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

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

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

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

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

Saturday’s Elite Eight Matchups:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sunday’s Second Round Matchups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

First Round Picks:  23-9

Saturday’s Second Round Matchups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 5, 2010 – NCAA Basketball Championship Preview & Pick

April 6, 2010 on 2:42 am | In College Basketball | 1 Comment

It’s time for the 2010 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship game, between the Duke Blue Devils of the ACC and the Butler Bulldogs from the Horizon League.  Duke, the only #1 seed to reach the Final Four, hammered West Virginia 78-57 on Saturday night, while the fifth-seeded Bulldogs outlasted Michigan State 52-50.  Before we go to a Preview with my Pick for the game as well as ‘Keys to Victory,’ let’s review my record in this tourney heading into Monday night . . .  

26-6 in First Round
6-2 in Sweet 16
1-3 in Elite 8
0-2 in Final Four
Total:  33-13 (69%)

 
#5 Butler (33-4) vs. #1 Duke (34-5) – 9:21 PM:  It’s the classic David vs. Goliath in the National Final on Monday night.  Duke, going for their first National Championship since 2001 and fourth ever, has been in 93 NCAA Tournament games, 15 Final Four games and appeared in the title game 10 times.  As for Butler, they’ve played in only 13 tourney games, making both their first trip to the Final Four and Championship, and never won the NCAA title.  Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s Head Coach, looks to join elite company with John Wooden of UCLA and Adolph Rupp from Kentucky as the only men to ever win four National Championships.  Butler Coach Brad Stevens, only 33 years of age, came into this tournament as a relatively unknown sideline general.  The hometown favorites from Indianapolis have won 25 straight, the longest winning streak in the NCAA by any team this year.  A couple other storylines to watch . . .

Duke is led by the ‘S-Trio’ of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.  While Scheyer is the only senior of that threesome, it could be the final collegiate game for each as Smith and Singler could elect to forgo their senior season and entre the NBA Draft. 

For Butler, which has rallied in the second half to beat each of their opponents in the NCAA Tournament – - UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State – - the Bulldogs do not enter this game completely healthy.  Guard Shelvin Mack, who scored 14 points in the National Semifinals, went out with cramps, and Matt Howard is coming off a concussion.  Both are expected to play for the darling underdog.

Duke’s Keys to Victory: 

#1 – Force Butler to Shoot 3’s:  This Butler team is not that great shooting from beyond the arc.  In fact, Butler shot about only 30% from the field and beat Michigan State.  Why?  Well, because nothing really phases them and they don’t hurt themselves with a lot of mistakes.  Conversely, they are able to capitalize off your mistakes, as indicated when they beat the Spartans 20-2 in points off turnovers.  Mack is the guy on the perimeter they have to key in on because other than him they really don’t have a three-point threat that scares you.  If Duke is able to make Butler settle for three-point looks instead of punching it in the paint and get one of the Blue Devils’ bigs in foul trouble, that favors Coach K’s bunch.

#2 – Get to the Free-Throw Line:  When Duke gets to the free-throw line a lot, like they did in the Elite Eight against Baylor, it not only stops the clock and keeps teams from running out for points in transition, but most importantly it gives them a chance for easy points and possibly get one of Butler’s main contributors like a Howard in foul trouble.  Plus, it puts less pressure on them having to shoot so hot from deep, which they’ve done the last two games by going 24-of-48 from long distance.  That’s 50%, but they also have had a rough time shooting from long range for stretches in the this tourney when Cal limited them to 2-for-9 from three-point land in the first half and when they went 3-for-9 from 3-range vs. Purdue in the Sweet 16.

#3 – Cause the Bulldogs to Turn it Over:  Duke is at its best when they are able to apply ball pressure and make their opponent turn the basketball over.  More times than not, Butler protects the basketball very well, however, when Kansas St. turned up the heat defensively they were able to cause 20 turnovers on the Bulldogs.  The more turnovers Butler has – - and they are a team that likes to play in the 50’s – - the fewer possessions they have, and the more likely they are prone to going through a spell where they struggle to score.  Remember, Murray State held them without a field goal the final 6:30 of the first half in their second round matchup, so if Duke can really dig in defensively, they can put Butler in their first real hole of the tournament where they are down by eight or more.  Butler isn’t built to come back from a large deficit, thing is nobody has gotten them in a position or situation where they’ve got to go on a run and really get hot shooting from long range in order to win.

