have
enjoyed a school record 29 wins. They
have some players that could get some NBA looks for sure. Two seasons ago, Baylor made it to the Elite
Eight and then fell to eventual National Champion Duke. Scott Drew has a balanced attack with five
players averaging over 10 points per game.
Pierre Jackson, the junior college transfer, is a ton setter
for Baylor at the point. He’s really
driving it to the rack well, setting people up and using his quickness to be a
catalyst. Brady Heslip, who has
connected on 14-of-22 three-point tries and was simply unconscious from deep
against Colorado in the Round 32.
Heslip, the nephew of former Toronto Raptors Head Coach Jay Triano, has the
ability to change this game like he did the last one if he gets hot shooting
the three-point shot. If Baylor’s
front-court comes to play, then the Musketeers will have a daunting challenge. Perry Jones (only 4.5PPG, 7.5RPG in the NCAA
Tournament), Quincy Acy and company have to really assert themselves early and
often as well as Quincy Miller and 6-foot-10 senior Anthony Jones.
For Xavier, they got a great performance from Kenny Frease
the last time out. Frease had a
career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds versus Lehigh in the Round of 32, and
that was enormous because they trailed Lehigh by as many as 12 in the first
half and used a 18-6 spurt to close to break a 52-all tie. Two others will be critical as well. Holloway’s backcourt mate, Mark Lyons, is one
of the better shooters in the A-10 and hasn’t quite gotten off yet in the
tourney. Andre Walker is their main
utility guy, and he’s only shooting 53% from the foul line, so if it’s close
and he goes to the line, he has to deliver.
Dee Davis is a possible x-factor that offensively could be a real bonus
to go with Holloway, Lyons and Frease.
In the paint is where it will probably be decided. Xavier had its way inside with Lehigh thanks
to Frease, but Baylor’s front-line, particularly Jones, may be due to break
through. The Bears are able to do such a
good job of stretching the defense with Heslip’s shooting and Jackson creates
opportunities for his teammates running the point. The Musketeers rely so much on Holloway, and
you can bet the Baylor defense will look to take deny him as much as
possible. While they may not be
successful in that endeavor, it’ll be
Pick: Baylor by 6.
7:47 PM – #1 North Carolina vs. #13 Ohio:
North Carolina is 10-0 since 1993 in the Sweet 16 and their 25th
appearance in the Sweet 16 is the most all-time. Coach Roy Williams is chasing his third
National Championship for UNC since 2005.
Meanwhile, Ohio is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964 when
they lost to Michigan in the region finals.
Coach John Groce has done a masterful job since taking over this program
in July of 2008. His Bobcats are the
first MAC school to make it this far in the NCAA Tournament since Kent State in
The storyline going into this game is the health of
sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall for North Carolina. Marshall broke his right wrist in the Tar
Heels’ 87-73 win over Creighton in the Round of 32 in a game where he was
superb out of the gate with 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting with six assists in
the first half. In Marshall’s absence,
the Tar Heels turn to freshman Stilman White.
He’ll have weapons at his disposal as UNC features an imposing
front-line with Tyler Zeller (14PPG, 10.5RPG in the NCAA Tourney), John Henson
(94 blocks) and Harrison Barnes.
The bigger issues for UNC will be taking care of the
basketball and keeping Ohio’s playmaking point guard relatively in check. D.J. Cooper (20PPG, 4RPG, 6APG in the NCAA
Tournament) has been superb, and really is the focal point for this
perimeter-oriented Bobcats bunch.
Defensively, Ohio averages 9.5 steals per game, placing in the Top 5 in
the country, so they know how to turn defense into instant offense. One of the main questions for Ohio is will
they be able to get clean looks for sophomore guard Nick Kellogg (that’s TV
analyst Clark’s son) and Ohio State transfer Walter Offutt, who knocked down
four treys against South Florida?
