The 2017 NCAA Tournament continued on Thursday night with Sweet 16 play, where three of the four games went right down to the wire. First it was Oregon scoring the final four points of the game to edge Michigan, 69-68. Gonzaga outlasted West Virginia 61-58 in a slugfest, scoring the final six points to eliminate the Mountaineers.
Not to be outdone for a thriller was Xavier/Arizona, appearing for a while that Sean Miller would get the best of his old school. Instead, Xavier closed the final 2:40 on a 9-0 run for a stunning 73-71 upset. There would be no ‘upset’ in the Kansas/Purdue game, although the Jayhawks erased an eight-point deficit late in the first half and steamroll the Boilermakers from there, winning 98-66.
The lineup for Friday should produce more excitement, including with a much anticipated Kentucky vs. UCLA showdown of two heavyweights in the sport…
Hat’s Friday Night Picks:
#4 Butler (25-8) vs. #1 North Carolina (29-7)… Even though North Carolina is 0-2 all-time against Butler, the Tar Heels are plenty confident. Roy Williams is 12-1 in the Sweet 16 as a #1 seed, including winning twice before in seasons where UNC won National Championships. His Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin with Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks able to clean up misses, just as they did in their 72-65 comeback win over Arkansas in the Round of 32. This UNC team has a 38-14 advantage in offensive rebounding in the NCAA Tournament. Butler is no pushover, however, and must be taken seriously. The Bulldogs have not trailed yet in the NCAA Tournament, the only team that can say such at this juncture, and they featured an experienced group with three senior starters, none more reliable than 6′7″ junior forward Kelan Martin. George Washington transfer Kethan Savage gives them another steady vet in the backcourt. Defensively, they kept down Middle Tennessee’s top scorer in Giddy Potts – 19.7PPG over the previous six games – and held him scoreless. Containing all the weapons UNC has, including ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, will be a different story. Keep an eye on the health and effectiveness of guard Joel Berry – who has gone from 14.4PPG to 6.5PPG and is 3-for-21 from the field in the tourney – for UNC. He’ll be needed to produce in a big way to get to the Final Four. Pick – UNC 78, Butler 70
#7 South Carolina (24-10) vs. #3 Baylor (27-7)… What a story this South Carolina team, which just barely missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago, has been. Frank Martin’s Gamecocks made their first trip to the Big Dance since 2004, notched its first victory in the tourney since 1973 and then followed up an impressive 93-73 win over Marquette with a commanding 88-81 come-from-behind win over ACC Tournament Champ Duke. In that game against Duke, they overcame a 7-for-35 shooting start to scored 65 second half points. Senior Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, is putting up over 26 points per game to go with 8.5RPG and 3.5APG in the NCAA Tournament. He’s a big guard at 6′6″ and is complemented b 6′6″ sophomore P.J. Dozier quite well. To beat Baylor, they’ll need 6′9″ sophomore forward Chris Silva to rebound well against a Bears team that can control the inside against most foes. In fact, in their opening round win over New Mexico State, Baylor finished with a 50-28 advantage when it came to points in the paint. But versus a South Carolina zone defense that has gotten better lately, Baylor will need the likes of Al Freeman (21Pts. 3-3 on 3’s in that first round), Miami transfer Manu Lecomte and others to knock down shots from the perimeter to take pressure off the front-court players. Pick – South Carolina 73, Baylor 69
#2 Kentucky (31-5) vs. #3 UCLA (31-4)… This is a National Championship caliber matchup in the Sweet 16. Back in December, these two teams met and it was UCLA winning 97-92, despite a bevy of turnovers, at Rupp Arena. Kentucky is playing at a different level than back then, but so too are the Bruins, who lead the country in scoring at 90.2 points per game. UCLA is also tops in the nation in field goal percentage (52%) and assists (21.6 per contest). John Calipari is 5-0 in the Sweet 16 at Kentucky, which comes in riding a 13-game winning streak that is longer than anyone else still playing. Meanwhile, Steve Alford has not advanced past this round as a Head Coach at any of his stops. Neither defense is probably going to be able to shut down the other, so it’s likely going to become a game full of dunks, lobs and 3’s where whoever outscores the other in a shoot-out is left