Here are my picks for Week 5 in the NFL, both straight up and against the point spread… so far I’m 50-14 overall on the year (78.1%), inlcuding 12-4 last week. Might be due for a bad week, but hoping it’s not this one… let’s look at the games.
Philadelphia Eagles (1-3) at Buffalo Bills (3-1) – The ‘Dream Team’ has struggled mightily in Philadelphia, blowing a double-digit lead at home vs. San Francisco a week ago en route to their third consecutive loss. Buffalo’s offense is dangerous and exciting, but I look for the Eagles defense to finally buckle down and get the job done on the road. The Pick – Philly 24-17 (Eagles -3)
New Orleans (3-1) at Carolina Panthers (1-3) – Following a season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Saints have won three in a row. New Orleans is averaging an NFC-best 454 total yards per game and QB Drew Brees has completed 20 passes or more in an NFL record 24 straight games. Slowing down New Orleans could be a tough task, even for an improving Carolina team led by rookie sensation Cam Newton. The Pick – New Orleans 31-20 (Saints -6.5)
Oakland Raiders (2-2) at Houston Texans (3-1) – The smart pick is to go with Houston, a team full of playmakers and weapons on offense, and a defense that has shown improvement under new coordinator Wade Phillips. But Oakland is playing with emotion, dedicating this game to Al Davis, the team’s longtime Owner that passed away at the age of 82 on Saturday. Look for the Raiders to find a way to “Just Win Baby,” as Davis would say, perhaps on a late field goal. The Pick – Oakland 27-24 (Raiders +6.5)
Kansas City (1-3) at Indianapolis Colts (0-4) – Hard to believe these two teams won their division and made the playoffs just a season ago. Indy has been seriously deflated by the absence of Peyton Manning at QB, while the Chiefs have had some injuries of their own with RB Jamaal Charles and DB Eric Berry out. KC pulled out a win over Minnesota last week, and the Colts have been close in recent weeks against the Bucs and Steelers. The Pick – Indy 16-10 (Colts -2.5)
Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3) - Few teams in the league have a running back as good as the Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew, who has rushed for 391 yards and five touchdowns already. Cincinnati has confidence off a comeback win over Buffalo a week ago. We’ll see a couple of rookie signal callers go to battle in this one; Andy Dalton for the Bengals and Blaine Gabbert for the Jags. The one that makes the fewest mistakes will give their team the edge to get the victory. The Pick – Jacksonville 19-13 (Jags -2)
Arizona Cardinals (1-3) at Minnesota Vikings (0-4) – The loser of this game can basically kiss the playoff good-bye, and honestly, the winner’s chances of getting to the postseason aren’t that great either. Both are a far cry from where they were a few years ago when Arizona made it to Super Bowl XLIII (43) during the Kurt Warner era, and the Vikings only two seasons ago lost to eventual Super Bowl Champ New Orleans in overtime in the NFC Championship game. Adrian Peterson and the Vikes ground game will be too much in this one. The Pick – Minnesota 28-21 (Vikings -3)
Seattle Seahawks (1-3) at New York Giants (3-1) – Since a season-opening loss at Washington, the Giants have won three in a row, including a a comeback from 10 points down last week at Arizona and a sound victory over division rival Philadelphia on the road the week before. Eli Manning and company are starting to really get things going, and even better for Big Blue, they are getting healthier. Expect New York’s pass rush to overwhelm a Seahawks team that has struggled to move the ball and score points at times. Should be the blowout of the week. The Pick – NY Giants 31-7
Tennessee Titans (3-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) – This is a fascinating game to me. After falling to Jacksonville in the opener, the Titans have been rather impressive, especially on offense, winning three consecutive games and beating a tough Baltimore team during that stretch that absolutely clobbered the Steelers back in Week 1. Going on the road is not easy, and they have to do it without blossoming WR Kenny Britt, out the rest of the year due to injury. Pittsburgh is very banged up, but I think their defense will make enough plays to prevail and contain Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck, having a great year with 1152 yards and 8TD’s passing. The Pick – Pittsburgh 21-17 (Steelers -3)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) at San Francisco 49ers (3-1) – A lot of people are surprised to see the Niners where they are, atop the NFC West by two games under first-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who came to the Bay Area team after coaching at Stanford. QB Alex Smith is improving some, and RB Frank Gore is mighty tough as is LB Patrick Willis on defense. Tampa Bay has found themselves trailing in games, yet their young and talented signal caller Josh Freeman usually rallies them in the fourth quarter, home or away, and that will likely be the script here once again. The Pick – Tampa Bay 26-21 (Tampa +3)
San Diego Chargers (3-1) at Denver Broncos (1-3) – These are two teams going in opposite directions. San Diego has hopes of going far in the postseason after missing the playoffs a year ago. Philip Rivers leads an offense capable of scoring points in bunches, even when star tight end Antonio Gates is on the shelf due to injury. Denver, meanwhile, can’t get stops on defense, surrendering 49 points to the Packers last week. It could be another field day for the Lightning Bolts’ offense. The Pick – San Diego 31-17 (Chargers -4)
New York Jets (2-2) at New England Patriots (3-1) – As great as the New England offense is, quite possibly the best in football with QB Tom Brady, WR Wes Welker and others, their defense is one of the worst around. That’s welcomed news for a Jets offense that couldn’t block at all in last Sunday night’s blowout loss to Baltimore that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated (34-17). New York gets back All-Pro center Nick Mangold, and that is huge as they try to get their running game back on track and give QB Mark Sanchez enough time to make plays in the passing game. I sense a shoot-out, and while New England is the better team right now looking to avenge their home playoff loss to the Jets from lats January, my gut tells me the Jets pull an upset here. The Pick – NY Jets 30-27 in OT (Jets +9)
Green Bay Packers (4-0) at Atlanta Falcons (2-2) – This is an absolutely terrific Sunday Night Football game and a re-match of last year’s NFC Divisional matchup where Green Bay stunned an Atlanta team that finished with the best record in the conference. The Falcons’ last appearance on Sunday Night Football on NBC resulted in a comeback win over Philly that prevented them from falling to 0-2. Both QB’s – Aaron Rodgers for the defending Super Bowl Champion Packers and Matt Ryan for the Falcons – are accurate, poised players and have quality targets at their disposal. The difference? It may very well be the running of Michael Turner to keep that Green Bay offense off the field just enough for the Falcons to squeak out a win in a shoot-out. The Pick – Atlanta 35-28 (Falcons +6)
Chicago Bears (2-2) at Detroit Lions (4-0) – My playoff sleeper team, the Detroit Lions, are looking fantastic right now behind QB Matthew Stafford and arguably the league’s best wide receiver, Calvin Johnson (a.k.a. MegaTron). Johnson has two touchdown catches in each of the first four games to give him eight for the season, something never done before in the history of the NFL. Chicago will have to make this an ugly, physical game and get hits + pressure on Stafford to disrupt the timing of a Lions offense that is clicking on all cylinders. Where this game will be decided in my opinion is how Chicago blocks that tough Detroit defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh. Jay Cutler will have to play at a high level to grab a win on the road in a hostile environment, and the Lions fans are sure to be pumped for their first Monday Night Football game in a long time. The Pick – Detroit 31-21 (Lions -5.5)
The 2011 NBA Finals begins tonight on ABC with the Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat taking on the Western Conference Champion Dallas Mavericks. It’s a re-match of the 2006 series that the Heat won behind an MVP performance from guard Dwyane Wade as Miami won four straight in that series, including a couple thrilling comebacks in South Beach.