In the end, UNC’s front-line is overwhelming to most every
team they play. The Tar Heels lead the
nation in rebounding margin, and that’s not an area that is a strength for the
Bobcats whatsoever. In fact, it might be
their weakness in this game. Ohio will
have to really catch fire from long distance and hope UNC is cold to be in
position to spring the upset late.
Pick: UNC by 11
9:45 PM – #1 Kentucky vs. #4 Indiana: These
are two of the best programs in the history of College Basketball. Seven National Championships for Kentucky and
five for Indiana. It’s the third
straight Sweet 16 trip for Kentucky, which is the only remaining Final Four
team from a year ago. John Calipari
continues to chase that elusive title; his Memphis team in 2008 came oh so
close to cutting down the nets, leading the entire game on that Monday night
when Kansas hit a game-tying three-pointer and ended their dream in overtime. Calipari is known for producing top draft
choices such as NBA point guards John Wall, Brandon Knight, Tyreke Evans and
Derrick Rose. In Indiana, Calipari’s
team faces a group with great resiliency, resolve and familiarity with the
Tom Crean’s Hoosiers beat Kentucky 73-72 back on December 10
on a buzzer-beater. Things have changed
quite a bit since then. Indiana has
gotten better, but Kentucky has vastly improved since that defeat. Kentucky was 8-0 before that loss, and then
the Wildcats reeled off 24 straight wins.
The matchup to watch is inside. Big
Ten Freshman of the Year Cody Zeller takes on SEC Freshman of the Year Anthony
Davis, who resembles Marcus Camby and could be a similar type of pro. Davis is putting up 15.5 points, 10.5 boards
and four assists per game in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s what he does on the
defensive end of the floor, blocking shots at will while staying out of foul
trouble, that has him being considered as the #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Another player expected to go high in the NBA Draft,
somewhere in the Top 5, is fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a versatile
stat sheet stuffer for the Wildcats. Point
guard Marquise Teague has been great in the NCAA Tourney with averages of 18PPG,
61.9FG% and 5.5APG. Terrence Jones, a
6-foot-9 sophomore, can be the best player on the court against anyone in the
country or be Kentucky’s fourth best player.
Kentucky is simply loaded with so many weapons at every position; even
the likes of Kyle Wiltjer and Doron Lamb have size and shooting ability. Indiana will need Jordan Hulls to come through
in a major way, and he shot it much better against New Mexico State than he did
Christian Watford scored 20 points and shot 4-of-6 from
three-point range, including the game-winner when the Hoosiers beat Kentucky in
the first meeting. Meanwhile, Jones didn’t
play that great in the first encounter.
I’d look for those two players to have reverse type of numbers, and for
the Wildcats to capitalize on Indiana’s mistakes. Remember, the Hoosiers beat VCU despite 22
turnovers, and were very fortunate to erase a 12-point deficit and win versus a
quality Rams team. But if Kentucky loses
in this NCAA Tournament, it’ll probably be because they struggle to convert
from the outside and that is the way to beat them.
Pick: Kentucky by 8
10:17 PM – #2 Kansas vs. #11 NC State: One
team was expected to get to this point; the other was a bubble squad that
breathed a sigh of relief on Selection Sunday.
Kansas and NC State haven’t met in the NCAA Tournament in 26 years. It was the 1986 Midwest Regional Final when
Larry Brown was coaching at Kansas and the late great Jim Valvano was the Head
Coach of NC State. Kansas won, 75-67
behind 22 points from Danny Manning, a current assistant to Bill Self and the
Jayhawks. For NC State, this is their
first Sweet 16 since 2005. Kansas is
used to getting to this point in the Big Dance, winning the Natl. Championship
back just four years ago.
Kansas in many ways was fortunate to beat Purdue in the last
round. The Jayhawks rallied in large
part because of their stingy defense, holding Purdue to 29% shooting in the
second half. Thomas Robinson (13.5PPG,
13RPG in NCAA Tournament) is a Player of the Year candidate, although he’s only
shooting 36% from the field the past two games.
