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A Final Four For The Ages

Making this space about me more than I usually do for a minute, I must confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship once it was set. Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Duke elicited slight nausea as rich got richer, and each team’s route to New Orleans left a slightly bitter taste. How is that you ask? Four all-time programs in a Final Four with a combined 60 Final Fours and now 18 National Championships among them, with historic matchups everywhere you looked didn’t do it for me, you say with incredulity?

Well, no. Not really. For one, Villanova was going into the Final Four down their second-best player Justin Moore, who had ruptured his Achilles tendon with 30 seconds left in their Elite Eight win over Houston, a team that had vanquished my Arizona Wildcats two nights earlier yet couldn’t hit water form a boat against Villanova, shooting 1-20 from three-point land. I never thought Villanova had a chance against Kansas, and unsurprisingly they never led that game. As for Kansas, they suddenly were the favorite, the last #1 seed remaining (and the only Final Four team I not only correctly picked, but presaged they were being a bit undersold), and while no one would ever accuse me of being a fan of Bill Self, unless you are a Jayhawk fan or have money on them (neither of which applied to me), there isn’t much joy in rooting for Goliath.

North Carolina in some sense was the surprise of the tournament, a #8 seed that was discounted for their rocky 12-6 start to the season and apparent growing pains of first-year coach Hubert Davis. They also got to face the darlings of the tournament, St. Peter’s who was the #15 seed (justifiably, I might add) in their regional, for a berth in the Final Four, a path sure to elicit envy from other top seeds now watching at home. In retrospect, were they under-seeded, and did the Tournament Selection Committee do a poor job setting the East Regional? Quite possibly, for me it’s hard to escape those ideas when the #8 & #15 seeds face off in the Elite Eight. Is that sour grapes? Maybe.

And then there was Duke. The New York Yankees of Modern College Basketball. Of all the reasons for college basketball fans to hate Duke or their coach Mike Krzyzewski, many of which were well expressed but Drew Magary in a column for SF Gate, it was the fact that for all intents and purposes Coach K had a “Floating Goodbye Tour” this season that for me was the most galling. It unnecessarily made this season all about him and his efforts to preserve his fiefdom by pointing the Gran Dedado at his former player and current assistant Jon Scheyer to carry on his “legacy”, despite there being several more qualified inside and outside candidates. So many other schools have moved on from legendary coaches without similar pomp and circumstance; John Wooden didn’t announce he was retiring until 48 hours before his last game as a head coach in the 1976 National Title Game, and one need only go nine (9) miles to Chapel Hill to see how differently the retirements of two legends were handled, as both Dean Smith and Roy Williams waited until after their seasons were over to announce they were leaving. All this despite the fact that his team was as talented as any in College Basketball this season, full of future NBA players including two likely NBA Draft lottery picks come this July in Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin, I just feel some of the shine was taken away from his players, and too much of the blame awaited any other result than a National Title.

Krzyzewski’s accomplishments are undeniable, and I have zero doubt that all the winning has as much to do with the “hate” as anything else in the big picture, but Saturday night’s loss to North Carolina, to his most-hated rival in his very last game as a head coach, was delicious, and I make no apologies for feeling that way. But I digress.

Now we have a Title Game for what would be a 10th national title between the two schools, a rematch of their 1957 triple-overtime National Final, and the 34th Anniversary of the 1988 “Danny & The Mircales” Jayhawks squad.  North Carolina is the hottest team in the country, winning 17 of their last 20 games with arguably what has become the best starting five in college basketball. The best backcourt in a tournament usually decided by guard play, Tar Heel guards Caleb Love and Davis take turns playing the hero, while the coolest name in this year’s tournament Leaky Black slows down the opponent’s best players and hits clutch shots when needed. Brady “Manek! At The Disco” and double-double machine Armando Bacot stress opposing defenses on every possession, and will be heavily relied upon again.

Kansas however brings a little bit of everything to the table, from experience, athleticism, size, length to perimeter quickness, will run deeper than North Carolina’s six-man rotation, and can match North Carolina at every position. North Carolina also has to bounce back from what had to be an emotionally draining win over their hated rival, and Bacot will be playing through a right-ankle sprain and has to be less than 100 percent. In the final analysis, I think Kansas outlasts North Carolina in what should be a close, up and down, back and forth, high scoring affair.

Not that it’s the result I am rooting for though; Pardon another biblical reference but North Carolina has more than just a stone and a sling.

Sweet Sixteen Return of the Ramblings

Musings from a frenetic first weekend of The Dance as the music starts again tonight …

West Regional – Gonzaga passed their first test of the tournament in coming back from a 10-point deficit to outlast Memphis in the Second Round. Just when I had written off Drew Timme after he was held to four (4) points in the First Half against Memphis’ frontline of future professionals, he almost single-handedly brought the Zags back with 11 straight points to start the Second Half, and 21 of his 25, all of which led to one of the funniest post-game exercises of self-restraint I’ve ever seen … Gonzaga will face Arkansas today (4:09 p.m. PT, CBS), who on Saturday was never going to let New Mexico State’s Teddy “Buckets” Allen go off like he did against Connecticut. Amazing that it was a game for all 40 minutes, the Razorbacks needing the shortest player in the tournament field, Chris Lykes to hit four (4) free throws in the last 10 seconds to stave off the Aggies. I would expect Arkansas to concentrate on slowing Gonzaga’s Timme and point guard Andrew Nembhard down and dare Chet Holmgren to beat them from the perimeter. Methinks Arkansas has more than a puncher’s chance tonight.  … As for the Coach K Floating Retirement Party (6:39 p.m. PT, CBS), I think it continues to the weekend, even as Texas Tech #1 ranted defense (KenPom AdjD of 84.4) is a mighty speed bump for the Blue Devil Party Bus (like one of those traffic calming speed tables). Will Coach K leave his heart in San Francisco?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