Both teams are a little different this time with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining D-Wade (a.k.a. Flash) in Miami, while Dallas’ only two holdovers from that squad five years ago are All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki and guard Jason Terry. One thing is sure and that is a Hall-of-Famer will win his first ring – either LeBron with the Heat or Dirk or even Jason Kidd with the Mavs.
Key to the Series – - Rebounding and bench play. Bosh and Dallas’ Tyson Chandler may very well cancel each other out inside and on the glass, but a possible x-factor for the Heat could be a guy that gave them a lift in the series vs. the Bulls in the East Finals and that is power forward Udonis Haslem, who provided toughness and played terrific in their close-out Game 6 in the Finals back in ‘06.
For Dallas, they have been hitting a bunch of 3’s in these playoffs and need to stay hot from the outside with Terry and reserve Peja Stojakovic, who was a key member of the Sacramento Kings teams that came up short to the Lakers in the West during the early 2000’s. Peja and point guard J.J. Barea can give Dallas a major lift off the bench and that be a factor in this series. For the Heat, they’ll turn to the likes of Mike Miller and James Jones to knock down open shots when Wade and James penetrate.
In the End – Miami has too much athleticism, transition game and they have two guys at the end of the game that can beat you and more importantly break you down off the dribble in Wade and James, getting to the cup as well as the free-throw line. Dallas on the other hand has to depend on Nowitzki to make their big shots most likely, and while Terry and Kidd, neither are as consistent or reliable as that #2 option as what Miami has with in all honesty two go-to guys.
Pick – Miami in 6
Finals MVP – Dwyane Wade
The 2011 NFL Draft is tonight and there are sure to be some surprises and interesting picks as Round One occurs before Rounds 2-3 on Friday night. Although this draft doesn’t have the same feel as others with the league lockout issues, teams are looking to improve when football does resume, even though there will be a different dynamic without the trading of players.
Below is a link with my FINAL MOCK DRAFT for the 2011 NFL Draft. Be sure to check back on Friday with my projections for rounds 4-7 for Saturday as well. Also, I rank my Top 10 players who will be rookies in the NFL for 2011.
Hatfield’s Top 10 Players Overall:
#1 – LSU CB Patrick Peterson
#2 – Texas A&M LB Von Miller
#3 – Alabama WR Julio Jones
#4 – Clemson DE Da’Quan Bowers
#5 – Alabama DL Marcell Dareus
#6 – Georgia WR A.J. Green
#7 – Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara
#8 – Auburn DT Nick Fairley
#9 – Florida OG/C Mike Pouncey
#10 – Notre Dame TE Kyle Rudolph
The 2011 Major League Baseball season is less than a month old, and here are my picks (as heard on ESPN Radio 94.1) for division winners, postseason individual awards and who will meet up in the World Series…
Hatfield Sports 2011 MLB Season Picks:
#1 – NY Yankees
#2 – Boston (Wild Card)
#3 – Tampa Bay
#4 – Baltimore
#5 – Toronto
#1 – Detroit
#2 – Minnesota
#3 – Cleveland
#4 – Chicago
#5 – Kansas City
#1 – Oakland
#2 – Texas
#3 – LA Angels of Anaheim
#4 – Seattle
#1 – Philadelphia
#2 – Atlanta
#3 – NY Mets
#4 – Florida
#5 – Washington
#1 – Milwaukee
#2 – Cincinnati
#3 – St. Louis
#4 – Chicago
#5 – Houston
#6 – Pittsburgh
#1 – Colorado
#2 – San Francisco (Wild Card)
#3 – Los Angeles
#4 – Arizona
#5 – San Diego
AL Cy Young – Los Angeles’ Jered Weaver
AL MVP - Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera
NL Cy Young – Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay
NL MVP – Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki
World Series - Boston defeats Colorado in 7
WS MVP – Boston 2B Dustin Pedroia
And so the 2011 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night in Houston, and oh what a tremendous tourney it has been. We’ve had the Cinderella stories, exciting finishes, outstanding individual performances and super, scintillating storylines. It’s been a history-making tourney as for the first time ever no #1 or #2 seeds reached the Final Four. There have been 17 games decided by three points or less, 17 decided on the game’s final possession and five overtime games. Predicting the outcomes? Well, not so good on my part as I didn’t correctly predict a single Final Four participant.
First Round Picks: 23-9
Second Round Picks: 10-6
Sweet 16 Picks: 4-4
Elite Eight Picks: 1-3
Final Four Picks: 1-1
But the unpredictability and drama should carry into Monday night’s final with the Butler Bulldogs, back in the title game for the second year in a row, against a UCONN team that put together one of the best postseason runs in College Basketball history. It’s the mid-major in Butler looking for their first ever National Championship in any sport versus a power seeking its third Championship since 1999. You have the veteran Head Coach in Jim Calhoun of the Huskies who is trying to join elite company and the likes of UCLA’s John Wooden, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Indiana’s Bob Knight as the only coaches to win three or more titles. The 68-year-old Calhoun may be coaching his final game, and he’s trying to cap a stellar run that began back in 1972-73 by cutting down the nets. However, Butler’s Brad Stevens, who is 10-1 the last two years in the NCAA Tournament and was born in 1976 (after Calhoun started coaching!), would like to be the one on top this time when the sport’s anthem ‘One Shining Moment’ is played at night’s end.