He’s not the only All-American caliber player they have as guard Tyshawn
Taylor is a steady senior who gets it done on offense and defense usually. Elijah Johnson really was the hero of that
escape for the Jayhawks with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, 13 points in the
second half and a huge steal and lay-up to put KU ahead with under a minute to
play. They can’t expect him to play at
that level and get sub-par efforts from both Robinson and Taylor if they plan
on beating the Wolfpack.
Five players are averaging in double-figures for NC State in
year one under Coach Mark Gottfried. Lorenzo
Brown is averaging 14.4 points and over seven assists per game over the past five
games for the Wolfpack in making that transition from the two-guard spot to a
point man. C.J. Leslie has been terrific
in the NCAA Tournament with over 14 points and six boards a contest in the NCAA
Tournament while shooting over 47% from the field, and has become a much more
consistent performer during his sophomore season where he’s been arguably as
good as any ACC player in the last two months.
In beating Georgetown, NC State got 17 offensive rebounds and did damage
from the outside with 7-of-15 shooting on three-pointers. NC State has to be able to have success in
the painted area, and if they don’t, I think the Pack will find it hard to
knock off Kansas.
Like many teams that get to the Final Four and even some
that go on to win the National Championship, Kansas had their moment where they
could’ve and maybe even should’ve lost against Purdue in the Round of 32. After playing well under their potential in
that one and surviving, the Jayhawks ought to come out with a much sharper
performance against a dangerous NC St. squad.
Brown and Leslie probably won’t get off offensively versus the defense
of Robinson and Taylor, both capable of shutting someone down even when their
shooting is up and down.
Pick: Kansas by 4.
The Madness continues! We’ve reached the Sweet 16 round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. There has been plenty of excitement and storylines so far, headlined by the upsets that occurred in Friday’s Round of 64 where there was a single-day record of eight upsets. That included for the first time ever in the same tourney two #15 seeds knocking off #2 seeds as Norfolk State stunned Missouri and Lehigh knocked off Duke.
While there have been some surprises and Cinderella stories, there has also been a lot of chalk advancing. Case and point, the #1 seeds are 8-0 for the first time since 2009 through a couple of rounds in the NCAA Tourney.
Let’s take a look at Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchups.
Hatfield’s Record: 12 of 16 Sweet 16 Picks Projected Correctly
7:15 PM – #1 Syracuse vs. #4 Wisconsin: Many speculated that Syracuse would be vulnerable without the services of one Fab Melo, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a major part of their success this season. They survived a scare against UNC-Asheville in their NCAA Tournament opener, and then beat Kansas State by 16 in a game where the Orange’s depth, length and bench overwhelmed the Wildcats. The Syracuse bench outscored KSU’s 33-0 and they got eight blocked shots without Melo in the lineup. It’s a balanced attack with Kris Joseph, James Southerland, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine all reaching in double-figures in each of the past two games. Jardine’s ability to get in the paint and distribute will be a major factor. He’s a really nice complement to Waiters, one of the nation’s best two-guards.
What Wisconsin does about as well as anyone is control tempo. They’re a well-oiled machine, and much like Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, a well-coached squad by Bo Ryan. Their switching defense gives teams problems as it becomes a game with fewer possessions, and the Badgers don’t beat themselves. In fact, last year Wisconsin set a new NCAA D-1 record for fewest turnovers per game at 7.59. A lot of credit has to go to guard Jordan Taylor, an All-American caliber player who knocked down the go-ahead three-pointer late in their win over Vanderbilt in the Round of 32.
Six-foot-6 junior forward Mike Bruesewitz can really shoot the ball from the outside, and Ryan Evans has stepped up as a guy that averaged less than 3PPG a season ago to one of their more prominent offensive players and a key ingredient. Where they can hurt Syracuse is by getting some offensive rebounds; the Orange sometimes fail to squeeze the orange and give up quite a few second chance opportunities.