 

Butler’s Keys to Victory:

#1 – Shot Selection:  Getting off to a fast start is imperative and a must, but if they are trailing early, the Bulldogs can’t panic and start pressing to the point where they rush shots and don’t value the clock.  That will play into Duke’s hands.  The real key guy with the ball in his hands with the clocking ticking down will be Gordon Hayward, who’s averaging 19.3 points per game over the last three.  Mack also can’t be forgotten as he hit 7-of-9 from three-point land in the opening round victory over UTEP . . . they will need good dribble penetration and try to get him open off drives through the lane that make the defense collapse.

#2 – Defensive Rebounding:  Duke’s Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas have been outstanding on the offensive boards over the last couple games as the Blue Devils grabbed 22 offensive rebounds against Baylor in the Elite Eight and then followed it up by holding West Virginia to only 19 boards in the last game out.  Butler may lose the battle in the boards and still have a chance to win.  They can’t give up a huge advantage in that category though, especially since Duke gets a lot of offensive boards and then kick out to Scheyer, Smith or Single off those second chance opportunities for open 3’s.

#3 – Get a Bench Spark:  Butler really relies heavily on their starting unit of Hayward, Howard, Mack, Willie Veasley and defensive specialist Ronald Nored, they got a real lift off the bench from 6-foot-1 junior reserve guard Shawn Vanzant.  He doesn’t have to score and have a 20-point game like he did a year ago versus Valparaiso, but if he can make a couple key plays like he did late in the Michigan State game, including an offensive rebound with less than two minutes to go that led to them going up by four, then his impact will be felt.

Pick:  Duke 64-52 – While Butler hasn’t given up 60 points in a game yet in this NCAA Tournament and their team plays superb defense, constantly proving me wrong as they beat the likes of Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State (I even picked them to lose in the opening round to UTEP), Duke is mighty good offensively.  The Blue Devils have scored no fewer than 68 points in any game in the NCAA Tournament, and even when they don’t shoot the ball exceedingly well, they crash the offensive glass for second chance points.  And as West Virginia found out in the last round, when each guy in their S-Trio of Singler, Scheyer and Smith is on, you can’t go through any offensive drought or you’ll lose by double-figures.

Saturday, April 3, 2010 – Final Four Preview & Picks

April 4, 2010 on 12:17 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

Fans it is Final Four time!  The 2010 Men’s College Basketball Final Four takes place LIVE from Indianapolis with tip-off set at 6:07 PM between a pair of #5 seeds in the National Semifinals, the Butler Bulldogs and the Michigan State Spartans.  Following that game, it’ll be the lone top seed left in the tournament, the Duke Blue Devils, against the West Virginia Mountaineers. 

Here’s the updated picks record before Saturday night’s Final Four games . . . here is the Preview and be sure to follow the BLOG of the games as they take place with post-game reaction as well, so stay tuned and enjoy . . .

26-6 in First Round
6-2 in Sweet 16
1-3 in Elite 8
Total:  33-11 (75%)

#5 Butler (32-4) vs. #5 Michigan State (28-8) – 6:07 PM:  Clearly having to travel only six miles to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, the Butler Bulldogs are the hometown favorite for this year’s Final Four and the surprise darling.  Thirty-three-year-old baby-faced Head Coach Brad Stevens has gone 88-14 in his three seasons as the program’s Head Coach, and they bring in the nation’s longest winning streak this year at 24 straight victories.  He has an undersized team and one that is not great at shooting the basketball from the outside, but their defense is playing at a high level.  Case and point, they’ve held four teams under 60 points in the NCAA Tournament, including #1 seed Syracuse and #2 seed Kansas State.  They have a balanced attack with Horizon League Player of the Year award winners in Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard, along with hot scoring guard Shelvin Mack (16.8PPG in the NCAA Tourney), stellar defender Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley.

Michigan State comes in with much more Final Four experience than Butler.  Head Coach Tom Izzo has guided this team to the Final Four six times, and now has a 364-145 record in his career, including a terrific 35-11 in the NCAA Tournament.  A year ago the Spartans beat Kansas, Louisville and Connecticut on their way to reaching the National Championship, where they lost to North Carolina.  This team has battled even more adversity, losing starting point guard and last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas to injury with two minutes to go in the first half of their second round game against Maryland, which they won on a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer from his replacement, Korie Lucious.  Forward Raymar Morgan has provided the senior leadership, while Durrell Summers is in a groove dialing it up from the outside with 16 3’s on 30 attempts from long distance in the NCAA Tournament.  Draymond Green, the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, brings a spark off the bench, and his hustle and intensity were big in the 70-69 win over Tennessee in the Elite Eight where they held the Vols to 19 points over the final 15:48 after giving up 19 points in the first 7:41 of the game.