standing. Nobody has dazzled more in College Hoops this season than 6′6″ freshman Lonzo Ball, a guy that shot 7-of-10 from the field with 18 points, nine assists, seven boards and just one turnover in a 79-67 win over Cincinnati in the previous round. Kentucky has the inside presence with 6′10″ freshman Bam Adebayo, who had four second half jams in their 65-62 white-knuckler with Wichita State. Bam, a virtual Dwight Howard clone, also blocked the game’s final shot. There are so many talented players on the floor for both teams, many of whom will go on to the NBA. The guy Kentucky is hoping can put them over the top is Malik Monk, who earlier in the season scored 47 points on UNC, yet is just 6-of-21 from the field in this NCAA Tournament. As good as 6′3″ senior guard Bryce Alford is on the offensive end of the court, UCLA may look to hide him some defensively and knows a strong performance skilled 6′10″ freshman T.J. Leaf in the post is paramount. Pick – UCLA 91, Kentucky 89
#8 Wisconsin (27-9) vs. #4 Florida (26-8)… Making their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance are the Wisconsin Badgers, led by the veteran play of senior forward Nigel Hayes, who scored the game-winner in the team’s 65-62 comeback win over defending National Champ Villanova. In that game, Nova led 57-50 with 5:16 to play, but the Badgers fought back with timely plays from tourney tested players like Hayes, senior guard Bronson Koenig, senior forward Vitto Brown and sophomore forward Ethan Happ. The Badgers won thanks to that 15-5 run and largely because they finished +10 in the paint. Will they be able to get similar results on a long and athletic Florida team coming into its own? No one is flourishing more on the Gators than 6′8″ junior Devin Robinson, fresh off a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds in a 65-39 rout of defensive-minded Virginia. Robinson had a career-high of 24 points in the game before that, an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State where the Gators shook off an 0-for-8 start from three-point distance. Given that Florida can be hold from three-point range, it’s essential that 6′1″ senior guard Kasey Hill penetrate with success and finish on the drive as well as set up others to score. While many eyes will be on the UCLA/Kentucky game in the second window, and understandably so, don’t be surprised to see this one produce a buzzer-beater or get decided on the final possession. Pick – Florida 66, Wisconsin 65
The 2017 NCAA Tournament has seen the field trim from 68 teams to the Sweet 16. There weren’t too many upsets or surprises in the first two rounds. In fact, we had no overtime games or buzzer-beaters. However, tourney favorite (per the oddsmakers in Vegas) Duke was knocked out in the Round of 32 as well as defending National Champ Villanova.
Let’s take a look at the Thursday night slate and offer up predictions since pretty much everyone’s brackets have been blown to smithereens. We’ll call this Take 2…
Hat’s Thursday Night Picks:
#7 Michigan (26-11) vs. #3 Oregon (31-5)… Down 11 early in the second half against Rhode Island, Oregon is fortunate in some respects to still be playing as they used a 7-0 run over the final 2:09, capped by a tie-breaking three-pointer from Tyler Dorsey, to beat the Rams 75-72 in the last round. They’re also playing without injured rim protector and 6′10″ senior Chris Boucher. Michigan also is fortunate for different reasons. The Wolverines had a plane crash prior to the Big Ten Tournament, remarkably won it as a #8 seed with four victories in four days, then rallied past the likes of Oklahoma State and Louisville to get to this point. Guard Derrick Walton has been playing at a tremendously high level with 17 assists compared to just three turnovers in the NCAA Tournament, while 6′10″ sophomore forward Moritz Wagner is coming off a career-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Louisville. Coach John Beilein of Michigan is a brilliant offensive mind and his team doesn’t turn it over, pluses uses the 3-point line better than most. With a healthy Boucher, the Dukes probably win this one rather handily, but they will need an unsung hero to emerge to contain Walton, plus help out the talented trio of Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell to keep marching towards the Final Four. Michigan’s confidence is through the roof. Pick – Michigan 80, Oregon 78
