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The Madness is Upon Us

March 15, 2012

Now, a Ripe, Very Mature preview – as opposed to last weeks Premature Preview, posted minutes after tip-off of the first Second Round games, and let’s face it, you’re probably reading this as games have already been played – of the 2012 NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Before I get to anything else, here is my bracket, which is guaranteed to be completely off-base as it has been for the last three years. I’ll follow up on some of my thoughts from last week’s preview, and make some other sure-to-be-nearly-right predictions about this edition of March Madness.

National Championship Contenders – Last week I said that I would be shocked if the National Champion doesn’t come from a three-team group Kentucky, North Carolina, or Syracuse, but with the suspension of Fab Melo and the actual field set, I now doubt Syracuse can win it all.  The Selection Committee did Kentucky and North Carolina no favors either with the bracket; Kentucky might have to face Defending Champion Connecticut in Round of 32, a team that can play with Kentucky all over the floor with talent to match down low as well, then potentially Indiana in the Sweet 16, one of two teams to beat them all year. North Carolina has an easier path in the earlier rounds, but a potential meeting with Kansas looms in the Elite Eight, and they were put on the same side of the Final Four bracket with ACC Champ Florida St, who has beaten them twice this year. I still think the pool of teams that can win it all is small, but I’ve doubled it to six (6) teams, in order of my perceived likelihood:

  • North Carolina
  • Kentucky
  • Florida State
  • Syracuse
  • Kansas
  • Michigan St

Final Four/Title Game Darkhorses – I named quite a few of these teams last week, but with the actual bracket I’ve juggled this list a bit. While each of these teams has a fatal flaw that I believe will prevent them from winning a National Championship, here are seven (7) darkhorse candidates to reach the Final Four and possibly the Title Game, all the while scaring the bejeezus of every team they face.  Each team listed has good-to-great guard play, abundant senior leadership and contribution, is highly efficient offensively and/or defensively, and performs at least one aspect of the game that causes opponents problems at a very high level, whether it’s taking care of the ball, causing turnovers, crashing the offensive boards, blocking shots, defending the 3-pointer or hitting their free throws. Plus, they all have potentially advantageous draws, or winnable match-ups with higher seeded teams (which helps explain why I have Florida in my Final Four):

  • Florida
  • Missouri
  • Louisville
  • Marquette
  • Baylor
  • Ohio State
  • Vanderbilt

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8 Cinderellas – There appears to be more legitimate candidates for this now that the actual brackets were announced, and that’s with some teams like Murray State and VCU drawing bad Round of 64 or potential Round of 32 match-ups, but you never know when the clock will strike Midnight for these 11 teams:

  • Wichita State
  • New Mexico State
  • Nevada-Las Vegas
  • South Dakota State
  • Xavier
  • Memphis
  • Saint Louis
  • Long Beach State
  • Belmont
  • St. Mary’s
  • Gonzaga

Underachievers Capable of a Deep Run – Last Week I called these the “LSU” teams, and have already identified most of the teams in this field that fit these parameters, but let’s flesh it out further.  These are teams that all a.) come from a High-Major conference, b.) lost 10 or more games, c.) are seeded No. 8 or worse, d.) have already proven capable of beating top teams while scaring others and e.) despite lacking a certain cohesion, are very talented and have difference-makers that not only scare the crap out of opponents, but can win games if they get hot:

  • Kansas St
  • West Virginia
  • Iowa State
  • Connecticut
  • Alabama
  • North Carolina State
  • Purdue
  • Texas

Feast or Famine Candidates – These are Top 3-6 seeds previously not mentioned and either rely heavily on underclassmen, suffered a key injury, and have otherwise dangerous match-ups in their first games. Survive those however, gain some confidence and rhythm, and much more is possible for these five (5) squads:

  • Duke
  • Georgetown
  • Indiana
  • New Mexico
  • Wisconsin

Tom Petty Teams (“Freeee … Free Falling!”) or Otherwise Headed in the Wrong Direction – Overall inconsistency, a drastic change in performance from earlier in the season, surprising player unrest, suspension or benching, whatever the cause these four (4) teams are “valleying” (as opposed to “peaking”) at the wrong time (and yes, I’ve included a National Championship Contender above):

  • Notre Dame
  • Syracuse
  • San Diego State
  • Georgetown

I Have No Idea What to Make of These Teams – Self-explanatory, nothing would surprise me, and it’s not for a lack of trying to watch them and figure them out on the part of yours truly:

  • Michigan
  • Colorado
  • Virginia
  • Temple
  • Cincinnati
  • Southern Mississippi

Teams Many Think Could Be an Upset Pick, That Probably Won’t – While these underdogs have bite in them, I don’t think they received any sort of favorable match-up, and thus sadly will watch the pumpkin carriage fly by:

  • Detroit
  • Creighton
  • Ohio
  • Davidson
  • Colorado State
  • Brigham Young
  • South Florida
  • St. Bonaventure
  • Harvard
  • Montana