9:23 PM: #3 Connecticut (31-9) vs. #8 Butler (28-9) – - These are two truly surprising, unexpected runs to the National Championship game for Butler and Connecticut. At one point, Butler was just 6-5 in the Horizon League and didn’t appear to be a postseason threat whatsoever. They’ve quickly turned it on, winning 14 consecutive games and none of them in the NCAA Tournament have been by double-digits. Butler has had six games in the NCAA Tournament either this year or last season decided by three points or less. In fact, all of their NCAA Tournament games this year have been decided by eight points or fewer, a possession here, possession there and they’ve got such resiliency, composure and really grind the opposition out with hustle and heart. Quite simply, the Bulldogs thrive in close games.
UCONN made an amazing run, too. The Huskies won nine games in 19 days, including five in five days to win the Big East Tournament in stunning fashion. This came after a miserable 4-7 close to end the regular season. They finished nine in the Big East and went only 9-9 in league play. But impressive wins over San Diego State, Arizona and Kentucky – - three teams that were a combined 93-20 – - got them to this title game, and just like in 1999 and 2004, they arrive after winning the West Region.
Star Power: Both teams have gotten star performances to make it this far. For Connecticut, it’s their National Player of the Year candidate in guard Kemba Walker, a potential lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Walker is averaging 25 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament. Calhoun says Walker’s drive matches all of the great ones in UCONN history, such as Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon and pothers. Jeremy Lamb is averaging 17 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and shooting 64.7% from three-point range, which is incredible for a freshman. Lamb has played remarkably smooth and under control for a freshman, and without his contribution to complement the wonderful Walker, the Huskies wouldn’t be here. These two terrific talents in Lamb and Walker have allowed role players like Shabazz Napier at the point, big man Alex Oriakhi and freshman Roscoe Smith to have strong moments at some point during this postseason run.
Butler doesn’t have that mega star at all, but guard Shelvin Mack has certainly gotten the nation’s attention with his play in the tourney. Mack didn’t stop when he lit up #1 seed Pittsburgh for 30 points and scorched them from behind the arc; he’s averaging 21.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Gritty winner Matt Howard is the consummate College Basketball leader and guy that makes the heads up play that propels his team. Such was the case in wins over Old Dominion and Pitt. Howard is putting up 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds per game in the tourney, plus went 11-of-12 from the foul line against VCU and drew 10 fouls on the Rams when they shot just 8-for-13 at the charity stripe as a team in their Final Four matchup. Although Butler doesn’t have another guy that threatens for double-digits in points, Ronald Nored has brought tough defense, Jeremy Vanzant timely buckets and Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall have battled on the boards, including in spots when Howard has been in foul trouble.
Keys to Victory: UCONN
#1 – - Turn Butler Over
#2 – - Napier Penetration
#3 – - Make Someone Other Than Mack & Howard Beat You
Keys to Victory: Butler
#1 – - Get Connecticut in Foul Trouble
#2 – - Contain Walker & Lamb’s Transition Opportunities
#3 – - Limit Second Chance Points
Pick: UCONN 64-58 – - It’s hard not to root for Butler, unless you’re a UCONN fan. They’re such a neat story to come from a small conference like the Horizon League and get to the National Title Game two years in a row, doing so this time as a #8 seed when many predicted them to lose in their first game of the tourney against Old Dominion. Few could’ve seen them beating the likes of Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida on their way to the Final Four. In the end, the Huskies’ length and shot blocking on the baseline, a staple of Calhoun teams going back to the days of Emeka Okafor, Hilton Armstrong/Josh Boone, and Hasheem Thabeet, will be the difference in my opinion. But if Butler is able to get up by 8-10 points at any juncture in this game, they should pull it out because they won’t crack defensively and play fundamentally sound basketball on offense with very few mistakes. While Butler wins so many close games, UCONN has shown time after time in this tourney to answer an opponent’s big run with clutch basket/play by Walker or Lamb, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them step up yet again.
Saturday’s two Elite Eight games were memorable, exciting finishes. Butler erased an 11-point deficit to stun #2 seed Florida 74-71 in overtime. The Bulldogs buckled down on defense yet again when the going got tough, and guard Shelvin Mack played through pain to deliver another splendid performance with 27 points, four rebounds and four assists. It’s the second straight trip to the Final Four for Butler, becoming the first ‘mid-major’ team since UNLV in the early 90’s to accomplish that feat. And that UNLV team had three pros in Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon – - this Butler team probably has only one. The fundamentally sound Bulldogs are now 9-1 in the NCAA Tournament the last two years, and Brad Stevens’ team, which was 6-5 in the Horizon League at one point this year, has given quite the sequel their storybook run to the National Championship game a year ago. In a losing effort, Florida’s Vernon Macklin was close to unstoppable with a career-high 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting in his game with the Gators.
The other Elite Eight game on Saturday featured arguably the two best players in College Basketball in Arizona’s Derrick Williams and UCONN’s Kemba Walker. Both are very deserving of National Player of the Year honors, should be first round picks in the NBA Draft (and if Williams chooses to declare early, should go #1 overall) and left it all on the floor. In the end, it was Walker’s step-back jumper that gave UCONN some cushion, and Arizona couldn’t convert one of their two potential game-winning three-pointers on the final possession as the Huskies held on for a 65-53 win between two teams that have drastically improved after neither made the NCAA Tournament in 2010. UCONN has now won nine games in 19 days after a 4-7 finish to the regular season, and in a game between two stars, it was the under control freshman Jeremy Lamb that really delivered in crunch time and was perhaps the Player of the Game with some of his clutch, smooth and heads up plays he made down the stretch.