#4 West Virginia (28-8) vs. #1 Gonzaga (34-1)… There probably hasn’t been a quieter #1 seed with as lofty a record as this Gonzaga, who entered with the best winning percentage of any participant in this year’s NCAA Tournament, yet some wanted them to be a #2 seed because of the strength of schedule not being as fierce as some of the other Top 25 ranked teams in the nation. Don’t let that or previous exits at this point of the tourney – this is their eighth Sweet 16 trip, but they’ve only appeared in the Elite eight twice (19999, 2015) – fool you. Junior 6′3″ guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a pick-and-roll maestro, 7′1″ senior center Przemek Karnowski is strong in the low block and 7′0″ freshman center Zach Collins has given them another solid big man to utilize. West Virginia, known for their outstanding pressure on defense as they lead the country in turnovers fored, had success turning over both Bucknell and Notre Dame in the last two rounds. The Mountaineers also shot it exceedingly well in beating the Irish; canning 8-of-14 3’s an 21-of-26 free-throws. Will guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles be able to duplicate that against a Gonzaga team that is pretty good defensively in its own right? While West Virginia is a physical tough bunch, they’re going to need to produce in the paint and see 6′9″ senior forward Nathan Adrian give them a big effort on the glass to knock out the top-seeded Bulldogs. Pick – Gonzaga 75, West Virginia 70
#4 Purdue (27-7) vs. #1 Kansas (30-4)… After beating a pesky Vermont team 80-70 in the opening round, Matt Painter’s Boilermakers got up as many as 19 points against Iowa State, lost the lead, but recovered to prevail 80-76 over a dangerous Cyclones team. Sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan of Purdue leads the nation in double-doubles with 28. He was the Big 10 Player of the Year and an argument could be made for him as National Player of the Year. Kansas fifth-year senior Landen Lucas, their best rebounder, will have his hands full with him on the inside as well as with 7′2″ junior center Isaac Haas. Kansas counters with a dynamic perimeter attack, headlined by Big 12 Player of the Year Frank Mason (20.8PPG, 48.7% 3’s) and and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Josh Jackson. That duo combines for over 37 points per game, and if anyone questioned the value of potential first round pick Jackson, just consider they went from losing to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals without him to winning these last two games by a total of 58 points. Included was a 90-70 romp of a Michigan State team known for being to score on over the years. Purdue can win this game, but playing from in front is paramount because they are 19-1 when ahead at half-time this season. Kansas seems to have more ways of scoring. Pick – Kansas 76, Purdue 73
#11 Xavier (23-14) vs. 2 Arizona (32-4)… The interesting subplot to this one is that Arizona’s Head Coach, Sean Miller, used to be at Xavier. He’s trying to break through and get Arizona to the Final Four for the first time since 2001. The Wildcats didn’t blink in the second round against St. Mary’s, who led them by 10 in the first half, as they made 13 consecutive free-throws at one point to rally for a 69-60 win. Arizona is giving up nearly six fewer points per game on the defensive side of the ball and shooting 39.6% from three-point range compared to Xavier’s 34.9% on the season. Xavier’s zone defense gave both Florida St. and Maryland issues, defeating each by double-digits. A lot of the focus for the Musketeers will be slowing down sophomore guard Allonzo Trier as well as 6′11″ senior forward Lauri Markkanen, the stretch ‘4′ who can deliver inside or out. It’s remarkable the job Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack has done to get this team to its sixth Sweet 16 since 2008 without injured sophomore guard Edmond Sumner (15PPG, 5APG), their second leading scorer. Someone will have to help out 6′6″ junior swingman Trevon Bluiett in shouldering the scoring load. Junior 5′11″ guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright could be the x-factor for Zona in this one. He’s a capable outside shooter and also can set others up to score, something they’ll need him to do whether it’s in the open floor or half-court. Pick – Arizona 69, Xavier 59
We’re back for our second blog entry of this Sweet 16 for the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament. Our picks went 3-1 on Thursday night with the lone blemish being Miami falling to Villanova, although I don’t feel too bad about it since the Hurricanes became the first team in the history of the tourney to shoot over 50% from the field and lose by more than 20. Villanova was just that good, shooting lights out the whole night.