South Regional – While the Baylor-Carolina game was legendary (more below), for my money, the most exciting game of the first four days was Arizona’s wild slugfest victory over Texas Christian, 85-80 in overtime. It was the very definition of pugilism in a non-boxing sense; So many times, one team looked dusted, then they would come back and put the other team on the ropes, only to recover with a run to grab back the lead. The difference in the game for Arizona was one of their eight international players, Bennedict Mathurin, who not only had a game-high 30 points, but made every single offensive play the Wildcats needed, from a late three-pointer to tie the game in regulation to two offensive rebounds put-backs in overtime, as well as a dunk that almost took TCU center Eddie Lampkin Jr.’s soul … Arizona’s game against the Houston Cougars tonight (6:59 p.m. PT, TBS) in front of what will surely be a pro-Houston crowd in San Antonio might be an ever stiffer test. An epic contrast of styles, Fast (Arizona has the fastest tempo left in the field according to KenPom) versus Slow (Houston is the second-lowest team left in the same metric), Houston does a lot of what TCU does at both ends of the floor, only faster and more efficiently, especially on the offensive boards (#1 in the country in offensive rebound percentage at 37.8 ORB%) which has been a bugaboo for Arizona lately. If Arizona can hit threes, limit turnovers, and resist the urge to leak out early in transition and fight on the offensive boards, I like their chances tonight, and subsequently on Saturday … Villanova and Michigan battle in the first game in San Antonio (4:29 p.m. PT, TBS), a rematch of the 2018 NCAA National Championship game on the same court from four years ago. Yet unlike that display of Villanova’s basketball excellence, this game promises to be a “first team to 60 points wins” affair in light of Villanova being having the slowest AdjT left, and neither survivor would surprise me.

Midwest Regional – The regional where chaos reigned (as one regional always does), Kansas has a relative cakewalk compared to the other #1 seeds still in the tournament. Their game against a very game #4-seed Providence squad (Friday, 4:29 p.m. PT, TBS) that by seed was expected to be here, even as they were a trendy First Round upset pick, should be a de facto Elite Eight game. Winner here will face the winner of #10-seed Miami and #11-seed Iowa State (Friday, 6:59 p.m. PT, TBS), both of whom were impressive over the weekend – Miami beating #7-seed USC and running #2-seed Auburn out of the building while Iowa State allowed #6-seed LSU to concentrate on their coaching search and sent #3-seed Wisconsin on their 50-mile bus trip home back to Madison – but both of whom would be in tall cotton against the Kansas-Providence winner. I would be shocked if we see anyone else besides Kansas awaiting the South Regional Winner in New Orleans.

East Regional – The Baylor-North Carolina game was the craziest comeback I’ve ever seen where the comeback team eventually lost. Baylor ran out of steam, outscoring the Tar Heels 38-13 in the last 10 minutes to get to overtime, only to miss 10/11 field goal attempts and two free throws in the extra period. I had thought North Carolina ran out of silver bullets against Baylor’s werewolves, unable to break a simple press or make their free throws, until the Bears’ Matthew Meyer fouled out, and James Akinjo and Adam Flagler took turns playing heroball. Those two were a combined 16/45 from the floor, and ultimately that’s why Baylor lost. Meanwhile, even though they won, I think Brady “Manek! At the Disco” and his teammates at North Carolina learned that You Don’t Mess With The Sochan! (Apologies to Adam Sandler). … I will be curious to see how the Tar Heels handle UCLA’s grinding pace at both ends of the floor (Friday, 6:39 p.m. PT, CBS) as I think the winner of this game wins the next one in the Elite Eight and gets to The Big Easy next week. UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez sounds like he’s a game-time decision with a re-aggravated ankle injury, and that could be the “X-factor” for this game. … Before this tournament, I had seen exactly zero minutes and zero seconds of St. Peter’s games. To own the state of Kentucky basketball like they did last weekend is the archetype of madness for which March basketball is known. While I’m not sure where Kentucky goes from here, and while I think Purdue ends their party on Friday night (Friday, 4:09 p.m. PT, CBS), the proud Peacocks, only the third #15 seed in history to make the Men’s Sweet 16, keep the Cinderella mythology alive for another season, and we are better off for it.

Finally, a couple of breakdowns for further perspective.  Enjoy the Dance!

Sweet 16 by Conference:

Big 12 (3/6 teams left, 9-3 record so far as a conference) – Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State

ACC (3/5, 8-2) – Duke, North Carolina, Miami

Big Ten (2/9, 9-7) – Purdue, Michigan

Big East (2/6, 5-4) – Villanova, Providence

Pac-12 (2/3, 4-1) – Arizona, UCLA

SEC (1/6, 4-5) – Arkansas

American (1/2, 3-1) – Houston

WCC (1/3, 3-2) – Gonzaga

MAAC (1/1, 2-0) – St. Peter’s

Sweet 16 by Bobby True Preview Categories:

Contenders (6): Gonzaga, Arizona, Houston, Kansas, UCLA, Villanova – I still expect the Champion to come from this now group of six. Baylor defended their title valiantly. Kentucky we hardly knew ye!

Darkhorses (3): Texas Tech, Duke, Arkansas: One of these is guaranteed to get to the Elite Eight with Texas Tech and Duke facing off, fulfilling that prophecy.

Pretenders (3): Purdue, Providence, North Carolina – Would not surprise me if Purdue or North Carolina is in the Final Four out of the East Regional.

Cinderellas (0): Bit of a surprise, although other teams below now fit this category. Stepsisters (2): Michigan, Iowa State – The #11 seeds were frisky as expected.

Free Fallers (0): Yup. Although Ohio State did surprise with their take-down of Loyola Chicago, only to return to form against Villanova.

Enigmas (1): Miami – I clearly did not see this coming, and frankly still don’t fully understand it, although their athleticism, length and quickness were on full display in their trouncing of Auburn. I think they beat Iowa State.

More Likely Upsets (0): Most of these teams represented well, as New Mexico State and Richmond actually punched their ticket to the Second Round in their respective 5/12 matchups.

Less Likely Upsets (1): St. Peter’s – Oops. Goes to show that just when you think you know what you need to know about who should advance out of the first weekend, time and again you don’t.

Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Although I’m not fully intending a Meat Loaf reference, I thought the headline above was an apt metaphor for the 2022 Edition of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship. Allow me to explain.

Gonzaga started the regular season ranked #1 in the polls, then ended the regular season as the #1 team in the country, in not only the polls but the NCAA NET, Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings, Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings, and 42 other college basketball rating metrics. Although they weren’t #1 wire-to-wire, Gonzaga was the top team in college basketball for the majority of the season. The Zags are so far ahead of the next team in the KenPom Ratings – 5.71 points in Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) ahead of #2 Arizona as of March 16, 2022 – that their statistical performance is not only heads and shoulders above the rest of the country this season, it is a margin larger than in any other season-ending ratings between #1 and #2 since 2002, which is the earliest KenPom’s data tracks back. As such, last year’s National Finalist is the overwhelming favorite to win the title in New Orleans come the first weekend of April.

