The basketball vibes are already feeling better this week, with the Celtics erasing a 20 point deficit in San Antonio Monday night, and then putting the hammer down on the Rockets' 22 game winning streak in a 94-74 nationally televised win in Houston last night (Leon Powe with 21! Don't say we're not deep!). However, these good vibes are generally cancelled by the fact that March Madness is a week late and Easter is the earliest it'll be for the next 150 years, meaning that if you're me and you've gotta get DirecTV's Mega March Madness package to ensure you can see the Vols here in VA, you know you're not going to get much work done with every game televised over the next two days in what's usually the busiest week of the year for us pastor types. But don't worry, I'm sure we'll manage.
With that in mind, here's some thoughts on the bracket:
Full disclosure: I won my bracket group two years ago by being hot in the first round and then riding the Gators before most others thought to do so. Last year did not go so well, however, though I was still hot Thursday/Friday by not picking lots of upsets. But I usually go with the gut over the brain when it comes to these things, which can work both ways.
Looking back at my bracket after I completed it this year, there's a noticeable East Coast bias. And it's not that I hate the Pac-10 at all, it's that I've seen a lot of college basketball this year with the ol' Full Court package, but none of it involved Pac-10 schools, and the only West Coast school I really saw all year was a couple or three Gonzaga games. Head to head I usually put a much greater emphasis on what I've seen over what I've read, and sometimes that's not a good idea. So I have no real fear that anyone I'm playing with this year will read this and steal my ideas, because my gut instincts probably make the most sense to me. Hopefully, there's still a little common sense in here somewhere...
Here we go...
While it's tempting here to just take UNC and the Vols and put them in the Elite 8 because I want to see that so badly and then work backwards from there, let's walk through the journey before the destination:
- While this isn't a year where I'm picking all the SEC schools in the first round, I do like an Arkansas team that I certainly picked up more respect for last weekend, and who can beat you in a number of ways, to beat a shaky Indiana squad that lost three of four coming into The Dance and may still have some Kelvin Sampson issues.
- Upset alert: 12 George Mason over 5 Notre Dame, because it's George Mason and I hate Notre Dame in football, and that's just too much for my brain to overcome. 13 Winthrop over 4 Washington State - see, East Coast bias comes in early and often.
- In the lower half, I like Louisville and OU to hold serve, and I think Butler vs. South Alabama will be one of the best games of the first round. The Vols saw both of these teams last season, and Butler has been and is exactly the sort of team you don't want to see in March. They'll get it done.
- What do we know about American University? Other than the fact that Holy Cross alum Bill Simmons ran them down in his podcast last week for winning the Patriot League, a team that's only scored 80+ points three times this season might have some issues staying with the Vols, though if their SEC Tournament defense shows up maybe American will break some school records along the way. They did beat Maryland on the road, but also lost at Georgetown by 27. They'll try and be slow and deliberate, which means the Vols will want to take them out of their pace, but Tennessee should advance either way. (By the way, let me state how much I enjoy the fact that Tennessee plays on Friday, so I can make it through at least one day of tournament play without having a thrombo. And let me put my plug in right now for Kevin Harlan or Gus Johnson to call our games. Pretty please.)
(Edit: It's Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty in Birmingham. Which isn't bad, considering that's the 1B CBS team.)
- If we do get UNC-Arkansas in the second round, it'll be a good feeler for Charlotte. And no matter the opponent, I do think you can go ahead and pencil the Tar Heels into the Elite Eight. I think you can pencil Louisville into the Sweet 16. It'll be the Vols who struggle the most to get that far in this bracket, and I do think it'll be that most difficult road possible: American-Butler-Louisville-North Carolina. Which, as we said on Sunday, would also be the most enjoyable road, getting revenge on Butler, beating Rick Pitino, and then facing the Tar Heels. More "experts" than I thought have been making the point this week that nothing the Vols face will be as difficult as winning at Memphis was, and that Tennessee should play like a team that belongs. They'll have to win several different ways to do it, and I'm sure we'll break that down if the Vols get to the Sweet 16, but the Vols are good enough to beat Butler (or South Alabama), good enough to outduel Louisville, and yes, Tennessee is good enough to beat North Carolina. I can write "Tennessee to the Final Four" here and have you take me seriously. I promise.
If there's a number one seed I'd bank on, it's Kansas. I like their road, they won't have to deal with any push scenarios in the Elite 8 the way North Carolina and Memphis might, and they're one of the best all around teams in the field. For me, it's really hard to go anywhere else in this bracket.
- I think if you pick a 9 (Kent State) over an 8 (UNLV), it's not really an upset. I also think Villanova shouldn't be in this field and that Clemson is really good, and will prove both those points in the opening round. Vanderbilt vs. Clemson would be really fun in the second round...but again, I don't think either of those two is beating Kansas. Even on Vanderbilt's very best day from Foster and Gordon, I don't think they get it done.
- quasi-East Coast bias, part two: I've seen Michael Beasley play and he's the most exciting player to watch in college basketball. I've only seen OJ Mayo on SportsCenter. And even though I'm wise enough to remember that USC did this last year to Kevin Durant and Texas, I'm dumb enough to pick Kansas State and Beasley anyway.