Sunday’s Elite Eight Matchups:
2:20 PM: #1 Kansas (35-2) vs. #11 VCU (27-11) – - Making their third appearance in the Elite Eight in just five years, the Kansas Jayhawks are trying to win their second National Championship in the Bill Self era. That last title came in a thrilling comeback against Memphis in 2008. Kansas did such a good job switching on screens and cutting off driving lanes in their 20-point rout of Richmond in the Sweet 16. As long as they close out on open shooters and control the backboards like we’ve seen them do more times than not, the Jayhawks should be in great shape. VCU is only the fifth #11 seed ever to make it to the Elite Eight. The last one from the CAA to get this far was George Mason back in 2006 when the Patriots shocked UCONN in overtime to earn a spot in the Final Four. An upset of Kansas here by the Rams would be as big a surprise as that one five years ago. The Rams have gotten big shooting efforts from Brandon Rozzell and Brad Burgess in the tourney, plus fiery guard Joey Rodriguez has shown moxie and made key plays in the backcourt. VCU will have their hands full stopping the Morris twins for Kansas as well as guards Brady Morningstar, Tyshawn Taylor and athletic freshman Josh Selby. Unfortunately, I think the phenomenal run by VCU comes to an end. To pull the upset, they must create points off turnovers and get a monster game from someone, just maybe that guy being multi-skilled forward Jamie Skeen. Pick: Kansas by 13
5:05 PM: #2 North Carolina (29-7) vs. #4 Kentucky (28-8) – - These are two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport. You also have two of the best coaches around in Roy Williams, searching for his third title since 2005 with the Tar Heels, and John Calipari, trying to win that elusive crown at a basketball power like Kentucky that accepts nothing but excellence. Kentucky is three wins away from its eighth National Championship. It is North Carolina’s 18th Elite Eight appearance, the most all-time in College Basketball history. UNC is potent offensively, averaging 77.8 points per game. Kentucky, which has lost each of its last four games in the Elite Eight, has gotten two game-winners in this NCAA Tournament including one in the Sweet 16 vs. Ohio State from freshman point guard Brandon Knight, who could be the Most Valuable Player of this East Regional. Also critical has been the play of 6-foot-10 bruising senior forward Josh Harrellson, who’ll have a key matchup with Tyler Zeller and John Henson, two guys that can go for a double-double at any time for UNC. The Tar Heels have a talented freshman point guard of their own in Kendall Marshall, and watch for DeAndre Liggins, a versatile 6-foot-6 guard, to defend him. A 20 or 25-point night from Harrison Barnes would go a long way towards getting the win, while Kentucky knows they have to get strong contributions from their two other freshmen, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, to advance. In the end, Kentucky’s defense if they’re able to keep the game in the half-court the final few minutes, I think will be enough for them to get the nod. Pick: Kentucky by 2
The first two games on Friday night were uneventful blowouts as North Carolina breezed by Marquette and Kansas pummeled Richmond in earning a spot in Sunday’s Elite Eight. However, the games in the nightcap were incredible with Kentucky beating #1 overall seed Ohio State 62-60 on a game-winner with five seconds to go by freshman point guard Brandon Knight, and VCU continuing its magical run with a 72-71 win over Florida State in overtime, led by 26 points and six three-pointers from Brad Burgess.
There have been some fantastic finishes and close calls with 14 games decided by three points or fewer in this NCAA Tournament and 14 won on the last possession as well as four overtime contests. The Madness resumes today with a couple of Elite Eight showdowns, half of the Final Four field will be known by late Saturday night . . . here are the Picks and Breakdown.
First Round Picks: 23-9
Second Round Picks: 10-6
Sweet 16 Picks: 4-4
Saturday’s Elite Eight Matchups:
4:20 PM: #2 Florida (29-7) vs. #8 Butler (26-9) – - Back-to-back National Champs in 2006-07, the Florida Gators are in the Elite Eight for the fifth time and fourth since 2000. Florida needed overtime to dispatch BYU 83-74 in the Sweet 16. Alex Tyus really stepped up with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting to go with 17 rebounds. Guard Kenny Boynton added 17 points and five assists, while Chandler Parsons came close to a triple-double with 16 points, nine boards and seven assists. An experienced team that starts three seniors, Florida will need strong efforts from senior forward Vernon Macklin as well as junior guard Erving Walker to beat a Butler team that continues to defy the odds. One thing Florida will have to do to be successful is not fall in love with the three-point shot too much. The Gators connected on 11-of-34 attempts against BYU, and if they end up shooting above 20 3’s, that could harm them in this matchup.
Butler has won eight of their last nine NCAA Tournament games, showing great defensive grit and toughness to be within one victory of a return trip to the Final Four. This is a Butler team that takes care of the basketball, attacks aggressively on the offensive end, plays unselfish and shares the ball, and has incredible focus, too. Senior forward Matt Howard is their heady, lunch-pail type of player that really drives them along with talented guard Shelvin Mack, who can create his own shot and hit a tough mid-range jumper late in the win over Wisconsin one game after scoring 30 on Pittsburgh. Nobody jumps on Butler and puts them away early, and while I don’t expect that to happen here either, the Gators have too much length for the Bulldogs for 32 minutes. That should play a major role in the outcome. Pick: Florida by 5
7:05 PM: #3 Connecticut (29-9) vs. #5 Arizona (30-7) – - The only Big East team to reach the Elite Eight, the Big East Tournament Champion UCONN Huskies have beaten the likes of Bucknell, Cincinnati and San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament to reach the Elite Eight for the eighth time in school history. In the win over San Diego State, star guard Kemba Walker was simply amazing with 36 points, slicing and dicing the defense and scoring in a variety of ways. Freshman Jeremy Lamb was as cool as a cucumber as well, scoring 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 3-for-3 from downtown and making timely plays. To get by Arizona, some more brilliance from Walker and Lamb would be great to have, but the Huskies have to be strong on the boards, beginning with 6-foot-9 sophomore Alex Oriakhi and 6-foot-8 freshman Roscoe Smith, who’ll step out and hit from the perimeter when left open.
For Arizona, it is their first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2005 when the Wildcats lost to Illinois in a dramatic overtime thriller. That team had a couple of pros on it in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudemire. This current version of the Wildcats has a potential first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft in 6-foot-7 sophomore sensation Derrick Williams. Arizona was just too athletic and quick off the dribble in their 93-77 stunning of Duke where they outscored the defending National Champions 55-33 in the second half, shooting a blistering 58%. Williams scored a career-high 32 points on 11-17 from the field and 5-6 from long distance to go with 13 rebounds, and the real surprise was the play of guard Momo Jones, who scored 16 points on 60% shooting, dished out six assists and didn’t commit a turnover. In my opinion, Arizona is the more complete team and this is one of the few games where the wonderful Walker may not be the best player on the floor. That title could belong to Williams, an animal right now that does it all. Nobody might have an answer for him, plus the Zona bench is fairly underrated; the Cats are just as deep as UCONN is and Solomon Hill is the x-factor in this one. Pick: Arizona by 3
The Sweet 16 concludes on Friday night with four matchups as four teams look to punch their ticket to the Elite Eight to join Connecticut, Butler, Florida and Arizona. Star performances were turned in Thursday night by Arizona’s Derrick Williams (career-high 32 points, 13 rebounds) and UCONN’s Kemba Walker (36 points), the Gators outlasted BYU in overtime and the magical run for Butler continued as they now are one win away from being the only team from the 2010 Final Four to return there in 2011.