Nova, like the other three winners – Oklahoma, Kansas and Oregon – prevailed by double-digits as the drama was pretty much kept to a minimum on Thursday compared to the action-packed Round of 32 games played on Sunday.
Let’s go through Friday night’s picks now . . .
Hat’s Friday Night Picks:
#1 Virginia (28-7) vs. #4 Iowa State (23-11) . . . The Cavaliers are looking to get to the Elite Eight for the first time in 21 years and they are well positioned to do it, though they have to hold off an Iowa State team that can score it in bunches. Against Iona in the first round, the Cyclones put up 94 points and then got held to 78 in the second round by Little Rock, though Monte Morris locked up scoring sensation Josh Hagins. UVA counters with the #2 ranked defense in the nation – behind only Wichita State – and they are led by Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 22 points against Butler and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Tony Bennett’s Cavs must be able to contain Georges Niang, who’s coming off back-to-back 28-point efforts. Not only do the Cyclones have to worry about Brogdon, but also 6′8″ South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill in the front-court and guard London Perrantes, due for a breakout game, in the backcourt. Pick – UVA 66-63.
#6 Notre Dame (23-11) vs. #7 Wisconsin (22-12) . . . Some didn’t see either of these two teams getting to the Round of 32. Even fewer had them squaring off in the Sweet 16. But Wisconsin is here after seeing their top scorers in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker graduate from a season ago, while Notre Dame found its way to this point, despite the departures of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. Grant and Connaughton combined for 29PPG a season ago. The key in this game to me will be whether or not Wisconsin’s front-line duo of senior Nigel Hayes and freshman Ethan Happ can keep Zach Auguste, who has 21 double-doubles on the year, from dominating in the paint. Notre Dame has shown a bit more explosiveness offensively, and if the Badgers don’t get another stellar outside shooting performance from guard Bronson Koenig (the guy that was 6-12 from 3 against Xavier and hit the game-winner), it’ll be a tall order for them to reach their third straight Elite eight. Pick – Notre Dame 72-65.
#10 Syracuse (21-13) vs. #11 Gonzaga (28-7) … It’s the first Sweet 16 appearance for Syracuse since 2013, whereas Gonzaga believe it or not ranks up there with the best when it comes to getting this far in the tourney as Mark Few’s bunch is making its seventh Sweet 16 since 1999. Jim Boeheim’s Orange got here by beating #7 seed Dayton and then #15 seed Middle Tennessee, the most surprising Round of 32 team after its shocker of Michigan State. So much has been made of the vaunted 2-3 Syracuse zone defense and rightfully so as they have great length and versatility to bottle up most any offense out there. However, what is being undersold a bit in my opinion is the Gonzaga defense, which held both Utah and Seton Hall – two teams with plenty of firepower – below 60 points in this NCAA Tournament. So while most will be focused on how that Syracuse defense contains Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer (an ex-Kentucky forward), Eric McClellan (an ex-Vanderbilt guard) and the rest of the Zags, to me this comes down to what Syracuse’s offense does. Michael Gibinije and 6′6″ freshman Malachi Richmond will dictate what type of success the Orange have on that end. Pick – Gonzaga 73-70 (OT)
#1 North Carolina (30-6) vs. #5 Indiana (27-7) . . . This game is fascinating on so many levels. Some feel it might even get into the high 80’s or low 90’s with the score since both are so potent offensively. UNC handled a Providence team with a potential lottery pick in Kris Dunn in the second round, whereas Indiana took down a Kentucky team that is annually chock full of pros these days under John Calipari. Brice Johnson has been a stud all year long for the Tar Heels, registering 21 double-doubles and powering a strong front-court. Indiana’s isn’t quite as formidable up front, but freshman Thomas Bryant was tremendous against Kentucky and flashed his pro potential. If he duplicates that effort, the Hoosiers have a great chance. The Heels must be able to contain Indiana’s three-point shooting game and hope that the guard match between Yogi Ferrell and Marcus Paige turns out to be a wash. The Heels aren’t as dependent on 3’s falling to win a high-scoring affair as the Hoosiers and that could be the difference. Pick – UNC 82-76
More on the UNC/Indiana game with my thoughts included on Tar Heel Illustrated here..
