It’s the greatest time of year for a basketball fan – - March Madness! The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament is officially underway and the Field of 68 will be narrowed down to the Sweet 16 by Sunday night, and then a Final Four the subsequent Sunday. These next two days are a basketball fan’s dream – - 32 games of wall-to-wall action. This year’s tourney has a new feel with the games on four different networks: longtime partner CBS as well as newcomers TNT, TBS and TRUTV.
Here are my Hatfield Sports Official Bracket Picks . . . it’s probably a foregone conclusion that my bracket will be officially ‘blown up’ by 2PM on Thursday afternoon. Anyways, the fun of filling out multiple sheets, the buzzer-beaters and on the edge-of-your-seat excitement is what keeps us coming back for more.
These are Five Storylines I’ll be following on the Opening Weekend:
#1 – - Will Duke Repeat? My answer would have originally been no, although the potential return of freshman phenom Kyrie Irving at the guard spot could give Duke a real shot in the arm or boost if you will on their quest to repeat. Florida did it winning back-to-back just a short few years ago, but it’s really trick to do, you need some luck along the way as well, and you can’t ever predict injuries or someone getting in foul trouble unexpectedly. That’s what is unique about this tournament; that you have to often expect the unexpected. In the end, my feeling is you have some teams with bigger, more imposing front-line that will be not only physical, but too athletic for Duke – - such as San Diego State, Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, maybe even Texas or Arizona – - that derail them or pick them off on their journey.
#2 – - How Far Will San Diego State & Jimmer-Led BYU Go? Everybody remembers Steve Fisher at Michigan when he guided the Wolverines, led by Glen Rice, to a National Championship as well as trips to the National Championship game when they had the ‘Fab Five.’ The team has now with the Aztecs of San Diego State are better than most people realize with a stellar front-line that goes 6-foot-9, 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-7 across the board. Five starters are back from last year’s team that made it to the NCAA’s, and this team has a guard that will be steady in the crunch in D.J. Gay, who went a stretch of over seven games without a committing a turnover, plus hit three game-winning shots this year. Their outside shooting, which is not great, does worry me some, but I think they have all the tools and pieces in place to make a serious Final Four run. BYU will go as far as Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s most lethal scorer, will take them. The guy has scored over 50 points in a game, it wouldn’t shock me to see him drop 40-plus in a tournament game, and the Cougars could get to the Sweet 16 . . . but without an enforcer on the inside like Brandon Davies, going any further than that will be hard for me to envision.
#3 – - Who Is This Year’s Butler or George Mason? What makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the underdog stories, the Cinderella teams that make a deep run that you learn about in this march through March. In recent years, it was George Mason’s stunning run to the Final Four as a #11 seed in 2006, knocking off giants Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut along the way. A year ago, #5 seed Butler from the Horizon League came within a whisker of shocking Duke and winning the National Championship. If you are looking for this year’s George Mason, look no further than George Mason. Jim Larranaga’s Patriots would likely have to beat #1 seed Ohio State in Cleveland in the second round to advance to the second week of the tourney, but they’ve got a dead-eye shooter in Cameron Long and a strong, experienced nucleus that plays unselfish team ball. Staying in the CAA, watch out for #9 Old Dominion, which faces Butler in the opening round. Blaine Taylor’s Monarchs are also seasoned, and led the nation in rebounding margin behind Frank the ‘Tank’ Hassell. Another possible sleeper – - #13 seed Morehead State behind Kenny Faried, the most prolific rebounder in recent NCAA history, could pose a problem for Louisville, and if they win that one, their opponent in the second round well.
#4 – - The Star Of the Tourney Will Be? There are several candidates to look at, such as Fredette at BYU, fellow National Player of the Year candidates Nolan Smith from Duke and Kemba Walker at UCONN. Guards like Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, Terrell ‘Tu’ Holloway at Xavier, Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Isaiah Thomas of Washington are capable of penetrating the teeth of the defense, scoring at will and just being the type of playmakers that put a team on their back in a run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and possibly beydon. Three names really stand out to me – - future pro Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State, Ohio State freshman beast Jared Sullinger and ultra-skilled Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson.
#5 – - And When It’s All Said & Done: Predicting the Final Four this year is no easy task simply because there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team or no-brainer pick to get to Houston. My Final Four isn’t complete Chalk like some people who have four #1 seed reaching the Final Four (like my Dad and President Barack Obama) – - I’ve only got two in Ohio State and Kansas. I have #2 seed San Diego State continuing its rise and knocking off defending National Champ Duke in the Elite Eight to make it to the Final Four. My lowest seed to reach the Final Four is my preseason National Champ choice – - that’s #5 seed Kansas State. In the end, the Buckeyes outlast the Wildcats in the Title Game on a memorable Monday night in April for the Columbus faithful.
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