Still skeptical about that? Not convinced because Gonzaga has lost two of the last four National Title games (which seems more like an argument in favor to me, but whatever)? Or that they come from a non-Power conference like the West Coast Conference (WCC), and don’t allegedly get tested in conference play? Never mind that the WCC is the 9th-rated conference out of 32 according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings, or that two other WCC teams, St. Mary’s and San Francisco, are at-large invites to the Field of 68.

How about Vegas and the online sportsbooks, who are in consensus agreement, listing only four (4) teams with shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all? BetMGM has Gonzaga at 3:1, followed by Arizona (6:1), Kentucky (8:1) and Kansas (9:1) as most likely to cut the nets.

What about the data-driven hoop nerds? Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew crunched data for their 2022 March Madness predictions and determined that these same four (4) teams have a combined probability just over 51.5% of winning the NCAA Title, with Gonzaga at roughly a 27% probability, followed by Kansas (~9%), Kentucky (~9%), and Arizona (~7%), which together is greater collective odds than the rest of the field. ESPN Insider John Gasaway recently published his yearly “The 350 men’s college basketball teams that won’t win 2022 March Madness”, suggesting every year that eight (8) teams (and only 8) have a legitimate chance at the title. You can click the link if you have ESPN+ to see those teams, or keep reading as my Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap, but trust that Gonzaga made that list as well.

If not Gonzaga, then who? By my count, 15 other teams either fit the statistical profile of a National Champion or are thiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from elevating their performance into a level consistent with title contention. By my count, that’s a large contingent of teams trying to run Gonzaga down.

Put another way, as the great Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Without further ado, I present my macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a paper copy of which should be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Saturday afternoon.

Contenders – Saying you have to be really good to win an NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship is a bit of a “Duh!” statement. But, exactly how good do you have to be, compared to your peers over an entire season, to be the last team standing in April? At what statistical level does a team have to perform on offense and defense, to be good enough to win a Title?

In previews past, I used what I referred to as three “Championship Tests”, first identified and written about by a gent named Peter Tiernan on the now defunct BracketScience.com, who has since gone on to better things. Using both statistical data kept by KenPom dating back to the 2002 season, and a historical examination of the individual and team performance characteristics of every National Champion since 2000, Tiernan had done the research to identify what National Championship Teams had in common (for a detailed breakdown of each of those Championship Tests, refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview). Establishing a set of minimum statistical thresholds that all Champions meet, to act as a filter to help identify future potential National Champions while a season is ongoing, or in this case on the eve of the Tournament’s First Round, to me is a both a worthwhile and prescient exercise.

In the interim between the last time I did this preview in 2019 and now, I decided to narrow my scope and rely on KenPom’s 21 seasons of historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), and the relative rankings of each team’s data that season to simplify the filter. I kept the two KenPom tests Tiernan identified and replaced Tiernan’s Criteria with two more KenPom Tests. Every National Champion since 2002 (with one exception noted below) has met the following statistical criteria:

KenPom Efficiency Data Test: Scored ≥ 112.4 (Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, or AdjO) and allowed ≤ 95.4 (AdjD) points per 100 possessions;

KenPom Efficiency Rankings Test: Ranked overall ≤ 18th in AdjO and ≤ 49th in AdjD that season (except for 2014 Connecticut, who finished ranked 39th in AdjO, something I’ve referred to in the past as the “UConn Standard”);

KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) Test: Had an AdjEM (the difference between a team’s AdjO & Adj D) ≥ 22.13; and

KenPom Overall Ratings Test: Ranked in KenPom’s Top 15 (by AdjEM) overall.

Subjecting this year’s field to this filter, eight (8 – there’s that number again) meet all four Tests. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be eight (8) of the Top 11 overall teams in KenPom’s Ratings. Another non-coincidence, seven (7) of Gasaway’s eight teams are listed below (the only difference to be revealed in the “Darkhorses” section below). Finally, in the era of the Super Senior, that extra season of eligibility the NCAA granted on account of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it’s also no coincidence that all of last year’s Final Four participants are listed below. If any team is going to prevent Gonzaga from finally having that One Shining Moment, it will be one of these seven teams listed below them:

  • Gonzaga
  • Arizona
  • Kentucky
  • Baylor
  • Houston
  • Kansas
  • UCLA
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That thin margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself on one side of the ball, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense. Nevertheless, these teams have all proven they not only can compete at an elite level, but at the very least meet the UConn Standard for the KenPom Rankings Test. Auburn is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, and they are six (6) AdjO ranking spots away from meeting all four tests, so they are at the top of the list. Tennessee and Texas Tech both have Top 3 defenses (AdjD) according to KenPom, and if they were a few points more efficient offensively, they along with Auburn would be Contenders. As would Duke if they were 0.2 pp100 possessions better on defense – The Blue Devils made Gasaway’s Eight as it is, and I basically have UCLA in their place as they passed all the thresholds. Texas and Arkansas are a little further afield than Tennessee from an AdjEM standpoint, but have similar profiles, while Illinois and Connecticut are within striking distance of working their way into Contender status during a Tournament run.

  • Auburn
  • Tennessee
  • Texas Tech
  • Duke
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Connecticut
  • Arkansas

Pretenders – These teams are what I previously referred to as “Feast or Famine” teams, quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams that are in many ways the next level down from Darkhorse status, in that two wins in the first weekend would automatically elevate them to that status. All of them are seeded between Nos. 3-8, and are either acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Purdue, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina) or vice-versa (Seton Hall), or because they are “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Wisconsin, Providence, Michigan State) that don’t do anything at an elite level. Roster composition factors can further explain this stasis, such as an over-reliance on one player, and/or a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or even Stepsisters.

