The Madness continues! We’ve reached the Sweet 16 round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. There has been plenty of excitement and storylines so far, headlined by the upsets that occurred in Friday’s Round of 64 where there was a single-day record of eight upsets. That included for the first time ever in the same tourney two #15 seeds knocking off #2 seeds as Norfolk State stunned Missouri and Lehigh knocked off Duke.
While there have been some surprises and Cinderella stories, there has also been a lot of chalk advancing. Case and point, the #1 seeds are 8-0 for the first time since 2009 through a couple of rounds in the NCAA Tourney.
Let’s take a look at Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchups.
Hatfield’s Record: 12 of 16 Sweet 16 Picks Projected Correctly
7:15 PM – #1 Syracuse vs. #4 Wisconsin: Many speculated that Syracuse would be vulnerable without the services of one Fab Melo, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a major part of their success this season. They survived a scare against UNC-Asheville in their NCAA Tournament opener, and then beat Kansas State by 16 in a game where the Orange’s depth, length and bench overwhelmed the Wildcats. The Syracuse bench outscored KSU’s 33-0 and they got eight blocked shots without Melo in the lineup. It’s a balanced attack with Kris Joseph, James Southerland, Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine all reaching in double-figures in each of the past two games. Jardine’s ability to get in the paint and distribute will be a major factor. He’s a really nice complement to Waiters, one of the nation’s best two-guards.
What Wisconsin does about as well as anyone is control tempo. They’re a well-oiled machine, and much like Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, a well-coached squad by Bo Ryan. Their switching defense gives teams problems as it becomes a game with fewer possessions, and the Badgers don’t beat themselves. In fact, last year Wisconsin set a new NCAA D-1 record for fewest turnovers per game at 7.59. A lot of credit has to go to guard Jordan Taylor, an All-American caliber player who knocked down the go-ahead three-pointer late in their win over Vanderbilt in the Round of 32.
Six-foot-6 junior forward Mike Bruesewitz can really shoot the ball from the outside, and Ryan Evans has stepped up as a guy that averaged less than 3PPG a season ago to one of their more prominent offensive players and a key ingredient. Where they can hurt Syracuse is by getting some offensive rebounds; the Orange sometimes fail to squeeze the orange and give up quite a few second chance opportunities.
In the end though, Syracuse is longer and more athletic at most every position. Their 2-3 zone should keep Wisconsin in check enough, and all it may take is a couple of transition run-outs to knock the Badgers out late.
Pick: Syracuse by 2
7:47 PM – #1 Michigan State vs. #4 Louisville: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better coaching matchup than this one in the NCAA Tournament. Rick Pitino of Louisville is a perfect 9-0 in the Sweet 16. Michigan St. Head Coach Tom Izzo has gone 7-2 in his career in the Sweet 16 round. Each has won a National Championship. Both have terrific teams this year with Michigan State capturing the Big East Tournament title and Louisville winning the Big East Tournament. Michigan State has one of the most unique players in College Basketball in Draymond Green, who joined Oscar Robertson and Spartan Great Magic Johnson as the only players in NCAA Tournament history to record multiple triple-doubles in a career. A versatile, inside-outside weapon, Green has 40 points, 25 boards and 16 assists through two NCAA Tournament games this year. The engine for Louisville is junior point guard Peyton Siva, who finished up with 17 points and six assists in the win over Davidson in the Round of 64.
Louisville wants to apply defensive pressure and get Michigan State out of its comfort zone. On the baseline, 6-foot-10 sophomore center Gorgui Deng is a superb shot blocker who’ll make it difficult on the Spartans getting quality shots up around the rim. The Cardinals are a pretty balanced team on offense, and a lot is going to depend on guys like Chris Smith, Russ Smith, Jared Swopshire and leading scorer Kyle Kuric being able to convert from the outside. Michigan State’s supporting cast has really rounded into form during the Big Ten Tournament and here in the NCAA Tournament where others like Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have helped out Green inside on the boards, Austin Thornton has delivered at the foul line and senior Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valpo, has connected for some really huge buckets, both inside the painted area and away from the cup.
Offensive rebounding will be crucial for Louisville because are always one of the best defensive rebounding clubs in the country. Freshman Chane Behanan will be important in that effort. MSU’s guards have to be able to really come through so that the Spartans don’t depend so much on Green and the front-court. Sophomore Keith Appling has been extremely solid on the defensive end at the guard spot, and they’ll need some offensive production in this one.