I give Michigan State the edge for several reasons in this game.  Butler has not shot the ball exceedingly well in the tourney, and they’ve had to rally from three second half deficits against Murray State, Syracuse and Kansas St. to get to this point.  While they have won close games, nobody has done it better than Izzo’s team in this tourney with four victories by a total of 13 points.  No Coach in the business probably makes better in-game adjustments that him.  They thrive in those situations, and if they are able to get Howard in foul trouble (which plagued Butler in its last loss to UAB and also nearly cost them in the second round vs. Murray St.), then that may allow them to push tempo and pull away late.  Shot blocking could be the underrated factor in this game, too.  MSU had a season-high eight blocks in the Elite Eight against a Tennessee team that was doing quite a bit of damage in the paint in the NCAA Tournament, especially against Ohio State when they outscored the Buckeyes 50-22 in the Paint.  Butler doesn’t get bothered by much, and you have to like how the pass the ball and use their skill, but in order for them to win, they must stay out of foul trouble and match Michigan St. on the backboards.  I can see them doing it for 32-35 minutes, though for the whole 40 is going to be quite a challenge.  Pick – Michigan State by 10


#2 West Virginia (31-6) vs. #1 Duke (33-5) – 8:47 PM: 
After losing Gerald Henderson to the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and seeing Elliot Williams transfer to Memphis, some wondered whether or not Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski had a legitimate Final Four contender on his hands for the 2009-2010 campaign.  Well, they are the last #1 seed standing after outlasting Baylor 78-71 in the Elite Eight to earn Coach K another trip to the Final Four.  His 11 Final Four appearances are now tied for the second most all-time.  This Duke team has three really talented, All-ACC level players in senior Jon Scheyer and juniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, but none are All-American or Player of the Year material, that ‘superstar’ guy that they’ve known to produce in the past like Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Jason Williams or J.J. Redick.  Nonetheless, the mixture has worked, and they overcame a 0-for-10 shooting game from Singler against Baylor thanks to the career-high 29 poured in by Smith (whose dad Derek Smith played in the NBA and helped Louisville to a National Championship in 1980).  Also, Duke’s work on the boards paid dividends, getting 22 offensive rebounds and eight from Lance Thomas.  Both he and Brian Zoubek have progressed in their roles as the season has gone along.

Bob Huggins guided the West Virginia Mountaineers to their first Final Four since 1959, the days of Jerry West and ironically they have West’s son (Johnnie West) on their team.  Huggins, with a 670-240 record in his career and now 80-29 with the Mountaineers and 26-17 in the NCAA Tournament, became one of only four coaches ever to take two different teams to the Final Four.  Their 73-66 triumph over a Kentucky team loaded with future pros opened some eyes, particularly the way they did it as they shot 8-for-15 from long range and 0-for-16 from inside the arc in the first half of that game and led by two.  The West Virginia bench outscored Kentucky 36-18, and they also had eight assists from their reserve, which means they know how to make that extra pass, and some of their parts are interchangeable at times.  Kentucky shot only 4-of-32 from deep and misfired on their first 20 three-point tries.  This West Virginia team has grinded all year long and their shot selection has improved throughout the tourney.  Six-foot-7 senior Da’Sean Butler has been the all-around forward that’s able to score on the perimeter, in the lane or find the open man.  Six-foot-9 sophomore Devin Ebanks is a matchup problem for opponents with his length, and he’s a still a force rebounding as well as scoring despite sub-par shooting numbers of late.  Forwards Wellington Smith and Kevin Jones have also contributed in the areas of shooting, defense and rebounding, but what has really energized this team of late is the point guard play of Joe Mazzulla in the absence of sophomore starter Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant.  Mazzulla, deadly with his left hand in transition, has regained his swagger after suffering a serious shoulder injury.  He’s coming off a career high point total in the last game out.