Providence is not only the “luckiest” team in the country according to KenPom, (whereby “Luck” is a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), they are the 3rd “luckiest” team in the last 21 seasons. Wisconsin is the 6th-luckiest team this season for that matter.  You’ll also notice half of the remaining eight (8) Big 10 teams here. For my money, Purdue, Alabama and North Carolina are the most dangerous among these for their propensity to score in bunches:

  • Purdue
  • Wisconsin
  • Providence
  • Iowa
  • Alabama
  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Seton Hall

Cinderellas – These are the Belles of the Ball, the ones the media fawns over after the first weekend of the Dance, the potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four teams from mid-major or low-major conferences that fly below the radar until they send a favorite or two home early. The NCAA Tournament still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. Many of these teams have under-the-radar stars waiting to become basketball household names, whether it’s Memphis’ Jalen Duren, Colorado State’s David Roddy, San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, or San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea (Booyah!). St. Mary’s is a #5 seed who was one of three (3) teams to beat Gonzaga so far, which seems hardly fair to call them a “Cinderella”, but they have a tough path to the second weekend, starting with a frisky Indiana team that has momentum from winning their First Four game, then a potential matchup with UCLA. Murray State is 30-2, and only Arizona has more wins this season. One of them has Sister Jean on the sideline. I don’t think any of them will duplicate the feats of “2006 George Mason” or “2018 Loyola Chicago” (not even 2022 Loyola Chicago) and make the Final Four, but the beauty of this tourney is, one never truly knows until it happens:

  • St. Mary’s
  • Colorado State
  • Memphis
  • San Diego State
  • Loyola Chicago
  • Murray State
  • San Francisco
  • Boise State
  • Davidson

Stepsisters – In contrast to the Cinderellas, these are the underachieving or underseeded teams capable of stringing several wins together, AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, hearkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, these eight (8) teams a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded No. 8 or worse (except coincidentally for this group’s namesake, #6 seed LSU), c.) Have double digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering extended stretches of losing, are talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. The majority of these teams will be returning home this weekend, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can pick it, your bracket could have a big edge on your competitor as all these Stepsisters will very likely have to knock off a either a #1 or #3 seed to make the Sweet 16. LSU was almost a Darkhorse, as they have a similar profile to Texas, and probably should be a Pretender, but they just fired their coach. All four #11 seeds are here as well, and all of them have a decent chance to beat their #6 seeded opponent:

  • LSU
  • Virginia Tech
  • Michigan
  • TCU
  • Notre Dame
  • Iowa State
  • Marquette
  • Creighton

Free-fallers – With a nod to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, these teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or a notable down-shift in performance from earlier in the season – USC has lost three of their last four games, and Ohio State four of their last five – and with better results leading up to the tournament would have been Stepsisters or Pretenders instead, as well as being seeded higher than #7. Heck, I had Ohio State out of my projected Tournament field. Michigan State was close to being placed here instead (another #7 seed), for reasons I’ll explain later. TCU could also have been here, having lost three of their last four, but two of those losses were to Kansas, and as they had beat Kansas earlier this month as well, earn some benefit of the doubt that I am unwilling to extend here:

  • Ohio State
  • USC

Enigmas – Every year there are some teams I truly don’t know what to make of, despite attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with either confusion or ennui. In this instance, it’s a sense wanting “more” from Indiana and Miami despite not being exactly clear on what that “more” would be. I actually thought I would be talking about Wyoming as a potential Cinderella instead of not talking much about Indiana here. Both teams also have difficult First Round matchups that I think they will lose, but who knows:

  • Indiana
  • Miami

More Likely Upsets – Seed upsets tend to occur when roster turnover and attrition lower the ceiling (and thus the seed) of high-major conference teams, who end up facing mid-majors with upperclassmen-laden rosters. The #12 vs. #5 seed matchup seems to be the minimum threshold for what can actually be considered an “upset”, as #5 seeds have a .600 winning percentage (36-24) the last 15 tournaments, while the #6-11 matchup is just about a 50/50 proposition (31-29) over that same time span. Although only one of the #12 seeds beat a #5 seed last year (Oregon State, who beat Tennessee in the First Round and advanced to the Elite Eight), all the #5 seeds this year seem a little vulnerable. While the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket is assessing the deeper seeds for upset potential, I leaned on the wiseguys a little and looked at matchups that had single-digit point spreads; Of the teams listed below, only Richmond (+10.5 against Iowa) is a 10-plus point underdog, and that line could move before tipoff. I even picked two of these teams in my bracket:

  • Vermont
  • UAB
  • New Mexico State
  • Richmond
  • South Dakota State
  • Chattanooga
  • Colgate

Less Likely Upsets – As I’ve often said in this space: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. Only one No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, so the No. 16 seeds here are only included by reference, as I can’t see any of them winning a game. Once again, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, although Delaware may be a little frisky against Villanova, and I really want to think Longwood has a puncher’s chance at Tennessee, but Tennessee’s defense is just nasty. Seeing as most have unfavorable matchups, these teams should play to their seed (i.e., lose):

  • Akron
  • Longwood
  • Montana State
  • Yale
  • Delaware
  • St. Peter’s
  • Jacksonville State
  • Cal-State Fullerton

And Now … Five Fearless Quick Hitting Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make a Final Four … Last year it was UCLA, coming out of the First Four as a #11 seed and not only making the Final Four, but pushing Gonzaga to the limit, This year, I don’t see either Notre Dame or Indiana making it out of the first weekend, mainly due to potential matchups awaiting each team should they survive their first round game – Likely Texas Tech for Notre Dame, and UCLA for Indiana. If I had to pick one though, I’d go with Notre Dame. Again though, I thought I would be talking about Wyoming here when the brackets were announced.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Michigan State. As I mentioned above, they were almost listed among the Free-fallers, having lost eight (8) of their last 13, but it was the quality of their wins over two Top 3 seeds (Wisconsin and Purdue) in that stretch that kept them from that categorization. Still, they were ranked in the Top 10 as recently as the January 24, 2022 AP Poll. I can never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo, but this is as close as I’ve come in the last 20 years.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … a tough call between Auburn and Wisconsin. I don’t have either team as Contenders, and while Auburn is a Darkhorse that was extremely close to being a Contender, they have lost four of their last nine games since being voted the #1 team in the February 7, 2022 AP Poll, including a first round loss in the SEC Tournament. Although Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl is what some would call “wily”, who else besides future Top 2 pick Jabari Smith and likely Defensive POY Walker Kessler will step up this first weekend? As for Wisconsin, a Pretender if I ever saw one, the co-Big 10 Regular Season Champion earned a #3 seed despite being ranked #24 overall in the NCAA Net Rankings and #33 overall in KenPom. They should benefit by playing 50 miles away from home in Milwaukee, but their 1st-Team All American Johnny Davis is playing through an ankle injury. Can I say “Both?” I will go ahead and pick Auburn, as I think they will play USC in the Second Round and I know that despite their recent travails, USC can match up with Auburn’s height and length, and won’t be intimidated by Auburn’s talent having beaten UCLA earlier this season.  If USC loses to Miami, the Hurricanes won’t be an easy out for Auburn either.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Kansas. I should just rename this one “This Year’s Kansas”, having picked them for this spot in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and rename the “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” something else, but then I’d have to come up with another team here. Many of the Midwest Regional predictions I saw on television and online had several other teams making the Final Four besides the #1 seed Kansas, from Auburn, to Wisconsin, to Iowa. While I do think the Midwest Region has the most potential for bracket chaos, Kansas with their experience both on the floor (five upperclassmen in their 8-man rotation) and manning their sideline (Bill Self with his ninth #1 seed in the last 18 seasons), and a 1st_Team All-American in Ochai Agbaji leading the way, should find themselves in the Big Easy.