And Now … Five Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … No One.  Although Syracuse losing in the semis of the Big East Tournament and suspending their starting Center makes me think they lose a lot earlier than they probably should, especially with a potentially bad match-up with Scary Frank Martin’s scary Kansas State squad in the Round of 32. Duke isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire either, but they’re nowhere near the train wreck that 2010 Longhorn squad was.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Second Round Upset Departure Team” is … Kansas.  No shortage of candidates this season, but who else is better than the original? If they have the unfortunate task of playing a talented, disciplined, good shooting St. Mary’s team that is extremely well-coached by Randy Bennett (why hasn’t some Pac-12 program snatched him up yet is one of my great sports mysteries) in the Round of 32, I’m not entirely convinced that Kansas has enough guard play beyond Tyshawn Taylor to carry them through what could be an ugly encounter. Plus, we’ve seen this play before. Heck, even Purdue has enough talent to make the hearts of Rock Chalk Jayhawk Nation skip a few beats. Border War enemy Missouri could take up the mantle as well, I have them losing to Florida in the Round of 32, and I maintain my belief that their preferred tempo won’t be found past their first game (unless Florida engages them this way, and/or Murray State or BYU somehow make it to a Sweet 16 match-up, but I won’t hold my breath).  Syracuse could certainly qualify here too, but with Fab Melo’s suspension the thrill is gone, and Ohio State may sneak in here as well, but I think they’ve recovered from their February swoon and are playing to their exceedingly high talent level. So could Duke, and Michigan State for that matter, but they should have enough to get to the second week.

Is There a Potential “Butler” This Year? … Yes. I place before you The Running Rebels of Nevada-Las Vegas.  Colorado will be a tough match-up in their first game, but UNLV has already proven capable of beating the best, with their 10-point vanquishing in November of then No. 1 North Carolina. They have enough size, depth, athleticism, versatility to match well with anybody, and first-year coach Dave Rice has returned the Rebels to their running ways.  Duke and Baylor are solid but have glaring flaws and are eminently beatable, and they won’t fear an Elite Eight meeting with Kentucky or anyone that could come out of the West Regional.  UCLA transfers Mike Moser and Chace Stanback give them enough star power to get to the First Monday in April and come within a whisker of winning it all – I do think North Carolina would exact a measure of revenge should that game occur.  In the very same regional, Wichita State also fits this profile, but they would play Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and I just don’t see them getting past Kentucky, if they survive their first two games. Although should they “Shock” the world (See what I did there? The Shockers?), they did beat UNLV by 19 earlier this season.

This Year’s “George Mason/VCU” Could Be … Memphis or St. Mary’s.  Of the potential “Cinderellas” I named above, these two are the most likely to reach the Final Four in shocking fashion. Which is to say, it’s not likely at all, but they’re both well coached, have High Major talent, have potentially favorable draws and do certain things at an extremely high level – Both are Top 35 in NCAA scoring offense, Memphis is extremely efficient offensively and defensively, ranking in the Top 10 in both Field Goal Percentage offense (#5) and defense (#10), while St. Mary’s ranks in the Top 15 in assists per game (#13) and rebounding margin (#9) as well as #26 in Field Goal Percentage offense. Plus their pathways to the Elite Eight are ripe with upset potential both by them and by other teams on their side of the regional, always a pre-requisite to these types of tournament runs, as it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good.

This Year’s “Gonzaga” Is … Long Beach State. In my opinion, the most likely double-digit seed to make the Sweet Sixteen, maybe even the Elite Eight if Michigan State is out of the way, is Dan Monson’s 49ers.  And he should know all about being “Gonzaga”, as he WAS “Gonzaga” in 1999, crashing the High-Major Party 13 years ago with their run to the Elite Eight and narrow loss to eventual Champion Connecticut as head coach. Teams like Butler, George Mason, Davidson and VCU all owe him and that squad a debt of thanks breaking through the ceiling and showing the possibilities of challenging any team on any tournament night.  This LBSU squad played the toughest Non-Conference Schedule in the country according to almost RPI metric I’ve seen – they will fear no one.  Casper Ware is one of the better point guards and scorers in the field, and the rest of the squad is deep in athleticism and versatility. Combine this with the reality that New Mexico and Louisville aren’t any deeper in their rotations or as athletic, and that Michigan State could very well lose before the Sweet 16, and “The Beach” may find the glass slipper fits quite nicely.

Finally, My Final Four and Champion …

I remain steadfast to what I said last week, that the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship comes down to the two best teams I saw play all year. Much rests on the wrist of John Henson, but if he can play with little to no hindrance, I believe North Carolina can capture their third title in eight seasons, over a supremely talented but overly young and potentially distracted Kentucky squad (You think John Calipari questions God why Mike D’Antoni resigned from the Knicks now instead of the end of the season?  I do).  Rounding out the party is the State of Florida, with a dangerous Florida State squad that will push North Carolina to the limit in their Final Four match, but ultimately prove why it’s difficult to beat the same team three times in one season, and my surprise guest in New Orleans, the plucky Florida Gators who will go down fighting for the fourth time this season to SEC mate Kentucky.

In the now immortal words of Bart Scott … I can’t wait!

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