If the Cards are able to knock down enough outside shots, and I think Siva’s penetration will open up good opportunities, they have a great shot to knock off an MSU team that is a serious contender to win the National Championship. In my opinion, Kentucky is the team to beat in this NCAA Tournament, but the winner of this game could be best equipped to keep the Wildcats from winning it all and upsetting this year’s favorite.
Pick: Louisville by 3 in OT
9:45 PM – #2 Ohio State vs. #6 Cincinnati: Ohio State and Cincinnati had some great Tournament battles in the early 1960’s. These two in-state rivals haven’t met often in recent years, the last time coming in 2006, but this meeting will undoubtedly be for Ohio bragging rights. The state of Ohio has been great in this NCAA Tournament, posting a perfect 8-0 record to this point and sending four teams to the Sweet 16 for the first time. In the last round, Cincinnati outlasted Florida State 62-56 to earn its first Sweet 16 trip since 2001, while Ohio State defeated Gonzaga 73-66 behind a splendid performance from sophomore guard Aaron Craft (17 points, 10 dimes in that one).
For the third year in a row, Thad Matta has the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 and this team has several big-time recruits and top-notch players. Against Gonzaga, they shot 64% from the field and made 4-of-7 from three-point land to start with a couple of treys from 6-foot-9 sophomore center Jared Sullinger. Cincinnati knows they have to do their best to get him in foul trouble to have a shot at winning this one. Sullinger isn’t a guy that will play above the rim, but he uses his body and hands so well. The Buckeyes aren’t an incredibly great outside shooting team, but William Buford is money from the perimeter, and DeShaun Thomas proved in the Round of 64 win over Loyola how dangerous of a scorer he can be when he dropped in 31 points.
Mick Cronin has done wonders at Cincinnati in a short period of time, notching 52 wins in two years and getting the Bearcats to recover after that ugly brawl with Xavier earlier in the season. Cronin decided to go with a four-guard lineup at that time, and it has paid dividends. Yancy Gates (11.7PPG, 9.5RPG) on the inside has been a force, and the backcourt parts have delivered, particularly Cashmere Wright and sophomore Sean Kilpatrick. Jaquon Parker had 11 rebounds against Florida State and he’s an x-factor in this one against an Ohio State team that won’t usually let you play sluggish for a stretch and win like the Seminoles did. Dion Dixon also scored 15 points in that game and Cincy shot 52% in the second half, which against a team that defends as well as FSU, should be plenty to prevail.
I don’t see Cincinnati shooting it all that well and a cold spell midway through the second might do them in against a Buckeyes team that really started to hit its stride in the second half of their hard-fought victory over what many feel was an underrated Gonzaga team. Sullinger’s strength and power can be a difference down low, and keep an eye on Craft, who defensively has proven to be capable of shutting down an opponents’ top guard.
Pick: Ohio State by 10
10:17 PM – #3 Marquette vs. #7 Florida: Making their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in seven years at the Florida Gators. They come to the Sweet 16 as a #7 seed this time and somewhat of an underdog against a Marquette squad under Buzz Williams that really grinded out a tough 62-53 victory over a pesky Murray State team that was 31-1 overall. Marquette used an 8-0 run late in that game, and the Eagles claimed their second straight Sweet 16 berth behind another brilliant performance from Jae Crowder (17.6PPG, 7.9RPG).
The Big East Player of the Year finished with a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. Crowder can do it inside and outside, he defends, rebounds and his versatility in some ways remind people of Derrick Williams from Arizona last year. Williams helped carry the Cats to the Elite Eight and ended up being the #2 overall pick in the NBA Draft. In the game before that, Crowder poured in 25 points, a career-high 16 boards and had four steals. There are some really nice complementary pieces around him on this feisty Marquette team, and especially imperative are guards Darius Johnson-Odom, who just looks like a tough cookie, and Junior Cadougan. Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Cadoughan can pretty much score from any spot on the floor. On the inside, Davante Gardner is a physical forward that will be a key matchup in this one, likely against Florida’s Patric Young.