It’s hard for me to forget about the meeting between these two teams a year ago.  Granted, a handful of players from both teams have graduated and gone on to the NBA, but there are a few of the same characters involved as well.  The Mountaineers won 73-67 as a #7 seed over the then #2 seeded Blue Devils, and did so by destroying Duke on the glass 45-19.  That seems to be hard to imagine happening again, but with so much talk about how well Duke did on the backboards and how Kentucky did a nice job on the glass against WVA, watch for the Mountaineers to more than hold their own in that crucial category.  Keep in mind West VA was +16 on the boards in the Sweet 16 vs. Washington and they went from committing 23 turnovers in that 13-point win to only having three turnovers through 20 minutes in the Elite Eight.  Additionally, Mazzulla, then a freshman, gave Duke fits with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, nearly producing a triple-double.  The Blue Devils shot 5-for-22 from deep, and unless all three pieces in their S-Trio (Scheyer, Singler and Smith) that accounts for 69% of their scoring perform at or above their normal level, Huggins’ team has the advantage in my opinion.  One shouldn’t under estimate the physical brand of basketball they are used to playing in the Big East, and how they blitzed Kentucky to end the first half and start the second half in their Elite Eight matchup to beat a Wildcats team many considered to be the most talented in the country in spite of their youth and inexperience.  Another stat that stands out is Duke is 0-3 vs. the Big East in the Sweet 16 or later in the NCAA Tournament since 1999.  Look for the WVA defense, whether they use a 1-3-1 zone or man, to give Duke problems with their length, athleticism and inside-outside versatility.  Pick – West Virginia by 8

Sunday, March 28, 2010 – Elite NCAA Tourney Picks (Day 2)

March 28, 2010 on 9:19 pm | In College Basketball | No Comments

Here’s the update picks record before Sunday’s Elite Eight matchups with #6 Tennessee taking on #5 Michigan State, followed by #3 Baylor against #1 Duke . . .

26-6 in First Round
6-2 in Sweet 16
1-1 in Elite 8

 

#6 Tennessee vs. #5 Michigan State – 2:20 PM:  It’s rare that a #5 faces a #6 seed in a Regional Final, but that’s’ what we have in the Midwest Regional Final in St. Louis as the Tennessee Volunteers take on the Michigan State Spartans.  To get here, Tennessee knocked off #2 seed and Big Ten Tournament Champion Ohio State after beating double-digit seeds San Diego State and Ohio.  Michigan State, which lost to North Carolina in last year’s National Championship, is here without junior point guard Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year a season ago as a sophomore who is out with an Achilles injury.  The Spartans topped New Mexico State by three in the first round, beat Maryland by two at the buzzer courtesy of a three-pointer from Korie Lucious, and defeated Northern Iowa by seven in the Sweet Sixteen.  This is the first meeting between these two schools since 1994.  The Spartans are in the Elite Eight round for the seventh time since 1999.  Tom Izzo is 5-1 in Regional Finals as Michigan State’s Head Coach in his 15 seasons.  Coach Bruce Pearl guided Tennessee to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, and now they are in the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

Three seniors are in the starting five for Tennessee providing leadership in Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze.  Chism, a dangerous 6-foot-9 inside-outside forward, scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the regional semifinal against Ohio State.  He’s not only a force in the paint along with 6-foot-10 junior Brian Williams, but he also has hit 118 three-pointers in his career.   Prince added 14 points, six assists and two steals vs. the Buckeyes, and his length on defense was huge, especially on the blocked shot of OSU’s Evan Turner at the end to preserve a Vols victory.  As for Maze, he’s an underrated distributor, and along with 5-foot-11 junior Melvin Goins, it gives Pearl some different options in the backcourt.  Even though the perception is that Tennessee is a perimeter-oriented team, they did outscore Ohio St. 50-22 in the Points in the Paint category, and are a pretty solid rebounding team for the most part.

While Tennessee wants to push the tempo and excel in a high-scoring game where they can let it fly from behind the three-point arc, Michigan State is a little different because they’d prefer to have this game played in the half-court with their defense and in particular their rebounding set the tone.  Raymar Morgan, the lone senior starter currently in MSU’s starting five, has been the glue guy for this team.  Over his last 12 games he’s averaging close to 17 points and nine rebounds a game.  Durrell Summers, a 6-foot-4 junior swingman, is averaging 19.6 points per game in the NCAA Tourney, and in his last two contests has shot 10-for-17 from three-point range.  On the boards, Morgan, 6-foot-8 sophomore Delvon Roe and 6-foot-6 sophomore Draymond Green, who posted 12 boards in the opening round, are a handful.  Their ability to crash the glass will be crucial, especially second chance opportunities.  Being +11 in rebounds vs. Northern Iowa was a key to their success.