In the end though, Syracuse is longer and more athletic at most every position. Their 2-3 zone should keep Wisconsin in check enough, and all it may take is a couple of transition run-outs to knock the Badgers out late.
Pick: Syracuse by 2
7:47 PM – #1 Michigan State vs. #4 Louisville: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better coaching matchup than this one in the NCAA Tournament. Rick Pitino of Louisville is a perfect 9-0 in the Sweet 16. Michigan St. Head Coach Tom Izzo has gone 7-2 in his career in the Sweet 16 round. Each has won a National Championship. Both have terrific teams this year with Michigan State capturing the Big East Tournament title and Louisville winning the Big East Tournament. Michigan State has one of the most unique players in College Basketball in Draymond Green, who joined Oscar Robertson and Spartan Great Magic Johnson as the only players in NCAA Tournament history to record multiple triple-doubles in a career. A versatile, inside-outside weapon, Green has 40 points, 25 boards and 16 assists through two NCAA Tournament games this year. The engine for Louisville is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who finished up with 17 points and six assists in the win over Davidson in the Round of 64.
Louisville wants to apply defensive pressure and get Michigan State out of its comfort zone. On the baseline, 6-foot-10 sophomore center Gorgui Deng is a superb shot blocker who’ll make it difficult on the Spartans getting quality shots up around the rim. The Cardinals are a pretty balanced team on offense, and a lot is going to depend on guys like Chris Smith, Russ Smith, Jared Swopshire and leading scorer Kyle Kuric being able to convert from the outside. Michigan State’s supporting cast has really rounded into form during the Big Ten Tournament and here in the NCAA Tournament where others like Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have helped out Green inside on the boards, Austin Thornton has delivered at the foul line and senior Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valpo, has connected for some really huge buckets, both inside the painted area and away from the cup.
Offensive rebounding will be crucial for Louisville because are always one of the best defensive rebounding clubs in the country. Freshman Chane Behanan will be important in that effort. MSU’s guards have to be able to really come through so that the Spartans don’t depend so much on Green and the front-court. Sophomore Keith Appling has been extremely solid on the defensive end at the guard spot, and they’ll need some offensive production in this one.
If the Cards are able to knock down enough outside shots, and I think Siva’s penetration will open up good opportunities, they have a great shot to knock off an MSU team that is a serious contender to win the National Championship. In my opinion, Kentucky is the team to beat in this NCAA Tournament, but the winner of this game could be best equipped to keep the Wildcats from winning it all and upsetting this year’s favorite.
Pick: Louisville by 3 in OT
9:45 PM – #2 Ohio State vs. #6 Cincinnati: Ohio State and Cincinnati had some great Tournament battles in the early 1960’s. These two in-state rivals haven’t met often in recent years, the last time coming in 2006, but this meeting will undoubtedly be for Ohio bragging rights. The state of Ohio has been great in this NCAA Tournament, posting a perfect 8-0 record to this point and sending four teams to the Sweet 16 for the first time. In the last round, Cincinnati outlasted Florida State 62-56 to earn its first Sweet 16 trip since 2001, while Ohio State defeated Gonzaga 73-66 behind a splendid performance from sophomore guard Aaron Craft (17 points, 10 dimes in that one).
For the third year in a row, Thad Matta has the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 and this team has several big-time recruits and top-notch players. Against Gonzaga, they shot 64% from the field and made 4-of-7 from three-point land to start with a couple of treys from 6-foot-9 sophomore center Jared Sullinger. Cincinnati knows they have to do their best to get him in foul trouble to have a shot at winning this one. Sullinger isn’t a guy that will play above the rim, but he uses his body and hands so well. The Buckeyes aren’t an incredibly great outside shooting team, but William Buford is money from the perimeter, and DeShaun Thomas proved in the Round of 64 win over Loyola how dangerous of a scorer he can be when he dropped in 31 points.