My Final Four and Champion … Despite my efforts here to show there are several other teams that can win the title, I believe the Gonzaga Bulldogs will make their third trip to the NCAA Championship Game the charm. In a story that almost writes itself, Mark Few and his talented charges will overcome his protégé Tommy Lloyd and his Arizona Wildcats in the Final, Mentor versus Mentee, West Coast Giant versus West Coast Giant, speed versus speed, and size versus size. Gonzaga’s third National Final in five seasons, versus Arizona seeking their second National Title 25 years after their first, achieved under Lute Olson, a coach and program that Mark Few and company emulated in building their own program. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren would be the most talented player on the floor in that game, and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme might be the best college player on that floor. While Arizona’s best is as good as anyone’s best this season, for a team so talented I have yet to see them put 40 good-to-great minutes together (although judging by their Pac-12 Title Game win over UCLA, they are getting closer). As I’m not often one to argue much with Vegas and Hoop Nerds, I will round out my Final Four picks with the Kentucky Wildcats, ending a seven-year absence from the Final Four for John Calipari, and the Kansas Jayhawks. Over 3,400 words and I haven’t even discussed The Last Ride of Coach K, or Baylor’s efforts to defend their 2021 National Title. In the end, the field should be close, yet still far away from the eventual Champions from a small school in Spokane. Quite a thing, really. Or, as they say in the Final Four host city of New Orleans, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

P.S. – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Let Us Resume The Madness

Here’s to dusting off Ye Ol’ Blog to restart what had been a yearly tradition, until El Pandemico hit. True confession, I’m feeling a bit rusty, and my Crystal Ball is cloudier than ever; Not only was the 2020 NCAA Tournament cancelled, last year’s single-city, off-schedule, fan-less 2021 NCAA Tournament (although a badly needed distraction from the gloom and melancholy of the last two years) was something for which I had no analytical feel. So, I put down my “hoop nerd” hat, sat out prognostication last year, and just watched as the best two teams going in, Baylor and Gonzaga, mowed their way through the bracket while insanity ruled the day everywhere else in the field, and met in the Final. Go figure.

Yet, tradition is back, and it’s time to hop back in the saddle, as Selection Sunday is upon us; College Basketball’s Christmas Eve, a prelude to “12 Days of Basketball Christmas” a.k.a. March (and April) Madness where at 6:00pm EST on CBS today, the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2022 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be revealed. What follows is my educated guess at the 68 teams in the field, and specifically the 36 at-large invites (I leave predictions of seedings, locations, and matchups to those with the inclination and/or compensation to do so).

Here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, what I think I think I know, what I think that I know of what I know, and my informed conjecture about whose hearts will be glowing when tournament games are near (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives NIT coal in their stocking from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, and 15 of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader) won their conference tournament (marked with a ^), but unlike previous years I won’t indicate which repeated from last season (maybe next year):

American Athletic – Houston^
America East – Vermont^
ACC – Virginia Tech
Atlantic Sun – Jacksonville State*
Atlantic-10 – Richmond
Big East – Villanova
Big Sky – Montana State^
Big South – Longwood^
Big Ten – Iowa
Big 12 – Kansas^
Big West – Cal-State Fullerton
Colonial – Delaware
Conference USA – Alabama-Birmingham
Horizon – Wright State
Ivy – Yale
Metro Atlantic – Saint Peter’s
Mid-American – Akron
Mid-Eastern – Norfolk State^
Missouri Valley – Loyola-Chicago
Mountain West – Boise State^
Northeast – Bryant^
Ohio Valley – Murray State^
Pac-12 – Arizona^

Patriot – Colgate^
SEC – Tennessee
Southern – Chattanooga^
Southland – Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern
Summit League – South Dakota State^
Sun Belt – Georgia State
WAC – New Mexico State^
West Coast – Gonzaga^

* – In the Atlantic Sun, Bellarmine won the conference tournament, but as they are in the second year of a four-year transition period from Division II to Division I, they were not eligible for the NCAA Tournament (which, begs for another question about why they were allowed to play in the conference tournament, but whatever), so the conference’s Regular Season Champion Jacksonville State (who lost in the conference tournament semifinals) will receive the automatic bid, and not Jacksonville, who Bellarmine defeated in the Atlantic Sun Tournament Final. Confused still? So am I.

Simple math leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. This year, getting back on the horse, I also viewed several other metrics besides the NCAA’s, including Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix, Bracket Research, and a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, in addition to watching hours of college basketball this season. Here are the teams that should be “Locks”, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (1) – Memphis

ACC (3) – Duke, UNC, Miami

Atlantic-10 (1) – Davidson

Big 12 (4) – Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas, TCU

Big East (4) – Creighton, Providence, Connecticut, Seton Hall

Big Ten (4) – Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State

Mountain West (3) – San Diego State, Wyoming, Colorado State

Pac-12 (2) – UCLA, USC

SEC (5) – Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama

West Coast (2) – St. Mary’s, San Francisco

That’s a grand total of 29 teams, that by my estimation, should be safe, which leaves seven (7) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference:

American Athletic (1) – SMU

ACC (2) – Notre Dame, Wake Forest

Atlantic-10 (3) – Dayton, Saint Louis, VCU

Big 12 (2) – Iowa State, Oklahoma

Big East (2) – Marquette, Xavier

Big Ten (4) – Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State

Conference USA (1) – North Texas

Pac-12 (1) – Colorado

SEC (2) – Texas A&M, Florida

Southern (1) – Furman

West Coast (1) – BYU

That’s 20 teams (and probably more I haven’t accounted for) competing for the last seven (7) spots. Drawing straws and playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with my dog Mona Lisa (I always win), below is my best guess as to the The Less-Than-Magnificent Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

Notre Dame

Iowa State

Marquette

Indiana

Michigan

Wake Forest

Rutgers

No Cinderellas above, and a bit Midwestern-heavy. My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Texas A&M, Furman, BYU, and SMU. Xavier, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Dayton have arguments as the proverbial “Next Four Out” and potential complaints as well, but I don’t want to hear it from any Big 10 Bubble team that does not make it. I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, although over the years the NCAA Selection Committee is not, hence what I forecast above.