On defense, Michigan St. has to contain the slashing to the rim of Tennessee.  If they’re able to do that and continue to get good production from their bench, they have a great chance to win.  My thinking is Tennessee wins it close because they are a little bit better shooting from the outside, can match MSU’s intensity on the boards and they are just as deep.  Their shooters have a lot of confidence right now, and that shouldn’t change against a Spartans team that eventually will miss Lucas’ play-making at the point guard position.  Pick – Tennessee by 3.

 

#3 Baylor vs. #1 Duke – 5:05 PM:  Few would’ve expected that the last #1 seed standing would be the Duke Blue Devils of the ACC, who a year ago got bounced by 23 points in the Sweet 16 by Villanova.  But that’s the case as Kansas fell in the second round #9 seed Northern Iowa, Syracuse lost to #5 seed Butler in the Sweet 16 and the latest to lose was Kentucky to #2 seed West Virginia in last night’s Elite Eight.  Coach Mike Krzyzewski has Duke eying its 11th ever Final Four trip and first in six years.  In a down year for the ACC, Duke was the lone ACC team to make it to the Sweet 16 and did so with the trio of Kyle Singler (21PPG,  7.7RPG in the NCAA Tourney), Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer leading the way.  Scheyer, struggling a bit in a shooting slump (just 2-for-17 from 3 distance the last two games), is the only senior among that threesome, whereas Singler and Smith are juniors. 

Baylor is enjoying one of the most successful seasons that they’ve ever had in basketball.  The Bears, under the direction of Scott Drew, are seeking their first Final Four trip since 1950.  Their only other appearance in the Final Four besides that one came in 1948 when the field had just eight teams.  This is Baylor’s third straight 20-pls win season and only their sixth in the 104-year history of the program.  Wins over Sam Houston State and Old Dominion in the first two rounds set the stage for the 72-49 blowout of St. Mary’s in which they shut them down in an all-around great performance where they had a double-digit lead for 32 of the game’s 40 minutes played.  Their zone defense forced St. Mary’s, a sharp shooting team for much of the tourney, into 6-of-22 from behind the arc.  It clearly isn’t the same Baylor team that lost 12 of 14 in a stretch last season that kept them from making the NCAA Tournament.

Duke has to be patient versus the Baylor zone, but can they defend Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn (20.7PPG in NCAA Tourney) of the Bears?  They are two dynamic with explosive moves, whether it’s scoring on the drive, jumper or dishing the rock.  Dunn is shooting over 55% from the field in the tourney, and Carter is providing four steals a contest.  Both were atop the Big 12 in three-point shooting this year.  On the inside, some believe Duke can take advantage with Singler and Brian Zoubek, a serviceable center that has come on of late with 10.3 rebounds per game over the last three.  But Baylor counters with front-line featuring three players at 6-foot-10, 6-foot-10 and 7-foot-tall.  Ekpe Udoh transferred from Michigan where he led the Big Ten in shot blocking two years ago and this season has been even more of a scoring and rebounding factor at 12 points and 9.3 boards a contest in the tourney.  Josh Lomers can match Zoubek as he’s a very effective rebounder and shot blocker, too.  Quincy Acy adds 9PPG, 5RPG off the bench as well.

To me, the way Baylor played with their physicality and intensity it’s going to be hard for Duke, more of a finesse team, to match it and do so without scoring in the paint – - which they failed to do in the first half versus Purdue in the Sweet 16.  Physical teams with quick athletes give them fits, and unless the Blue Devils are just scorching hot shooting the ball from downtown, my feeling is Baylor will win this game with strong drives to the basket and transition points.  Pick – Baylor by 8.

Saturday, March 27, 2010 – Elite 8 NCAA Tourney Picks

March 27, 2010 on 11:22 pm | In College Basketball | 2 Comments

After a 6-2 mark in the Sweet 16 round – - including a perfect 4-0 on Friday night – - we take a look at the Elite Eight, beginning with Saturday night’s Regional Final matchups pitting #5 Butler against #2 Kansas State, followed by #2 West Virginia taking on #1 Kentucky . . .