Against Virginia, the Gators made 80% of their field goal attempts from inside the arc while they didn’t shot it that well from the outside (1-for-14 at the half in that game), but did get a great lift from their bench with a 22-3 advantage in that category. Florida screens so well, and Young was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field against UVA. Against Norfolk State, the Gators went on a 25-0 run and showed why they are so prolific shooting from three-point land and set a school-record for 3’s made this year. Billy Donovan’s teams are ready for tournament basketball. The Gators have gone 17-2 since 2006 in the NCAA Tournament, winning a couple of National Championships. Guardst Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton (16.3PPG) were the starting backcourt for a Florida team that made it to the Elite Eight last year, and they got even better with the addition of freshman Brad Beal.
The more popular pick is Marquette and that makes sense because there are very few teams in the field that can matchup with Crowder. Rather quietly though, the Gators have won two NCAA Tournament games by a combined total of 60 points. Marquette is the better team 1 through 5 in my opinion, but the three-point shot can be a great equalizer in these tourney games. Throw that in along with their guard play and depth, and Florida really becomes a tough out.
Pick: Florida by 5
*** Follow More on www.twitter.com/hatfieldsports***
March Madness is here! The 2012 NCAA Tournament really gets going today with wall-to-wall action on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV.
We saw dramatic comebacks in the ‘First Four’ from the likes of BYU against Iona, rallying from 25 down, and a Western Kentucky team with a losing record putting it together down the stretch to beat Mississippi Valley State.
Below are my Picks for the Round of 64 – and we’ll have Analysis to come later with Picks for the Round of 32 over the weekend as well!
HATFIELD SPORTS BRACKET:
FINAL FOUR CHOICES:
Kentucky – With shot blocker Anthony Davis anchoring the Wildcats inside, Kentucky is the favorite to win the tourney and you get no argument from me. John Calipari is getting it done with freshmen headliners again, and the impressive thing about this team is how committed they are to do defense and sharing the basketball on offense.
Louisville – This is kind of an outside the box pick to make the Final Four as a #4 seed since most people are leaning with Michigan State or Missouri in this Region. However, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals won the Big East Tournament and they have a playmaker at the point guard spot in Peyton Siva that can take the nation by storm in this tourney.
Ohio State – Led by 6-foot-8, 280-pound bruiser Jared Sullinger inside, the Buckeyes have a nice crop of sophomores that should be able to do a little bit of everything. With Fab Melo unable to play for Syracuse, Ohio State is now the favorite in the East Regional. Keep an eye no sophomore Deshaun Thomas to step up alongside Sullinger as the Buckeyes’ main shot maker from the outside.
Kansas – It wasn’t that long ago that Kansas and Bill Self won a National Title. They have a Player of the Year candidate in Thomas Robinson to make a deep run in the NCAA’s. The advantage the Jayhawks have over UNC in my opinion is we’re not sure how healthy Jon Henson will be for the Tar Heels, plus if the two teams meet in the Elite Eight as expected, it’ll be a heavy Kansas crowd with the game in St. Louis.
VCU – Remember, Shaka Smart and the Rams stunned the College Basketball world on its way to reaching the Final Four last year. They have a nice core of youngsters surrounding senior leader Brad Burgess.
Belmont – It won’t be easy to knock off Georgetown, but this is a team that has been close to springing the upset in the NCAA Tournament before. Their experience should pay dividends, and give the Hoyas fits.
Long Beach State – The 49ers got a tough draw in New Mexico, but senior guard Casper Ware can really play and this team has the potential to make some noise in the Big Dance.
NC State – After nearly beating North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, the Pack come in the NCAA Tourney with something to prove, and as a #11 seed, they have more talent across the board than #6 seed San Diego State. Don’t be surprised to see this squad make a Sweet 16 run.
Follow More: *** Be sure to keep it tuned to my Twitter page at www.twitter.com/hatfieldsportsfor more updates throughout the NCAA Tournament! ***
Time to offer up some picks for Week 6 in the NFL, and there plenty of fascinating matchups.
Season Record: 56-21 (.727)
Last Week: 6-7
Carolina Panthers (1-4) at Atlanta Falcons (2-3) – Clearly this is a must-win for Atlanta, which has already suffered as many losses in the regular season this year as they did all of last season. All the ingredients are in place for the Falcons to make a big run with QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR’s Roddy White and Julio Jones, TE Tony Gonzalez and a defense that made some additions throughout the off-season. At home will help them, but they take on a Carolina team that is gaining confidence behind rookie sensation Cam Newton at quarterback, and the major question with the Panthers will be can they get their RB’s DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to be consistent along with WR Steve Smith to make this team get on a run around mid-season?