Mere minutes away, the NCAA Selection Show beckons with what’s sure to be some head-scratchers, poor decisions, enigmas and further questions. As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

EDIT: So, 67/68 teams correct, as Wake Forest was left out, and my other six (6) bubble teams got invites. I had Ohio State on the outside looking in, and they ended up well inside the field as a #7 seed. Okaaaaaaaaaayyyy … Dayton, Oklahoma, SMU and Texas A&M were the Last Four Out, in order, and will serve as potential COVID replacement teams for the First Four Games and the Round of 64. I had Wyoming as a lock, and they were the last team in, just behind Indiana, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Surprised overall that the Big 10 got nine (9) teams in, and that Xavier and BYU weren’t even in the Last Four Out. Overall though, one of the better jobs of seeding and placement in several years by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. New Orleans, here we come!

Soccer Gratification Only A Year Delayed, Not Denied

BLOGGER’S NOTE: We are firing up the ole Blog again, and while this post is about one of my sporting passions, soccer, or “football” to some, we will be expanding this blog to other cultural topics of my interest besides sports, to include food, travel, cinema, and more. So please check back every so often for new and hopefully readable content. Thanks! – Bobby True

Only one game remains at the 2020 UEFA European Championships – Italy faces England in the Final tomorrow (Sunday, July 11, 2021, 12:00pm PST), in front of a “75% capacity crowd” at 90,000-seat Wembley – and I’ve watched every minute and all 140 goals of every match.

This isn’t to brag, or a source of pride for that matter.  Despite how swimmingly my lifestyle fit with pandemic realities, and the volumes of sporting television that thankfully followed, this happenstance was truly a function of relative unfamiliarity with the teams going into this tournament, their rosters, and the formations and tactics they would employ. Although I had watched plenty of European and North American club soccer, international soccer had fallen thorough the pandemic cracks in both reality and my sporting attention span, so I needed to actually see these teams in unfriendly action before I formed an opinion on them.

Also, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is a mere 16 months away, so chances are at least half of the squads here will a.) Ultimately qualify for the World Cup (Currently, 8/10 Group leaders in the UEFA World Cup Qualification standings made the Knockout Stage), and b.) Be comprised of largely the same rosters, which does not always happen with the usual 2-year cycle in between.

Let’s call this a “Simultaneous Preview and Review” of the 2020 (Err.. 2021) Euros. With 3-6 games seen from each team, I finally have a sense of how good and/or bad these teams are, and how those who later qualify for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup should be projected. What follows is a ranking of the Euros participants in reverse order (Tournament Finish in parentheses), not wholly determined by where each team finished, along with observations and analysis.  

THE DREGS

24.) Turkey (4th Place, Group A) – They really should not be here, they have several topflight talents playing across the English Premier League (EPL), Serie A, and Ligue 1, as well as the top clubs in Turkey that often make the Champions League, but they were definitively the worst side of this tournament. Most goals allowed and worst goal differential in the Group Stage, and were often completely disorganized, then later discouraged. They even lead UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group G currently, so we may still get to see them in Qatar despite the soccer malfeasance they displayed; Here’s hoping for better to come from The Turks.

23.) North Macedonia (4th, Group C) – You just gotta love evergreen Goran Pandev, the 38-year-young striker who has spent his 20 year professional career largely in Italy’s Serie A, and who not only Captained the side for the Country Formerly Known as Macedonia at their Euros debut, he scored the very goal that qualified them, and factored into both goals North Macedonia scored here, netting one and drawing the penalty that led to the other. Under-talented for the most part beyond Pandev, North Macedonia were organized, tactically sound, and cohesive, which may serve them well in the UEFA World Cup Qualifiers to come (currently 2nd place in Group J), as their biggest win of the year was not in the Euros, but in a 2-1 victory over Germany in Germany (!), in a World Cup Qualifier at the end of March.

22.) Scotland (4th, Group D) – I really wanted to list them at #24, as I believe they are the least talented team in the tournament.  Their two best players – Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney – are left fullbacks by trade, so they have to play Tierney in the midfield and have them overlap on runs down the flanks, which did not really work. Their third-best player is arguably Scott McTominay, another defensive-minded midfielder who struggles to get a regular spot with his club Manchester United.  Although I cannot fault their effort, I won’t be holding my breath on the Scots’ qualification for Qatar, in the same group as Denmark, Austria and Israel, it’s just not an inspiring roster nor a winning formula.

21.) Russia (4th, Group B) – A mere shadow of the host side that made the Quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup, even as they played two of their three Euros matches in St. Petersburg. Only reason they are not rated lower is because they beat Finland, and yet they still finished behind the Fins on goal differential. Unsure if a last hurrah from an aging roster will be enough to get to Qatar, much less what they could do in a major tournament away from friendlier confines.

TOUGH OUTS

20.) Slovakia (3rd, Group E) – A perception problem I have is I always refer to them as “the other half of a united Czechoslovakia”, or in more recent times, “the team with that dude with the Mohawk” (Marek Hamšík, who had an illustrious 15-year career in Italy for Brescia and Napoli and currently plays for Trabzonspor in Turkey). A red card against Poland aided their sole win, only to lack answers against Sweden and come completely undone in the heat of Sevilla, a 5-0 loss to Spain where they conceded the worst own goal I’ve ever seen … at least until five days later. Nevertheless, there is quality beyond Hamšík, such as Inter Milan’s Milan Škriniar and FCC Cologne’s Ondrej Duda, that leads me to believe they continue to factor in Europe during the next few cycles.