 

#5 Butler vs. #2 Kansas State – 4:30 PM:  Both teams are enjoying arguably their best season ever.  Butler, riding a nation-long 23-game winning streak, hasn’t been beaten since a December 22nd road loss at UAB, and the Bulldogs are trying to make it to the Final Four for the first time ever.  As for Kansas State, the Wildcats outlasted Xavier 101-96 in a double-overtime thriller where their guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente exchanged clutch shot after clutch shot with the Musketeers’ terrific sophomore backcourt duo of Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway.  Coach Frank Martin has the Wildcats in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1988 during the days of Lon Kruger guiding the team, and a win on Saturday would secure the school its first Final Four trip since 1964.

Pullen has really elevated his game to another level during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 25.7 points per game over the last three contests while shooting 15-for-30 from deep and committing only four turnovers.  Both he and Clemente are major reasons why they’ve won a school-record 29 games this year.  The guards can shoot it, are unselfish at times and know how to feed the post.  On the inside, the Wildcats are persistent and it has led to them attempting and making more free-throws than any other team in the country.  Curtis Kelly was really effective as the game progressed against Xavier and stepped up in overtime with 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five blocks.  Another effort like that where he really does damage late on the interior should be enough to help them move a step closer to a National Title. 

Butler forced 18 turnovers by Syracuse, including 13 steals that led to them getting chance at transition points in their surprising 63-59 upset of the top-seeded Orange.  Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs were patient attacking the 2-3 zone, but most importantly they dug in defensively when their offense went in a dry spell, scoring 15 points the first 16 minutes of the second half after scoring 31 points in the first 16 minutes of the first half.  Most teams wouldn’t be able to survive that against an opponent of Syracuse’s quality, but Butler did because their defense, headlined by guard Ronald Nored, didn’t give up any easy baskets and offensively they protected the basketball.  To be successful and reach the Final Four, they’ll need to be able to have similar results defensively, plus get strong offensive games from Gordon Hayward (17 vs. Syracuse), Shelvin Mack (only 1-of-10 from deep the last game) and Matt Howard, a key inside player who sometimes gets in foul trouble. 

While fatigue from the double-overtime classic could be an issue potentially for KSU, Butler is coming off a pretty emotional win themselves over Syracuse, and I’m not sure the Bulldogs have quite the amount of weapons or firepower offensively to keep up with the Wildcats provided the score gets above the 60’s like I anticipate.  Pick – Kansas State by 6

 

#2 West Virginia vs. #1 Kentucky – 7:05 PM:  John Calipari in year one at Kentucky has the Wildcats three wins away from their eighth National Championship and the program’s first since 1998.  Quickly and with a bunch of freshmen, he has put them back in the national spotlight with their average margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament by 25.3 points a game, and holding opponents under 35% shooting from the field.  For West Virginia, they are in the Elite Eight for the second time in six years.  In 2005 they lost to Louisville 93-85 in overtime.  Reserve the outcome this time around and it’ll mark their first trip to the Final Four since 1959.  Both teams won comfortably by double-digits in the Sweet 16 as Kentucky ended the Cinderella story of #12 seed Cornell, whereas West Virginia rallied from a half-time deficit to beat #11 seed and Pac-10 Tournament Champion Washington.

Kentucky’s team is stacked with potential NBA lottery picks in guard John Wall, big man DeMarcus Cousins and sharp shooter Eric Bledsoe.  Wall is putting up 13 points and 8.6 assists per game in the tourney; many believe he’ll be the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft as this point guard may be the best player in the country and just as a freshman.  Cousins is a double-double threat at 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds a game in the tourney.  As for Bledsoe, he’s drilling it from the outside at a 64.5% clip to go with his 15 points a game over the past three contests.  When this team rebounds, and most times they do, they’re even more dangerous.  The only areas where they aren’t really strong are outside shooting and foul shooting, but make no mistake about it, this team is close to impossible to beat when they are shooting a high percentage from both long distance and at the charity stripe.