Could there be an upset or two on Friday night? Let’s get to the selections here on Hatfield Sports . . .
First Round Picks: 23-9
Second Round Picks: 10-6
Thursday Sweet 16 Picks: 2-2
Friday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:
7:15 PM: #2 North Carolina (28-7) vs. #11 Marquette (22-14) – - One team wants to play fast, the other wants to keep it a slow-down type of game. Looking to play pedal to the medal, North Carolina pulled out a close 86-83 win over Washington in a game where the Tar Heels trailed by 11 in the first half and five with seven minutes to go. Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall continued to dazzle with his savvy, poised play at the point, posting a double-double with 13 points and 14 assists – - the most by a UNC player ever in the NCAA Tournament, breaking the old mark held by Kenny Smith. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles of Marquette got a big surprising win over Big East rival Syracuse in the Round of 32 to get here, forcing 17 turnovers and taking the lead for good with 25.1 seconds left on a three-pointer from Darius Johnson-Odom, their deadly weapon from the outside. Johnson-Odom has connected on 7-of-13 three-point tries in this tournament already. Marquette trailed by 10 in that game and battled back to steal a 66-62 win, earning their first Sweet 16 trip since the Dwyane Wade days of 2003 when they made it to the Final Four. While Marquette was the leading scoring team in the Big East this season, they want this to be an ugly game played mostly in the half-court. Getting 15 to 20 points from 6-foot-7 senior swingman Jimmy Butler is going to be highly important. Tyler Zeller has been playing quite well inside for UNC, averaging 27.5PPG and 7.5RPG to go with 60% shooting from the field in the tourney. Future pro Harrison Barnes is a game-changer on the wing, and John Henson has to bounce back from a subpar performance versus Washington in the post. Marquette’s scrambling defense will have to do a good job of getting back in transition against a high-octane North Carolina attack that scores points in bunches and in a hurry. A game in the high 60’s or low 70’s would favor Marquette. In this battle of wills, UNC’s speed and athleticism gives them a distinct advantage in my opinion, and I doubt Marquette is able to battle back again from a double-digit deficit like they did against Syracuse. Look for the Tar Heels to win their tenth straight Sweet 16 game since 1993. Pick: North Carolina by 8
7:27 PM: #1 Kansas (34-2) vs. #12 Richmond (29-7) – -Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks are back in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. On paper it looks like a cakewalk to the Final Four for Kansas as the highest seed they will have to beat to get there is #9 seed Illinois, who they defeated 73-59 in the last round. Their next two opponents are double-digit seeds, provided the Jayhawks advance. If Kansas gets to the Final Four, it’ll mark the 14th time in their history they get there, but they have to get past a solid Richmond squad. Richmond runs a Princeton-type offense that is difficult to defend and they do an awful lot of damage from behind the three-point line. It was seen in their win over #5 seed Vanderbilt, sinking 12 of 24 three-point attempts, and then beating Morehead State by holding their own on the boards. Kevin Anderson (23PPG in the NCAA Tourney), the Atlantic-10 Tournament MVP, has made 130 consecutive starts, the most among all active NCAA Division I College Basketball players. He’s the guy that gets the Spiders headed in the right direction more times than not. Forward Justin Harper has to be on his game against a really tough Kansas front-line. The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, carry the baton for Kansas, and senior guard Brady Morningstar along with Tyshawn Taylor provide the energy in the backcourt. Unless Richmond is ice cold, the Spiders’ style will probably frustrate Kansas enough to make this a close game. This game is similar to the Kansas/Davidson game from the 2008 Elite Eight, which means it could be played in the high 50’s or low 60’s. Eventually the Jayhawks should be able to get on a flurry in the ladder stages of the second half to turn a close game into a three or four possession lead that gives them enough breathing room to put the pesky Spiders away. What also is on Kansas’ side is history – - #1 seeds are a perfect 17-0 all-time in the NCAA Tournament against #12 seeds. Pick: Kansas by 10
9:45 PM: #1 Ohio State (34-2) vs. #4 Kentucky (27-8) – - Basketball fans have to love this matchup because you have great athletes, physical teams and plenty of future pro talent on display. For John Calipari, it is the sixth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. For the Wildcats of Kentucky, they are in the Sweet 16 round for the 16th time since 1985, more than any other SEC program in the land by far. His Kentucky team currently is highlighted by a few freshmen in Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. Knight dropped a career-high 30 points in helping Kentucky erase an eight-point half-time deficit in a 71-63 win over West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Ohio State Buckeyes showed thorough domination in beating George Mason, outscoring the Patriots 50-15 the final 16:09 of the first half on their way to a 32-point drubbing. Ohio State simply couldn’t miss from long distance, hitting 16 of 26 from downtown and David Lighty was a perfect 7-for-7 behind the three-point line in piling up 25 points. William Buford and Jon Diebler can strike from the outside to go with Lighty, and the duo of freshman Jared Sullinger, one of the National Player of the Year candidates, and the beefy James Lauderdale impose their will in the painted area. To compete inside, Kentucky has to get a productive night from 6-foot-10 senior forward Josh Harrellson, who could get in foul trouble in this one. Furthermore, Kentucky has to get off to a fast start and throw that first punch at an Ohio State team that will overwhelm you early if you stumble for a minute. Right now Ohio State doesn’t look like they have a weakness, but Kentucky has the talent to give them a challenge and put them in a tricky game, especially if the jumpers aren’t falling for a stretch for the Buckeyes. These two programs haven’t met up since December of 1996, and it’s sure to be a dandy. In the end, the Buckeyes are just too strong and physical inside, plus can connect on the outside. Their experience with three seniors that play major minutes and big roles should pay dividends in this spot as well. Pick: Ohio State by 5