19.) Finland (3rd, Group B) – The other European Championships debutantes, early on they showed some “Iceland 2016” potential and deserve more credit for their 1-0 victory over Denmark in spite of those particular circumstances.  Losing out to Ukraine on a berth in the knockouts on goal differential (Ukraine -1 to the Fins’ -2) was a sobering end for a squad that was difficult for two of the better sides at this tournament (Denmark, Belgium) to break down, and showed heart and grit if not overwhelming physical talent. Plus, they had three MLS players on their roster, which I applaud.

18.) Poland (4th, Group E) – Unluckiest team in the tournament – four (4) shots hit the goal frame in three (3) games – or just The Best Striker In the World and the 10 Dwarves?  You decide, but Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski almost single footedly got Poland into the knockouts with three (3) outstanding goals against Spain and Sweden.

PLUCKY INTERLOPERS

17.) Wales (2nd, Group A, Round of 16) – At first glance, the Welsh have a few real pros, and a bunch of dudes who could be confused for Sunday pub-leaguers. Dig further, Wales has two World-Class footballers (Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey), and several first-tier talents (among them Joe Rodon, Neco Williams, Ben Davies, and Daniel James) who could ply their trade lucratively anywhere. Silver lining for The Dragons is that while they could not replicate their 2016 Euros Semifinals run, 15/26 roster members were 25 or younger, all of whom play in England’s Top two tiers, so the future could be bright.

16.) Ukraine (3rd, Group C, Quarterfinals) – I am liking what Manager and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko has brewing in the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. He has an attack centered on three outstanding talents in Olek Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Roman Yaremchuk, backed by a resolute defense willing to absorb pressure to launch forward when the opportunity presents, as fully demonstrated in the waning moments of their Round of 16 win over Sweden. While the margin among these “plucky interlopers” is razor thin, squads like Wales and Ukraine are not as deep as those listed below.

15.) Austria (2nd, Group C, Round of 16) – Although I was impressed with Austria’s discipline, cohesion, and positive play, pushing Italy to extra time in the Round of 16 before bowing out, all I really want to add is I really enjoy watching jack-of-all-trades David Alaba play soccer, and hope the twilight of his career at Real Madrid is successful.

14.) Hungary (4th, Group F) – By far the best team not to make the knockouts, and what really made the “Group of Death” live up to that hype. Held Portugal at bay for 82 minutes (until Portugal stopped messing around, sent on Renato Sanches, and scored 3 goals), then went toe-to-toe with the reigning World Champions in front of a thunderous home crowd, and should have beaten Germany. This, despite having the least amount of possession in the Group Stage (34.7%, as much a function as playing three ball-dominant teams as anything). I have little doubt they would have qualified for the Knockouts from any other group, and the fact they were not an easy out definitely factored into the other 3 Group F teams’ performances in the Round of 16.

13.) Czech Republic (2nd, Group D, Quarterfinals) – Casual observers might think of the Czechs as gritty upstarts, but they enjoy a long history of success in major tournaments, mostly as “Czechoslovakia” when they were 1934 and 1962 World Cup Finalists and the 1976 European Champions, and as the current Czech Republic when they were the 1996 Euro Finalists the last time the Euros Final was held at Wembley in 1996. Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick has been a revelation, at least for me, tying Cristiano Ronaldo for goals scored in the tournament with five (5), one of which was the goal of the tournament so far. Even though a boneheaded red card abetted their win over the Netherlands, the cagey Czechs were relatively even with the Dutch up to that point, and overall exceeded pre-Euro expectations.

12.) Sweden (1st, Group E, Round of 16) – After their last-gasp exit to Ukraine, a match they should have won in normal time, and upon further reflection, how “good” was Sweden actually? Sure, Clockwork Yellow won a group that included Spain, but was too much stock put into their 0-0 draw with La Furia Roja where they ceded 85% of the possession? Did their 3-2 win over Poland flatter to deceive, considering they ranked 24th (i.e., last) in Passing Accuracy and 23rd in Possession % during this tournament? Were they too dependent on RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, whose powerful right foot scored four of their five goals? Maybe so on all counts, but I did watch a Sweden side that was well-organized, methodical, and resolute, and that beat the teams they were supposed to beat … at least in Group play.

DARKHORSE CONTENDERS

11.) Switzerland (3rd, Group A, Quarterfinals) – Gutty, organized, tough, patient, will make you earn it, ever poised for a clinical counterattack, and a bit of magic in the boots of their talisman Xhedran Shaqiri.  Ultimately, their margin for error was too thin, as they lived (France) and died (Spain) by the sword of Kicks from The Mark. They will always have that barnstorming comeback against the World Champions to look back upon with fondness.

10.) Croatia (2nd, Group D, Round of 16) – Squint, and you can still see the visage of the 2018 World Cup Finalists; I don’t need to tell you about the class of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. The issue for this side, is that Father Time is undefeated.  Curious to see if they qualify for Qatar (currently leading UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group H), and if so, who shows up, as 12 from the current roster will be 30 or older by then.

9.) Germany (2nd, Group F, Round of 16) – I cannot remember a time when I thought Germany was 9th-Best in Europe at anything, but here we are, at a crossroads for Die Mannschaft after their second consecutive disappointing major tournament result. As long-time manager Joachim Löw rides into the sunset, it’s abundantly clear they are in need of fresh ideas. The attacking talent is undeniable, and Manuel Neuer is still one of the best netminders in the world at 35, but that back line needs a revamp, and tactically new manager Hansi Flick must put burgeoning talents like Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner, Jamal Musiala, and Serge Gnabry in better positions to exploit their abilities.

8.) Denmark (2nd, Group B, Semifinals) – These Great Danes are the obvious feel-good story of these Euros. Although it is hard to ignore what happened to their talisman Christian Eriksen 10 minutes into their first match against Finland – I won’t mince words, everyone watching that match saw a man die on the pitch before being brought back to life – put that aside for a moment.  Denmark had one of the best offenses of the tournament, Top 4 across the board in goals, shots on goal, assists, chances created, total attacks, touches in the Attacking 3rd, and corners taken, both per game as well as totals. And while they were clearly galvanized by the continuing recovery of their best player, this is a team full of quality players who populate top European clubs such as Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Tottenham, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Barcelona, among others. They outplayed Belgium for most of their match, and dominated Russia, Wales, and (except for a 4-minute blitz to begin the 2nd half) the Czechs thereafter, before pushing England to the brink in a true road game. Truly, no one should be surprised Denmark made the semis; They certainly had a decent opportunity to do so playing with Eriksen, so it’s little wonder FIFA’s #10 ranked side did so playing for Eriksen.