Mick Cronin has done wonders at Cincinnati in a short period of time, notching 52 wins in two years and getting the Bearcats to recover after that ugly brawl with Xavier earlier in the season. Cronin decided to go with a four-guard lineup at that time, and it has paid dividends. Yancy Gates (11.7PPG, 9.5RPG) on the inside has been a force, and the backcourt parts have delivered, particularly Cashmere Wright and sophomore Sean Kilpatrick. Jaquon Parker had 11 rebounds against Florida State and he’s an x-factor in this one against an Ohio State team that won’t usually let you play sluggish for a stretch and win like the Seminoles did. Dion Dixon also scored 15 points in that game and Cincy shot 52% in the second half, which against a team that defends as well as FSU, should be plenty to prevail.
I don’t see Cincinnati shooting it all that well and a cold spell midway through the second might do them in against a Buckeyes team that really started to hit its stride in the second half of their hard-fought victory over what many feel was an underrated Gonzaga team. Sullinger’s strength and power can be a difference down low, and keep an eye on Craft, who defensively has proven to be capable of shutting down an opponents’ top guard.
Pick: Ohio State by 10
10:17 PM – #3 Marquette vs. #7 Florida: Making their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in seven years at the Florida Gators. They come to the Sweet 16 as a #7 seed this time and somewhat of an underdog against a Marquette squad under Buzz Williams that really grinded out a tough 62-53 victory over a pesky Murray State team that was 31-1 overall. Marquette used an 8-0 run late in that game, and the Eagles claimed their second straight Sweet 16 berth behind another brilliant performance from Jae Crowder (17.6PPG, 7.9RPG).
The Big East Player of the Year finished with a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. Crowder can do it inside and outside, he defends, rebounds and his versatility in some ways remind people of Derrick Williams from Arizona last year. Williams helped carry the Cats to the Elite Eight and ended up being the #2 overall pick in the NBA Draft. In the game before that, Crowder poured in 25 points, a career-high 16 boards and had four steals. There are some really nice complementary pieces around him on this feisty Marquette team, and especially imperative are guards Darius Johnson-Odom, who just looks like a tough cookie, and Junior Cadougan. Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Cadoughan can pretty much score from any spot on the floor. On the inside, Davante Gardner is a physical forward that will be a key matchup in this one, likely against Florida’s Patric Young.
Against Virginia, the Gators made 80% of their field goal attempts from inside the arc while they didn’t shot it that well from the outside (1-for-14 at the half in that game), but did get a great lift from their bench with a 22-3 advantage in that category. Florida screens so well, and Young was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field against UVA. Against Norfolk State, the Gators went on a 25-0 run and showed why they are so prolific shooting from three-point land and set a school-record for 3’s made this year. Billy Donovan’s teams are ready for tournament basketball. The Gators have gone 17-2 since 2006 in the NCAA Tournament, winning a couple of National Championships. Guardst Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton (16.3PPG) were the starting backcourt for a Florida team that made it to the Elite Eight last year, and they got even better with the addition of freshman Brad Beal.
The more popular pick is Marquette and that makes sense because there are very few teams in the field that can matchup with Crowder. Rather quietly though, the Gators have won two NCAA Tournament games by a combined total of 60 points. Marquette is the better team 1 through 5 in my opinion, but the three-point shot can be a great equalizer in these tourney games. Throw that in along with their guard play and depth, and Florida really becomes a tough out.
Pick: Florida by 5
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March Madness is here! The 2012 NCAA Tournament really gets going today with wall-to-wall action on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV.
We saw dramatic comebacks in the ‘First Four’ from the likes of BYU against Iona, rallying from 25 down, and a Western Kentucky team with a losing record putting it together down the stretch to beat Mississippi Valley State.
Below are my Picks for the Round of 64 – and we’ll have Analysis to come later with Picks for the Round of 32 over the weekend as well!