9:57 PM: #10 Florida State (23-10) vs. #11 VCU (26-11) – - One of these two underdogs will be headed to the Elite Eight in a rather surprise considering both were expected to be ousted in the first round, one of which had to win a play-in game if you will just to see Georgetown. Here for the first time in the Sweet 16 ever, the VCU Rams are coming off a marvelous performance in a 94-76 thumping of Purdue in the last round where they put on a clinic and handed out 24 assists. Small tough as nails guard Joey Rodriguez was big with 13 assists and no turnovers against the Boilermakers. Coach Shaka Smart, only in his second year at VCU, is looking some kind of smart right now, getting his Rams to believe and he’s up for some coaching jobs in bigger conferences, especially as long as VCU continues to win. Florida State is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1993. The Seminoles cruised 71-57 against #2 seed Notre Dame in the last round, sinking 7-of-12 three-pointers in the first half. Leonard Hamilton’s Noles aren’t flashy on offense, but are as good on the defensive end as any team in the country. Derwin Kitchen is a stellar rebounding guard at 6-foot-4, and Chris Singleton, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has slowly but surely worked his way back from injury. Michael Snaer really had a strong offensive game the last time out against the Fighting Irish, and it’ll be important he matches that type of performance this time around. The x-factor for VCU will be Brandon Rozzell, who was money in their victory over Georgetown from three-point territory shooting the basketball. VCU relies heavily on the jump shot, and they have been hitting at an incredibly high level of late, but does their luck run out here? Florida State really gets after it defensively and they don’t give you many clean looks from the outside at all, so the Rams may have to get a super effort inside both scoring and rebounding from forward Jamie Skeen to move on to the Elite Eight. To me, VCU has started to get some attention and love now after being criticized entering the tournament. Having that same type of hunger will be important, but FSU has to feel they aren’t getting their just due and play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Getting some time to get Singleton healthier ought to help them, too. Pick: Florida State by 4
The Sweet Sixteen is here as the NCAA Tournament that began just a little over a week ago with 68 teams has whittled its way down to just 16 remaining squads who will fight for the right by the end of this weekend to head to Houston and the Final Four. There have been plenty of intriguing storylines to follow in this 2011 NCAA Tourney, perhaps none drawing more buzz than the Cinderella run by #11 seed VCU, which many experts and analysts said didn’t belong in the field, yet they are only two wins away from a Final Four appearance. It was just five years ago that George Mason, another team from the CAA, made it to the Final Four as a #11 seed when they shocked Michigan State, North Carolina and UCONN along the way. Giant names in the sport like defending National Champion Duke, UNC, Kansas, Ohio State and UCONN remain, a couple of Mountain West teams like BYU and San Diego State hope to make history of their own, and Sunshine State schools Florida and Florida State are still playing.
Another surprise – - we have as many teams from the city of Richmond, Virginia in the Spiders of Richmond and Rams from VCU, as we do Big East schools still playing, left with only UCONN and Marquette. Strap in and enjoy the ride as we breakdown these games and offer predictions here on Hatfield Sports . . .
First Round Picks: 23-9
Second Round Picks: 10-6
Thursday’s Sweet 16 Matchups:
7:15 PM: #2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. #3 Connecticut (28-9) – - It’s the first ever Sweet 16 appearance for the San Diego Aztecs, who are enjoying the best season in school history with 34 wins and will take on the Big East Tournament Champion Huskies from Connecticut. The two coaches, Jim Calhoun of UCONN and Steve Fisher from San Diego State, have won a National Championship before and also are the two oldest coaches left in the tourney (Calhoun 68; Fisher 66). Calhoun is 47-18 now in the NCAA Tournament, and if this team wins two more games to make it to the Final Four, would make for an amazing run to get there considered this was one of the few years where the preseason expectations weren’t that highly set. UCONN has the star player in guard Kemba Walker, who is averaging 26.3 points per game in the month of March in over 38 minutes a contest. Even more impressive is the fact he hasn’t missed a free-throw in the tourney (20-for-20). San Diego State will rely on its very good and athletic front-line with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White, who’s averaging a double-double in this tourney. They’re tough on the backboards and on the inside scoring around the basket. D.J. Gay at the guard spot brings them leadership and is a solid decision maker. UCONN has gotten solid efforts from Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith, which will need to continue to advance. Alex Oriakhi is the x-factor inside for the Huskies; if he has a big game they can get a win. Oriakhi averages nine rebounds a game, second most in the Big East. This game is closer to home for San Diego State, only 93 away compared to the 3000 miles UCONN has to travel. In a tight game, that home-court type of advantage should favor an Aztecs team that won a close double-overtime nail-biter with Temple the last time out. Pick: San Diego State by 2
7:27 PM: #2 Florida (28-7) vs. #3 BYU (32-4) – - These two teams have tangled before as it was just last year in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament that the BYU Cougars outlasted the Florida Gators 99-92 in double-overtime . BYU is coming off a convincing 89-67 rout of Gonzaga in the last round to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981. The Cougars got another splendid performance from their All-American hopeful Jimmer Fredette, who scored 34 points on 7-of-12 shooting from three-point distance and dished out six assists. Florida has 28+ wins for the fifth time since 1993-94, and Coach Billy Donovan is seeking his third National Championship. His Gators have a balanced attack, led by lightning-quick guard Erving Walker, who was superb in the Gators’ 73-65 second round win over UCLA as he scored 21 points, including the game’s final seven points in a span of 1:30. Kenny Boynton is another nice option in the backcourt, and Chandler Parsons brings versatility and plenty of skills to the table, too. Florida’s length can give them the option to throw some different bodies and defenders at the scoring star Fredette. For BYU, it’s not all about Fredette as Jackson Emery is a weapon from beyond the arc. Noah Hartsock on the boards must play at his full potential as well. BYU is the much better foul shooting team of the two and if it’s close that could be a major factor. This is the game where I think BYU will miss Brandon Davies inside, and the Gators will turn to Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus to deliver in the paint for key run in the closing minutes to allow them to pull away. Pick: Florida by 11