The Pick – Atlanta 28-17 (Falcons -3.5)
Indianapolis Colts (0-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) – Seeking a rare three-game winning streak, the Bengals host an Indianapolis team still looking for its first win after blowing a double-digit lead at home a week ago to the Kansas City Chiefs. QB Curtis Painter, filling in for the injured Peyton Manning, has played better in recent weeks for the Colts, but the Bengals have a somewhat underrated defense with DE Carlos Dunlap and LB Rey Maualuga (team-high 38 tackles) leading the way. On offense, Cincy should run it at will with Cedric Benson. When he gets 25 carries or more, the Bengals are 11-1.
The Pick – Cincinnati 20-13 (Bengals -4.5)
San Francisco 49ers (4-1) at Detroit Lions (5-0) – Fresh off a victory over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, the Detroit Lions remain one of only two unbeaten in the entire league along with fellow NFC North member Green Bay. The Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1956; none of the team’s current players were even born then! Wideout Calvin Johnson, otherwise known as MegaTron, is having a record-setting type of season, becoming the first player to reach nine touchdown catches through five games. San Francisco’s defense has been mighty good, limiting Tampa Bay to just three points last week while the offense was in total sync. The running of Frank Gore will give a strong Detroit d-line a challenge, but ultimately, the Lions being at home with a lot of momentum and more big-play potential in the passing game give them the edge in another close call.
The Pick – Detroit 23-16 (Lions -5)
St. Louis Rams (0-4) at Green Bay Packers (5-0) – The defending Super Bowl Champion Packers haven’t lost a game since last December, winning six in a row on their way to capturing thee Lombardi Trophy last season and opening up 5-0 this year. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense are clicking on all cylinders, and the defense continues to get timely takeaways. Sam Bradford and the Rams are better suited to playing in the dome at home rather than outdoors. That will likely show again in a lopsided result in this NFC matchup as the Rams simply don’t have enough defensive puzzle pieces to slow down Green Bay.
The Pick – Green Bay 38-13 (Packers -14)
Buffalo Bills (4-1) at New York Giants (3-2) – All the signs point towards the Bills taking this one. Buffalo has played terrific all year with Ryan Fitzpatrick surprising the league with his play at the quarterback position, the running game being solid, and of course the defense coming up with key takeaway after key takeaway. In fact, Buffalo has an NFL best 12 interceptions on defense this year, and they play a New York team that turns the ball over quite a bit. The Giants are also without RB Brandon Jacobs, DE Justin Tuck, CB Prince Amukamara and offensive guard Chris Snee. But something tells me the Giants bounce back from the disappointing home loss to the Seahawks and win it in the fourth quarter on an Eli Manning drive late.
The Pick – NY Giants 31-24 (Giants -3)
Philadelphia Eagles (1-4) at Washington (3-1) – Here’s a game where Washington has exceeded expectations to this point, while Philadelphia has failed to meet them, so the visitors probably will play with a sense or urgency knowing they need this game to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Redskins have been an early season surprise, and a major reason why is their improving defense, which was bolstered in the off-season by the drafting of Ryan Kerrigan, a pass rusher out of Purdue that complements Pro Bowl level performer Brian Orakpo, and signing of d-lineman Barry Cofield. Plus, the Skins secondary has been healthy and pretty effective against the pass. They will be challenged by a speedy Philly offense with RB LaSean McCoy, WR’s DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and the dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick, who torched Washington in their building last year on MNF.