HATFIELD SPORTS BRACKET:
FINAL FOUR CHOICES:
Kentucky – With shot blocker Anthony Davis anchoring the Wildcats inside, Kentucky is the favorite to win the tourney and you get no argument from me. John Calipari is getting it done with freshmen headliners again, and the impressive thing about this team is how committed they are to do defense and sharing the basketball on offense.
Louisville – This is kind of an outside the box pick to make the Final Four as a #4 seed since most people are leaning with Michigan State or Missouri in this Region. However, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals won the Big East Tournament and they have a playmaker at the point guard spot in Peyton Siva that can take the nation by storm in this tourney.
Ohio State – Led by 6-foot-8, 280-pound bruiser Jared Sullinger inside, the Buckeyes have a nice crop of sophomores that should be able to do a little bit of everything. With Fab Melo unable to play for Syracuse, Ohio State is now the favorite in the East Regional. Keep an eye no sophomore Deshaun Thomas to step up alongside Sullinger as the Buckeyes’ main shot maker from the outside.
Kansas – It wasn’t that long ago that Kansas and Bill Self won a National Title. They have a Player of the Year candidate in Thomas Robinson to make a deep run in the NCAA’s. The advantage the Jayhawks have over UNC in my opinion is we’re not sure how healthy Jon Henson will be for the Tar Heels, plus if the two teams meet in the Elite Eight as expected, it’ll be a heavy Kansas crowd with the game in St. Louis.
VCU – Remember, Shaka Smart and the Rams stunned the College Basketball world on its way to reaching the Final Four last year. They have a nice core of youngsters surrounding senior leader Brad Burgess.
Belmont – It won’t be easy to knock off Georgetown, but this is a team that has been close to springing the upset in the NCAA Tournament before. Their experience should pay dividends, and give the Hoyas fits.
Long Beach State – The 49ers got a tough draw in New Mexico, but senior guard Casper Ware can really play and this team has the potential to make some noise in the Big Dance.
NC State – After nearly beating North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, the Pack come in the NCAA Tourney with something to prove, and as a #11 seed, they have more talent across the board than #6 seed San Diego State. Don’t be surprised to see this squad make a Sweet 16 run.
Follow More: *** Be sure to keep it tuned to my Twitter page at www.twitter.com/hatfieldsportsfor more updates throughout the NCAA Tournament! ***
And so the 2011 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night in Houston, and oh what a tremendous tourney it has been. We’ve had the Cinderella stories, exciting finishes, outstanding individual performances and super, scintillating storylines. It’s been a history-making tourney as for the first time ever no #1 or #2 seeds reached the Final Four. There have been 17 games decided by three points or less, 17 decided on the game’s final possession and five overtime games. Predicting the outcomes? Well, not so good on my part as I didn’t correctly predict a single Final Four participant.
First Round Picks: 23-9
Second Round Picks: 10-6
Sweet 16 Picks: 4-4
Elite Eight Picks: 1-3
Final Four Picks: 1-1
But the unpredictability and drama should carry into Monday night’s final with the Butler Bulldogs, back in the title game for the second year in a row, against a UCONN team that put together one of the best postseason runs in College Basketball history. It’s the mid-major in Butler looking for their first ever National Championship in any sport versus a power seeking its third Championship since 1999. You have the veteran Head Coach in Jim Calhoun of the Huskies who is trying to join elite company and the likes of UCLA’s John Wooden, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Indiana’s Bob Knight as the only coaches to win three or more titles. The 68-year-old Calhoun may be coaching his final game, and he’s trying to cap a stellar run that began back in 1972-73 by cutting down the nets. However, Butler’s Brad Stevens, who is 10-1 the last two years in the NCAA Tournament and was born in 1976 (after Calhoun started coaching!), would like to be the one on top this time when the sport’s anthem ‘One Shining Moment’ is played at night’s end.