What a wild 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament it has been to this point, narrowing the field down from 68 to the Sweet 16. There are some compelling matchups remaining with no Cinderella story really left, but the first two first rounds more than captivated the nation to where if the remaining rounds are just as good, this will go down as a March Madness to remember.
In the first round, there were 10 double-digit seeds that advanced – the most ever. It also marked the first time ever that a #13, #14 and #15 seed won on the same day. But they paled in comparison to what happened on Sunday in the Round of 32, where there were five games decided by five points or less. That included the amazing finish between Wisconsin and Xavier, where the Badgers won a buzzer-beating three-pointer and the single biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history with a minute or less remaining as Texas A&M stormed back to stun Northern Iowa in double-overtime , remarkably after trailing by 12 with just 35 seconds to go.
Let’s dive into Thursday’s Sweet 16 games, but first, let’s begin by ranking the games in the Sweet 16 from most interesting to least . . .
Hat’s Sweet 16 Barometer: Most Fascinating to Least
No. 1 – #1 UNC vs. #4 Indiana… These are two of the most storied programs in College Basketball history. They’ve met twice before in the NCAA Tournament with Indiana winning both meetings, including when Isiah Thomas led the Hoosiers to a National Championship in 1981. Two of the most prolific offenses in the entire NCAA Tournament go at it in what has the makings to be a game good enough for the Final Four or Elite Eight taking place in the regional semifinals. Hard to trump that..
No. 2 – #2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami (FL)… The backcourt matchup in this one is worth the price of admission alone. Villanova is led by Ryan Arcidiacono, who Head Coach Jay Wright basically calls a carbon copy of himself. Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was sensational in their second round victory over Wichita State, scoring a career-high 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting as the Canes went from up 21 to down a point before holding off a seasoned Shockers team by eight
No. 3 – #10 Syracuse vs. #11 Gonzaga… A double-digit seed will be playing in the Elite Eight and it’ll be the winner of this game. You have the vaunted 2-3 Syracuse zone with their great length against a Gonzaga team that is no short order either, led by 6′10″ sophomore Domantas Sabonis, son of Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis. Both were dominant in Round of 32 wins; Syracuse over upset-minded Middle Tennessee (which stunned tourney co-favorite Michigan St.) and Gonzaga throttling a quality Utah team. If each plays to their potential, this one might produce a buzzer-beating finish.
No. 4 – #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Texas A&M… This one shouldn’t be slept on as it is two old Big 12 rivals squaring off and the favorite for National Player of the Year – Buddy Hield of Oklahoma – taking center stage. Hield was magnificent in the team’s 85-81 second round over VCU with 36 points – 29 in the second half – on 11-of-20 shooting from the field with six treys and seven boards. A&M’s comeback was one for the ages and Danuel House is out to show he’s a household name (see what I did there?) as he ignited the rally vs. Northern Iowa.
No. 5 – #1 Virginia vs. #4 Iowa State… You have a UVA team that is one of the best in the nation defensively against an Iowa State squad that has three-point shooting prowess, having made 10 or more 3’s on nine occasions over the past 13 games. Tony Bennett has the Cavs in a position to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984, the days of Ralph Sampson. Meanwhile, Iowa St. comes in with arguably the best player on the court in Georges Niang, who scored 28 points in each of his team’s first two tourney wins.