West Virginia counters the speed, strength, talent and size of Kentucky with interchangeable parts and a tough 1-3-1 zone defense.  Over their last six games the Mountaineers have held each opponent under 60 points.  Like Kentucky, West Virginia has not been a terrific outside shooting team, but also like the Wildcats, they crash the glass, particularly on offense to get their points.  West Virginia out-rebounded Washington by 16 and had 19 offensive boards.  They’ll look to the long 6-foot-9 wingspan of Devin Ebanks, their point forward, to try and disrupt Wall, and Da’Sean Butler is an all-around performer that fills the stat sheet and has seen his scoring responsibility increase in postseason play.  The point guard play has not been overly consistent in a good way for West Virginia, and they can’t afford costly turnovers if they want to beat the Wildcats.  They committed 23 of them against Washington, though the expected return of Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant should help.  Coach Bob Huggins knows in order to take his alma mater to the Final Four, they have to be able to keep Kentucky’s lethal transition game in check.

My personal feeling is that the winner of this game will go on to win the National Championship.  That was my thought when the brackets first came out, and I still stand by that thought.  Kentucky is the most talented team in America, even with their youth and inexperience.  That being said, anything less than an A-level performance could keep them from getting to the Final Four.  Personally, I feel that Kentucky is playing a little bit better than West Virginia going into this matchup, though I’ll stick with my original pick before the tournament began of the Mountaineers to win the title.  Pick – West Virginia by 1

Friday, March 26, 2010 – Sweet 16 NCAA Tourney Picks (Day 2)

March 27, 2010 on 12:57 am | In College Basketball | No Comments

Welcome back to our second Sweet 16 BLOG Entry after a 2-2 night yesterday, which included Butler’s upset of Syracuse and a double-overtime thriller between Kansas State and Xavier, won by the Wildcats 101-96.  In case some of you might’ve missed it, my Full Bracket is at the link below – - I went 26-6 in the first round, but have fared considerably worse as the tourney has progressed.  Only one of my Final Four teams – - West Virginia, coincidentally my National Champion pick – - is still alive. 

Hatfield Sports Bracket

After Friday night, only eight will be standing and the Elite Eight will be set – - who will join Kentucky, West Virginia, Butler and Kansas State?  Let’s take a look at Friday night’s games . . .

 

#6 Tennessee vs. #2 Ohio State – 7:07 PM:  It’ll be the three-point bombs of Tennessee versus the Evan Turner show for Ohio State.  As great as Turner has been this season, a National Player of the Year candidate and threat for a triple-double on any given night, his tourney performer thus far hasn’t matched his spectacular play from the regular season or in the Big Ten Tournament.  In the first round against UC Santa Barbara, he shot only 2-for-14 from the field and finished with nine points, 10 boards and five assists.  His next game against Georgia Tech was much better with 24 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, although he did commit nine turnovers. Look for Tennessee to constantly pressure and harass this do-everything player that is expected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.  That said, OSU has gotten lifts from Jon Diebler (11-22 3’s in the NCAA Tourney), William Buford and crafty senior David Lighty.  Bruce Pearl has the Volunteers in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, and amazingly they are here without last year’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game in Tyler Smith, dismissed from the team earlier this season.  In his absence, senior Wayne Chism, a 6-foot-9 senior forward with the ability to knock it down from the outside has really stepped it up.  So have others, like Melvin Goins, who had 15 points and shot 4-of-5 from long distance in the Vols’ 62-59 opening round victory over San Diego State, brings explosiveness and will be one of three guys they likely throw at Turner alongside lengthy 6-foot-7 senior J.P. Prince and 6-foot-3 senior Bobby Maze.  Remember, the Vols are the underdog in this game, but they did upset both Kansas and Kentucky this season.  Pick – Tennessee by 2

 

#10 St. Mary’s vs. #3 Baylor – 7:27 PM:  One of the Cinderella darlings of this NCAA Tournament has been the #10 seed St. Mary’s Gaels, which beat a Villanova team in the second round that reached the Final Four a year ago.  Perhaps no player has been more dominating or burst onto the scene more the past couple weeks than their big man Omar Samhan, a force on the inside with 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game to this point in the NCAA Tournament, not to mention he’s shooting 75% from the field and over 72% at the foul line.  Some never heard of him and associated St. Mary’s with current Portland Trail Blazers rookie Patty Mills, their flashy guard from a year ago that led them in scoring.  To go with Samhan, Mickey McConnell has been the three-point ace to spark them from outside with eight triples in this tourney so far.  On the boards, they’ve been terrific, out-rebounding Richmond by 23 in the first round.  While St. Mary’s comes in considered to be the better outside shooting team, don’t be fooled and think Baylor is unequipped to strike from deep.  They made 8-of-20 long range tries in their second round victory over Old Dominion, a game where Tweety Carter dished out eight assists, Josh Lomers gave them an unexpected punch in the middle with 14 points, eight boards, three blocks and four steals, and LaceDarius Dunn was outstanding with 26 points.  From a physical standpoint, few are as tough as the Bears too, who got 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists from Ekpe Udoh in the first round win over Sam Houston State.  In that game, Baylor had to really and did so with solid perimeter defense, limiting Sam Houston to 6-for-31 shooting from three-point land.  If Baylor limits St. Mary’s from getting second chance opportunities and the Gaels aren’t hot shooting the basketball from the outside like they have been, the Bears have a great chance to not only win this game, but do so by double-figures.