9:45 PM: #1 Duke (32-4) vs. #3 Arizona (29-7) – - It’s the first meeting between these two teams since that 2001 National Championship game that Duke won 82-72 over the Wildcats. Arizona is making its sixth Sweet 16 trip in 11 years. For Duke, the Sweet 16 is nothing new either. Coach K, who just picked up career win #900, is making his 20th appearance in the Sweet 16 round. The star for Arizona has them thinking they have a great shot to go to the Final Four. Potential #1 NBA Draft pick Derrick Williams has put up 39 points and 19 rebounds in two NCAA Tournament games. Williams scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half in Arizona’s 70-69 escape against Texas. To complement Williams, it’ll be crucial that Momo Jones hits open jumpers from the outside to stretch the defense. Senior guard Nolan Smith really came through for Duke in their 73-71 win over Michigan, finishing with 24 points on an efficient 8-for-13 from the field. The Wolverines committed only seven turnovers in that game and gave the Blue Devils fits with their 1-3-1 half-court trap and zone defenses they threw at them. For Arizona, their defense has to be able to somewhat contain both Smith and Duke forward Kyle Singler, another dangerous offensive threat that can hit for 20 on any night. Freshman guard Kyrie Irving is expected to play more minutes for Duke than in the last two games as he improves from the injury he sustained that kept him sidelined the past couple months. Although the ball-handling can be a little sloppy for Arizona at times and their perimeter shooting is up and down, they have a deep, underrated bench that gave them a lift in the last game, and Williams gives them a matchup problem that Duke may be unable to solve. The Blue Devils are the clear favorite in this one, but I definitely can see the upset occurring. Pick: Arizona by 1
9:55 PM: #4 Wisconsin (25-8) vs. #8 Butler (25-9) – - In this Sweet 16 matchup we have a couple of teams that are really mirror images of one another. Both are physical, grind-it-out teams. The National runner-up a year ago, the Butler Bulldogs are trying to make another incredible and improbable run to the Final Four. Butler’s last four NCAA Tournament games have been decided at the buzzer. Their 34-year-old Head coach Brad Stevens is 8-3 in the NCAA Tournament, including 7-1 the last two years. His team is coming off a bizarre ending where the Bulldogs won despite Pittsburg rallying from an eight-point half-time deficit, shooting 56% from the field and assisting on 21 of their 26 field goals. For Wisconsin, it is their fifth Sweet 16 appearance since 1985 and they overcame a 38-point performance from Jacob Pullen to defeat Kansas State 70-65 in the previous round. It was a back-and-forth game with 15 lead changes, and what proved to be big for Wisconsin was the three-point shot. It’s the great equalizer, and the Badgers were 9-for-20 from long range, including a big one by red head Mike Bruesweitz down the stretch. Two prolific guards will be squaring off in Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Butler’s Shelvin Mack. The key for Butler is getting the same kind of shooting performance they did in the last round as they were 8-for-16 from the three-point line with Mack hitting for 30 points on 7-of-12 from deep. Butler’s been a resilient bunch and they have three starters back from their team that made it all the way to the National Championship game. One of them is the hero the last two games in forward Matt Howard, a smart player with a tremendously high basketball IQ. But the Badgers have plenty of experience of their own with six seniors on its roster. Wisconsin also leads the nation in free-throw percentage at 82.7%, plus commits only 7.5 turnovers per game, which places #1 in the land as well. Pick: Wisconsin by 6
Saturday’s Round of 32 College Basketball March Madness action was as exciting as it gets with several dramatic finishes as Butler stunned top seeded Pittsburgh in a wild one 71-70, San Diego State outlasted Temple in double-overtime and Wisconsin overcame a vintage 38-point points performance from Kansas State star Jacob Pullen in a down-to-the-wire, back-and-forth affair. Both Florida and Kentucky out of the SEC advanced after close calls, #12 seed Richmond continued its surprising run, Connecticut continued its brilliance behind Kemba Walker, and BYU led by its star Jimmer Fredette was mighty impressive in a convincing 22-point blowout of Gonzaga.
Without further ado, here are my Picks for the remainder of the Round of 32 matchups that comes our way on Sunday . . .
First Round Picks: 23-9
Saturday’s Second Round Picks: 5-3
Sunday’s Second Round Matchups:
#2 North Carolina (27-7) vs. #7 Washington (24-10) – - National Champions just two short years ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels have a group of heralded youngsters with freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller leading the way. Zeller scored a career-high 32 points against Long Island, it was a brilliant game for Barnes too with 24 points and 16 rebounds (this the same guy that dropped 40 in an ACC Tournament game), and Marshall has helped this team flourish in the starting point guard role. They’re up against a high-octane Washington team led by guard Isaiah Thomas, who had 19 points and seven assists against Georgia in the last round. Champions of the Pac-10 Tournament, the Huskies are seeking their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the past seven seasons. Meanwhile, UNC is looking for its record 24th ever Sweet 16 trip. Inconsistent outside shooting has plagued the Tar Heels in spots this year, and when they struggle to make from the perimeter, they are vulnerable to being beat by anybody. Not to mention, as great as the offense is for UNC when they are humming – - 102 points against Long Island in the previous round – - their defense has had its lackluster moments, even surrendering 87 in that game. It’ll be up to the Huskies’ defense and taking care of the basketball to win in Charlotte. Pick: Washington by 2 in OT
#1 Duke (31-4) vs. #8 Michigan (21-13) – - One team was expected to be here, the other not so much. Coach K at Duke recorded win #899 as his Blue Devils rolled past Hampton University 87-45 in the return of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving from injury. Irving scored a game-high 14 points in only 20 minutes of action. John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines blitzed Tennessee 75-45 on Friday to move on to the Round of 32. Michigan, picked last in the Big Ten in the preseason, became the first team to win an NCAA Tournament game without a made free-throw. They better make sure they get to the foul line against a powerful Duke team with All-American performers like Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, plus knock down their share of three-pointers. Beating a defending National Champion like Duke in Charlotte is a tall task for anyone, especially a Michigan team that plays no seniors and will dearly miss having some of that big-game experience in crunch time. Much like UCLA on Saturday, this is a Wolverines team that has a bright future, so look for them to play hard, be in it for a half, but fizzle out. Their Final Four chances will be much better come 2012. Pick: Duke by 11
#1 Ohio State (33-2) vs. #8 George Mason (27-6) – - Five years ago, the George Mason Patriots were the darling of the NCAA Tournament, making it to the Final Four as an 11 seed when many felt they didn’t deserve to make the tourney. Along the way, Jim Larranaga’s team took down giants like Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. Here’s another giant standing right in their way in the tourney’s number one overall seed, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who’ll be right at home playing this game in Cleveland. Mason is going to have to play close to flawlessly to pull it off, and that means Luke Hancock playing as well as he did in the comeback win over Villanova, and even better levels for the likes of Cam Long, Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison. Problem is the Patriots aren’t a great foul shooting team, the Buckeyes have a monster inside in freshman Jared Sullinger, and the complementary parts like David Lighty, William Buford and three-point threat John Diebler are playing really well right now. One cold spell against Ohio State and you’re doomed. While you can never count out Larranaga’s team, they look to be overmatched in this one. Pick: Ohio State by 15