9:23 PM: #3 Connecticut (31-9) vs. #8 Butler (28-9) – - These are two truly surprising, unexpected runs to the National Championship game for Butler and Connecticut. At one point, Butler was just 6-5 in the Horizon League and didn’t appear to be a postseason threat whatsoever. They’ve quickly turned it on, winning 14 consecutive games and none of them in the NCAA Tournament have been by double-digits. Butler has had six games in the NCAA Tournament either this year or last season decided by three points or less. In fact, all of their NCAA Tournament games this year have been decided by eight points or fewer, a possession here, possession there and they’ve got such resiliency, composure and really grind the opposition out with hustle and heart. Quite simply, the Bulldogs thrive in close games.
UCONN made an amazing run, too. The Huskies won nine games in 19 days, including five in five days to win the Big East Tournament in stunning fashion. This came after a miserable 4-7 close to end the regular season. They finished nine in the Big East and went only 9-9 in league play. But impressive wins over San Diego State, Arizona and Kentucky – - three teams that were a combined 93-20 – - got them to this title game, and just like in 1999 and 2004, they arrive after winning the West Region.
Star Power: Both teams have gotten star performances to make it this far. For Connecticut, it’s their National Player of the Year candidate in guard Kemba Walker, a potential lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Walker is averaging 25 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament. Calhoun says Walker’s drive matches all of the great ones in UCONN history, such as Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon and pothers. Jeremy Lamb is averaging 17 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and shooting 64.7% from three-point range, which is incredible for a freshman. Lamb has played remarkably smooth and under control for a freshman, and without his contribution to complement the wonderful Walker, the Huskies wouldn’t be here. These two terrific talents in Lamb and Walker have allowed role players like Shabazz Napier at the point, big man Alex Oriakhi and freshman Roscoe Smith to have strong moments at some point during this postseason run.
Butler doesn’t have that mega star at all, but guard Shelvin Mack has certainly gotten the nation’s attention with his play in the tourney. Mack didn’t stop when he lit up #1 seed Pittsburgh for 30 points and scorched them from behind the arc; he’s averaging 21.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Gritty winner Matt Howard is the consummate College Basketball leader and guy that makes the heads up play that propels his team. Such was the case in wins over Old Dominion and Pitt. Howard is putting up 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds per game in the tourney, plus went 11-of-12 from the foul line against VCU and drew 10 fouls on the Rams when they shot just 8-for-13 at the charity stripe as a team in their Final Four matchup. Although Butler doesn’t have another guy that threatens for double-digits in points, Ronald Nored has brought tough defense, Jeremy Vanzant timely buckets and Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall have battled on the boards, including in spots when Howard has been in foul trouble.
Keys to Victory: UCONN
#1 – - Turn Butler Over
#2 – - Napier Penetration
#3 – - Make Someone Other Than Mack & Howard Beat You
Keys to Victory: Butler
#1 – - Get Connecticut in Foul Trouble
#2 – - Contain Walker & Lamb’s Transition Opportunities
#3 – - Limit Second Chance Points
Pick: UCONN 64-58 – - It’s hard not to root for Butler, unless you’re a UCONN fan. They’re such a neat story to come from a small conference like the Horizon League and get to the National Title Game two years in a row, doing so this time as a #8 seed when many predicted them to lose in their first game of the tourney against Old Dominion. Few could’ve seen them beating the likes of Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida on their way to the Final Four. In the end, the Huskies’ length and shot blocking on the baseline, a staple of Calhoun teams going back to the days of Emeka Okafor, Hilton Armstrong/Josh Boone, and Hasheem Thabeet, will be the difference in my opinion. But if Butler is able to get up by 8-10 points at any juncture in this game, they should pull it out because they won’t crack defensively and play fundamentally sound basketball on offense with very few mistakes. While Butler wins so many close games, UCONN has shown time after time in this tourney to answer an opponent’s big run with clutch basket/play by Walker or Lamb, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them step up yet again.
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
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
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
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
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
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