Pick – Baylor by 13

 

#9 Northern Iowa vs. #5 Michigan State – 9:37 PM:  The most stunning upset of the NCAA Tournament through two rounds was delivered by the ninth-seeded Northern Iowa Panthers coached by Ben Jacobson, who knocked off top-seeded Kansas 69-67 in the second round in a game where they practically led from start to finish.  Coming through in the clutch for the second straight time was senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh, whose triple with 35 seconds left against the Jayhawks put his team up four and made the Jayhawks the first #1 seed to lose in the second round since Kentucky fell to UAB in 2004.  Farokhmanesh has the green light though as we saw in the first round win over UNLV when he uncorked a deep three-pointer with the shot clock winding down to break a 66-all tie.  Needless to say, if this game is close, everyone will know who Northern Iowa will be going to down the stretch for a big shot.  What makes this Northern Iowa team no fluke is the play inside of 7-foot-1, 290-pound senior center Jordan Eglseder, who neutralized Cole Aldrich, the All-American big man for Kansas, in the second round with 14 points and five rebounds.  Missouri Valley Player of the Year Adam Koch and his younger brother, freshman Adam Koch, are factors as well, both at 6-foot-8 or taller and able to crash the boards.  That’s where Michigan State really excels, attacking the glass and they’ll have to do it even better than ever before with senior guard and big shot maker Kalin Lucas, out for the rest of the tournament with an Achilles injury.  In the second round win over Maryland by a count of 85-83, the Spartans got a game-winning triple at the buzzer from guard Korie Lucious, and he wasn’t the only reserve that provided a significant contribution.  Draymond Green, coming off a 14-rebound performance in the first round against New Mexico, had nine points, eight boards and five dimes, and the MSU bench as a whole put up 30 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.  Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan are starters that have come through when Head Coach Tom Izzo has needed them to, and I see MSU getting the win being too deep, too much on the boards and too athletic here for Northern Iowa to keep their magical run going.  Pick – Michigan St. by 6

 

#4 Purdue vs. #1 Duke – 9:57 PM:  This game really intrigues me the most of the Sweet 16 matchups on Friday night and for a few reasons.  For one, Duke is trying to get back to the Elite Eight and a regional Final for the first time since 2004.  It’s hard to believe it has been that long for the Blue Devils, a Final Four fixture it has seemed at times under Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski.  Duke’s trio of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer rivals just about any in the country in terms of productivity, particularly in the scoring department.  Singler is averaging 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tourney, Smith is putting up 15PPG in the tourney and Scheyer is a dangerous shooter from the perimeter, but was only 1-for-11 from the field against Cal in the second round.  They can’t afford to have one of those main three have an off night and hope to beat Purdue.  In order to get to the Elite Eight, Purdue will have to do it without one of their main ingredients, junior forward Robbie Hummel.  How valuable was Hummel to Purdue?  Well, let’s just say he scored 29 points in the first half alone of a game this season against fellow Final Four hopeful Ohio State.  To say he was a big part of their success would be an understatement.  The Boilermakers outlasted Texas A&M in overtime in the second round.  Matt Painter’s Boilermakers have a lot of balance, as shown when all five starters scored eight points or more and dished out two assists or more in the opening round victory over Siena, led by the 23 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks that game from JaJuan Johnson.  Senior Chris Kramer brings that grit, toughness and fearlessness to the backcourt, and junior E’Twaun Moore is a smooth performer on the wing.  My opinion is that even without Hummel, Purdue will make this a much harder game for Duke than most pundits are predicting.  Pick – Duke by 5

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