No. 6 – #1 Oregon vs. #4 Duke… Just about any other year, it would be Duke favored to win this game. Instead, the top-seeded Ducks area a slight favorite against the reigning National Champs, who lean heavily on the 1-2 punch of projected lottery pick Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen. That duo combined for 54 points in a 71-64 win over Yale, where a 27-point lead shrunk all the way down to three late in the game. Oregon tied a school-record for wins with 30, which the 1944-45 team also accomplished, and is the least ballyhooed #1 seed in the tourney in part because they play on the West Coast if you ask me.
No. 7 – #1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland… In terms of competitiveness, this one has the biggest potential to be a blowout in my opinion as Maryland was fortunate not to let a late lead against #12 seed South Dakota State late in the game slip away and had to rally past #13 seed Hawaii in the second round. Kansas is a co-favorite with UNC to win the tourney at this point. Bill Self’s Jayhawks have shellacked their first two foes in the tourney by a combined 38 points, and it really hasn’t even been that close.
No. 8 – #6 Notre Dame vs. #7 Wisconsin… This would be a great football game and would’ve been an even better basketball matchup in the NCAA Tournament if it happened last year when Wisconsin had the duo of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker that fell to Duke in the National Championship, while Notre Dame lost a heart-breaker in 2015 to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Both got here on game-winners; Bronson Koenig for Wisconsin and freshman backup Rex Pflueger (not to be confused with former pro wrestler Lex Luger) for Notre Dame. Neither plays a real attractive style, and while none of the games figure to be boring, we anticipated getting #2 Xavier vs. #3 West Virginia facing each other here instead of these two.
Hat’s Thursday Night Picks:
#2 Villanova (31-5) vs. #3 Miami (27-7) – This is the hardest Sweet 16 game for me to call as I see it coming right down to the wire. Where’s the edge? Miami can control the backboards better if Tonye Jekiri, the 7-footer, stays out of foul trouble. Rodriguez also is good enough to make a play to win the game late if given the chance. It is worth noting that both teams got off to great starts in the Round of 32, but Miami has had some trouble holding onto leads and Villanova has the guards – Arcidiacono, Jalen Bruson, Josh Hart, etc. – to make a comeback. Pick – Miami 73-72.
#2 Oklahoma (27-7) vs. #3 Texas A&M (28-8) – The Aggies go through some lulls shooting the basketball, as seen to close out the first half vs. Northern Iowa where they went 1-of-15 going to intermission down 10. Oklahoma isn’t prone to as many cold spells, and their confidence probably grew from building a 21-7 lead vs. VCU with Hield in foul trouble and off to the slow start as it allowed – and forced - guys like Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and pick-and-pop forward Ryan Spangler – to have to make plays. Pick – Oklahoma 76-68.
#1 Kansas (32-4) vs. #5 Maryland (27-8) – In some publications, Maryland was rated as high as #1 in the preseason with a boatload of talent at Mark Turgeon’s disposal with playmaking guard Melo Trimble, shot-maker Jake Layman and Diamond Stone on the inside to headline the Terps. But they’ve had some maddening inconsistencies which include turnover issues, defensive rebounding lapses and most of all really struggled shooting from three-point distance in the second round vs. Hawaii as they went 1-of-18 behind the arc. Kansas held UCONN to 34% shooting and the Jayhawks know how to get it done defensively. Pick – Kansas 76-64.
#1 Oregon (30-6) vs. #4 Duke (25-10) – Shot-blocking was key for Oregon in its win over St. Joseph’s and the Ducks saw two underclassmen – freshman Tyler Dorsey and sophomore Dillon Brooks – make a couple of critical 3’s late to put them up when they were trailing. Will Duke have that third scoring option step up to help out Ingram and Allen? That’s a big question, as well as their defense that had some breakdowns against both UNCW and Yale earlier in the tourney. As long as Oregon is able to beat the Blue Devils off the dribble and not turn it over, they have the components it takes to beat Coach K’s bunch. Pick – Oregon 77-73.
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.
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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