The Pick – Philly 27-14 (Eagles -3)
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) – Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a huge week against Tennessee. Anticipate his great play continuing versus a Jacksonville defense that is missing a few starters due to injuries. Mike Wallace is quickly developing into Pittsburgh’s speedy, big-play threat on the outside. Starting a rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert against a Steelers defense that can overwhelm inexperienced players is not a recipe for success for the Jags, though they could keep it close as long as they don’t turn the ball over and the offensive line creates running room for RB Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Pick – Pittsburgh 24-14 (Jags +12.5)
Houston Texans (3-2) at Baltimore Ravens (3-1) – The Houston Texans are trying to win the AFC South division crown and a victory here no the road would do wonders for their odds of accomplishing that this year, plus keeping Coach Gary Kubiak off the hot seat. Baltimore, off its bye week, has an offense that is doing more than it has in the past to help out their usually stout defense as RB Ray Rice is coming into his own, perhaps an MVP candidate if the Ravens are able to claim homefield throughout the playoffs, and getting this win is critical in their pursuit of a #1 seed. Without their deep threat in Andre Johnson (hamstring injury), arguably the AFC’s best wide receiver, it’s going to be much more difficult for the Texans offense to operate on the road against a tenacious defense like the one they face here in Baltimore.
The Pick – Baltimore 21-17 (Texans +7)
Cleveland Browns (2-2) at Oakland Raiders (3-2) – It was an emotional week for the Oakland Raiders last Sunday as they pulled off a road comeback in Houston, a win that dedicated to deceased Owner Al Davis. Hue Jackson’s team did a lot of great things, and one of Davis’ draft picks, safety Michael Huff, clinched it with his interception in the end zone. Oakland has plenty of team speed, particularly on offense where RB Darren McFadden is the focal point. The Cleveland defense has to be able to prove they can neutralize it, and some power running of their own offense would help considerably. Watch for the Raiders’ defensive line with Richard Seymour (2 sacks last week), Lamarr Houston and company to be the difference in this one.
The Pick – Oakland 28-20 (Raiders -7)
Dallas Cowboys (2-2) at New England Patriots (4-1) – Off their bye week, the Dallas Cowboys’ next opponent isn’t much of a gift as they head to Foxboro to take one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots. QB Tom Brady is putting up video-game like, MVP type numbers on offense, and WR Wes Welker should eclipse the 100-yard catch mark by December. Dallas could very easily be 4-0 at this point in the year if not for an absolute meltdown of epic proportions (worst in franchise history) a couple weeks back against Detroit, and blowing a lead on the road in Week 1 vs. the New York Jets where a blocked punt killed them. Tony Romo and the Dallas offense has to step up, but more importantly, the Cowboys have to get pressure on Brady with DeMarcus Ware and others to have a chance.
The Pick – New England 35-21 (Pats -6.5)
New Orleans Saints (4-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) – The winner here will be in first place at week’s end in the NFC South. Two years removed from winning a Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints are trying to make this a special season again, and quarterback Drew Brees engineers an offense that is extremely dangerous. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have gotten off to sluggish starts all year, and often times relied on Josh Freeman to stage fourth quarter comebacks. You have to wonder about Tampa’s psyche after being blasted by San Francisco 48-3 a week ago. It’s probably a foolish pick, but this has the feel of one of those games in the NFL that doesn’t make sense considering New Orleans has won four in a row and Tampa is struggling.
The Pick – Tampa Bay 31-27 (Bucs +6.5)
Minnesota Vikings (1-4) at Chicago Bears (2-3) – It’s a homecoming of sorts for Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb as he returns to the place he grew up. Will it be a winning one, though? Minnesota has dropped 11 of their last 13 road games. Meanwhile, the Bears are 9-1 in their past ten meetings with the Vikings. Chicago has had trouble in games against other divisional foes Green Bay and Detroit in protecting their quarterback, Jay Cutler. As long as they keep him upright and give him time to throw, they should prevail. However, a monster game from Adrian Peterson running the ball, some sacks by Jared Allen off the edge and winning the turnover battle could easily result in a road upset.
The Pick – Chicago 26-17 (Bears -2)
Miami Dolphins (0-4) at New York Jets (2-3) – It has been a week full of negativity for the Jets following that loss to New England, the departure of wideout Derrick Mason and now WR’s Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress are disappointed with the team’s play as well as their blocking up front on the offensive line. After sporting one of the best running games around, the Jets have been unable to run the ball with the type of success we saw the previous seasons under Coach Rex Ryan. Miami receiver Brandon Marshall might’ve rattled the cage of the Jets with his comments leading up to this game; he may now be on the trading block and the Dolphins seem to be in the Andrew Luck/#1 overall draft pick sweepstakes.
The Pick – NY Jets 42-10 (Jets -6.5)
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