#4 Texas (28-7) vs. #5 Arizona (28-7) – - No matchup in the Round of 32 fascinates me more than this one. You might not find a better matchup of athletes, future pros and great basketball skill on display than in this game. Arizona 6-foot-8, 240-pound versatile sophomore forward Derrick Williams could make a push to be the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Williams, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, can do it all – - dribble, shoot, rebound, defend, and an inside-outside threat without a glaring weakness or flaw in his game. His performance against Memphis with 22 points, 10 rebounds, a perfect 9-for-9 at the foul line and a game-saving block was nothing short of superb. Memphis hit Arizona in the early going with stellar speed and got off to an explosive start. Full of talent, at one point in the season the Texas Longhorns had the look of a National Championship caliber team, defending at a high level and clicking on all cylinders. They had a mini wall, but with five players averaging between 9.8 points and 18.6 points per game, led by Jordan Hamilton, they have great balance. Tristan Thompson, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, is a future pro as well. For the Cats to meow and pull out a win, they need sophomore Momo Jones to be on target from the outside shooting the basketball. Making someone other than Williams beat them will be what Texas tries to do. Don’t be surprised to see the winner of this game make it to the Final Four, and regardless of who prevails, I see the victor giving Duke fits in the Sweet 16. Pick: Arizona by 3
#3 Purdue (26-7) vs. #11 VCU (25-11) – - Few teams in this NCAA Tournament have generated more buzz than Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams. Some felt they didn’t belong in the tourney, and they won the play-in-game with USC, and then followed that up with an even sharper performance, shooting lights out in a 74-56 upset of Georgetown. VCU shot 12-for-25 from long range in that game, 26-for-39 at the foul line and limited the Hoyas to 5-for-26 from downtown while forcing 17 turnovers. Forward Jamie Skeen has been big all year with his ability to strike inside and outside, and guard Joey Rodriguez gives them that pesky, gritty competitor in the backcourt. But the guy who did the most damage was Brandon Rozzell with 26 points and 6-of-10 on 3’s. Purdue was rather quietly strong in their opening round win over St. Peter’s, comfortably winning 65-43 as they played excellent defense in the first half in holding the Peacocks to just 17 points. Forward JaJuan Johnson is a double-double waiting to happen, E’Twaun Moore fills the stat sheet too, and when they get Lewis Johnson to be that consistent #3 contributor, this team has Final Four potential. If the Rams are able to go a long stretch without a turnover like they did in the previous round, their chances of the upset go up, but shooting as well as they did and defending Johnson will be a tricky task. Pick: Purdue by 6
#3 Syracuse (27-7) vs. #11 Marquette (21-14) – - After seeing UCONN and Cincinnati on Saturday, we get another rare Big East battle in the Round of 32 with Syracuse taking on an upset-minded Marquette team that as an 11 seed ousted #6 seed Xavier in the previous round. When these two hooked up in the regular season, Marquette won, but circumstances are a little different this time, and the Orange look to make it a tight squeeze with that 2-3 zone defense of theirs. Their big, physical front-line gives plenty of teams problems. Rick Jackson is a handful in the paint, and Scoop Jardine really becomes tough to guard when he’s hitting that three-point shot. Coach Jim Boeheim is now 45-27 in the NCAA Tournament, and some believe this is his best team since that 2003 squad led by Carmelo Anthony that won the title. I’m not going to go that far, but they are in position to get to the Final Four, even though it may require getting through North Carolina and Ohio State in a three-day span. Marquette has a three-point ace in 6-foot-2 junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom that hey will lean on, and Jimmy Butler makes things happen on both ends of the floor (11 points, 3 steals in the first half vs. Xavier). Buzz Williams’ team will have to limit their turnovers to keep this close and have a shot at the upset. Pick: Syracuse by 10
#1 Kansas (33-2) vs. #9 Illinois (20-13) – - Oh that tournament committee is clever. When they did the brackets, it must have come into their thought process that Kansas Coach Bill Self could face his former team, Illinois, in the Round of 32. The Jayhawks got quite a tussle from Boston University, a #16 seed, in the first round, leading by only four at the half as BU shot 6-of-13 from three-point land. Kansas got the inside-outside ball movement they needed in the second half though, drilling three consecutive treys to go up 15 and eventually winning 72-53. The Jayhawks have the most seasoned player in the Big 12 in Brady Morningstar, the Morris twins are terrific players too, and junior guard Tyshawn Taylor is a wonderful passer averaging seven assists per game on the year. Illinois couldn’t have played much better than they did in their 73-62 rout of UNLV. Demetri McCamey was impressive off the dribble, both shooting and dishing, and big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale gave them quality efforts on the inside, effective scoring and on the glass. Kansas’ transition game should be the difference here; it’ll be too much for Illinois to handle, and in the half-court they will do a better job of breaking the Illini down as well as limiting their high-percentage shot opportunities than UNLV did. Pick: Kansas by 14
#2 Notre Dame (27-6) vs. #10 Florida State (22-10) – - Contrasting styles go at it in the nightcap of the Round of 32 action on Sunday in Chicago with Notre Dame, more of an offensive-minded team, taking on a Florida State squad that gets it done with defense first and foremost. Notre Dame is looking to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003; Florida State for the first time since 1993, and really when these two teams are at their best they have Top Ten potential in the country. Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of former UNC standout Tyler, headlines the Fighting Irish attack, which is experienced, efficient and hard to catch when they get a lead. Hansbrough finished with 15 points and six assists, and Carlton Scott collected 14 rebounds in their 69-56 win over Akron in the first round. The Seminoles blocked 10 shots in their 57-50 triumph over Texas A&M, earning their first NCAA Tournament win since 1998. ACC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Singleton is back from injury, and he ought to give the offense a boost as well to go with 6-foot-4 senior Derwin Kitchen, one of the best rebounding guards in the nation. FSU has held 99 of their last 103 opponents under 50% shooting, so it’s going to be a real challenge for the Irish to shoot as well as we’re accustomed to seeing them shoot. Pick: Florida State by 3