7.) Portugal (3rd, Group F, Round of 16) – I rate them this high on talent alone, and many observers opined before the Euros started that this was the most-talented roster the Seleção had assembled in support of their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. An interesting assertion considering they are the Defending European Champions for another day. Their performance was truly less than the sum of their talented parts, despite (or due to, you choose) Ronaldo being the leader in the clubhouse for the Euro 2020 Golden Boot, possibly emblematic of a generational clash between Ronaldo’s mid-30s contemporaries and 16 players on the roster younger than 28. Much of that young supporting cast – Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Fernandes, Diogo Jota, João Félix, all of whom should help Portugal contend for the next two World Cups – was not deployed in a coherent manner, and strangely became the only 3rd Place team who qualified for the Knockouts that did not win their Round of 16 match, falling meekly to Belgium. At least they are still the reigning 2019 UEFA Nations League Champions, whatever that is.

THE CREAM

6.) Spain (2nd, Group E, Semifinals) – End of the day, an exit in the Semifinals feels about right. According to UEFA statistics Spain has the top offense in this tournament, largely on the strength of two 5-goal games. Talented and deep, they will possess the ball like they own it against any team in the world, yet lack a cutting edge on that finishing touch, especially when oft-maligned Alvaro Morata – Whose slander must stop, even with his spot kick misses – is not in the game. I’ll go a step further: Spain goes as Morata goes. I for one hope he can fix whatever is going on between the ears, because when he is “on”, Spain is as good as anyone. Fun fact: Spain’s National Anthem “Marcha Real” has no official lyrics. The 17 Autonomous Regions of Spain could never agree on any version of lyrics, so once Generalissimo Francisco Franco died (and he’s still dead), his version and all others were abandoned. Amazing they unite for anything really.

5.) England (1st, Group D, Finals) – Far be it from me to suggest that “Football’s Coming Home”, but England has their best chance at a major trophy in 55 years, playing 6/7 total matches in this tournament at their national stadium and soccer cathedral, Wembley. Shout out to Raheem Sterling, who was pilloried in this very space for his wasteful performances at the 2018 World Cup but has come correct for The Three Lions with gusto and opportune incision. Nice to see Harry Kane come to the fore in the knockout stage as well. For me, Luke Shaw has been their most important player, overlapping for runs down the flanks and providing accurate crossing and set piece delivery to the tune of three (3) assists so far. I also think England are best when Jack Grealish is on the pitch, even if they are a touch more methodical. If they are courageous as they should be buoyed by a raucous home crowd, they will have a puncher’s chance to lift that trophy.

4.) Netherlands (1st, Group C, Round of 16) – As much young talent as they have – I think they could become one of the favorites for Qatar 2022 if they can find one more striker, and Virgil Van Dijk can fully recover and return to his pre-ACL injury form – Clockwork Oranje really should have done better than getting bounced by the Czechs in the Round of 16. I fancied them making the Final from that draw, but an ill-timed red card was too big a thread to not unravel that Oranje sweater; If Matthijs De Ligt wanted to dribble with his hands, he should have played basketball instead.

3.) Belgium (1st, Group B, Quarterfinals) – Ranked #1 in the mysterious FIFA World Rankings, the sun began setting on the Red Devils’ “Golden Generation” in Munich, with no gold to show for their longevity and servitude. Didn’t help that they were handicapped in attack between Kevin DeBruyne’s broken face (who then played through their Quarterfinal loss to Italy with torn ligaments in his ankle) and Eden Hazard’s ongoing hamstring issues.  Most of this side will likely get one last chance at glory in Qatar, and the Best Non-Lewandowski Striker In The World, Romelu Lukaku, was in prime form, but the back line is already old, and Belgium must hope the rest of their core doesn’t age in dog years before then.

2.) Italy (1st, Group A, Finals) – Converse to Portugal, Italy is the “Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of The Parts” team of the 2022 Euros. Only a fading Giorgio Chiellini and the rising Gianluigi Donnarumma would ever be considered superstars outside of Italy, but from what I can tell there is no drop off at the bottom of the roster. The World’s Best Counterpunchers fought their way to the Final0, displaying a vertical threat that prior versions of the Forza Azzuri and their catenaccio tactics lacked. A name to remember: Federico Chiesa. He has “it”, whatever “it” is in soccer mysticism, exemplified by his goal against Spain, a perfectly placed part strike/volley into the opposite corner of the net. Win on Sunday as I expect, and they have to be one of the three (3) favorites to win the Cup in Qatar, along with Brazil (see below), and the one team I’ve yet to mention. By the way, “Il Canto degli Italiani” is my favorite National Anthem from a musical perspective, so jaunty, I feel Italian when I hear it, and I have zero Italian ancestry.

1.) France (1st, Group F, Round of 16) – Yes, like you I watched the reigning World Champions bow out unceremoniously against the Swiss in the Round of 16. Choose your automotive metaphor, they played this entire tournament stuck in a low gear, full of swagger and panache yet lacking fortitude, save for 17 exquisite minutes in the 2nd half against the Swiss when they showed their class and fury. I also saw Kylian Mbappe have a subpar tournament throughout and up to his final penalty miss against the Swiss, but I cannot blame France’s overall performance on just that. Nor will I blame it on rumored potential chemistry problems caused by the return of Karim Benzema after an almost six-year absence, who showed flashes of brilliance scoring four goals in their last two matches. Where Les Bleus go from here, is anyone’s guess, and we’ve seen their disappearing act before (South Africa 2010 anyone?), but what is undeniable is that they are have one of the two deepest talent pools in World Football (along with a stacked Brazil), seemingly able to field a completely different 26-man squad than the one sent to this tournament and still likely contend for the trophy. I’m still going to ride with that assuming they make it to Qatar.

P.S. – The Copa America has been ongoing concurrently, and while I have not watched every single one of those games – because, you know, I like sleep – I have seen every one of the 10 teams play at least once and watched every game in the knockouts so far. The seemingly premeditated Final, another Brazil vs. Argentina Superclásico, is later today (Saturday, July 10, 2021, 5:00pm PST, FS1) in the famed Maracanã in Rio, and I just get the nagging sense that Lionel Messi is about to become 0/10 in major tournaments, playing the role of Charlie Brown to Neymar’s Lucy-with-the-football and all that comes with Brazil being the progenitors of the Jogo Bonito. Heck of a weekend to be a soccer fan.

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