- Gonzaga vs. Davidson is another one of these really good 7-10 mid-major showdowns. Gonzaga was trendy about three years ago, and now I think half the people filling out these brackets still think Adam Morrison plays there. Still, I like them to advance here. Georgetown vs. Gonzaga in the second round is tough, much like the game itself would be, low scoring and physical. Roy Hibbert is a force inside, sure, but when I look at these two teams, I'm not sure there's that much space between them. Gonzaga played with the Vols and with Memphis, and lost seeding in the bracket by losing to San Diego in their conference tournament. But I think Gonzaga can upset Georgetown and make it to the second weekend.
- Again, Kansas is the pick, whether they see Georgetown, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, OJ Mayo or Michael Beasley in the Elite 8. The Jayhawks are simply too good - I think there's more space between the one seed and the rest of the field in this region than anywhere else.
Unintentionally when filling it out, this became the "blow it up" bracket. One upset seemingly led to another when I was picking, and I ended up with something I'm almost afraid to commit to paper. But, you need to shake up at least one region, right? So here we go...
- Literally as soon as I saw this bracket released, I said "Memphis is going down in the second round." Do I hate Memphis? Sure. But having seen them and Mississippi State both a bunch, I think the Bulldogs are exactly the type of team in exactly the type of situation that can run them out. A team that's played in two straight Elite 8's, as Memphis has, and a team that's only lost once all year, might tend to take the early stages of the tournament for granted. MSU will not have that problem. Jarvis Varnado is a game-changer inside, and I think the Bulldogs are capable of playing well enough defensively to disrupt what Memphis does, and allow Jamont Gordon to match Chris Douglas-Roberts step for step. Since tournament seeding began in 1979, all four number one seeds have never reached the Sweet 16 in four consecutive years. All four number one seeds have made the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons. Trouble! Down goes Memphis! Down goes Memphis! Down goes Memphis! SEC! SEC! SEC!
- Alright, now that we've already made one bad decision in this region, let's keep going - how about Temple over Michigan State in the opening round, which is backed by a few folks on ESPN because Drew Neitzel can be streaky.
- Marquette-Kentucky seems interesting, but here's what I'm wondering: with the Cats so happy to actually make the tournament for a change, and still without Patrick Patterson, will that affect their sense of urgency and play? Tubby didn't win them all, but he always, always got out of the first round. Billy Gillispie is harder to project simply because we haven't seen it yet...but then again, Tubby was never an 11 seed. I just don't think UK is good enough to beat Marquette. Then if you look at Marquette-Stanford in the second round, it becomes about what type of style you like. Though Marquette had a talent for getting drilled on the road, the Golden Eagles are one of those four or five teams in this tournament - like Tennessee was last year - that can play really well behind the arc to compliment the rest of their scoring, and if they get hot, they can beat anybody. They've got three proven scorers on the floor, while Stanford will go all Lopez on you inside. The saying that the NCAA Tournament is all about guard play is only true when your guards are making shots - witness Georgetown over UNC last year - and consequently, if they're not, the team with the big bodies is going to wear you out. But the best teams these days aren't just the big bodies - Ohio State was way, way more than Greg Oden last year - so in a game like this, who's going to do the additional scoring for Stanford? Marquette's best scorers in McNeal, Hayward and James are all better shooters than Stanford's Anthony Goods. The truth is, as I'm sure you can tell by the length of the analysis here, I really like both of these teams...but against each other, you've gotta go with Marquette.
- I think you pencil Texas into the Sweet 16. I think if Mississippi State can beat Memphis, they can make their way deeper to the Elite 8. If it's Texas vs. Stanford, then again for reasons described above, I think it's Texas no problem and then Texas all the way to the Final Four. However, if it's Texas vs. Marquette, who's going to be hotter? Because that would be an insanely fun game to watch. Augustin and Abrams are proven commodities, but perhaps there's also something to be said for a Texas team that makes it to Houston with Memphis out of the way taking Tom Crean's team for granted? I fully respect Texas, and the Vols have the double digit beatdown to prove it...but this is one of those "it just feels right" things, and like I said, filling out your Final Four with all 1 and 2 seeds isn't the way it's supposed to be done, right? Because remember, I've got Mississippi State on the other half of that Elite 8 equation. So ladies and gentlemen, SouthEastern Sports Blog is taking Marquette all the way to the Final Four. Like I said, didn't set out to do it that way at all, just went matchup to matchup. Now that I've said that, I'm sure the Kentucky faithful will take great joy in busting my bracket.
You might think UCLA has an easier road to the Final Four than Kansas does, as I said earlier. And Duke is generally perceived as the weakest of the 2 seeds. So how does anyone pick someone other than the Bruins in this region...well...
- I do think UCLA makes the Sweet 16 no problem. However, here's a stat for you: since John Wooden's days ended, only three schools have ever made three straight Final Fours: Duke in the early 90s, Kentucky in the mid 90s, and Michigan State in the early part of this decade. UCLA has been bounced in the finals and the semifinals the last two seasons. Maybe I put way too much emphasis on the idea of a team in that position taking the path for granted, but I've seen it enough to believe it: somewhere along the way, UCLA will lose before San Antonio.
- And while Drake is another one of those hot shooting teams, I don't think they'll be the ones to do it, because I think this is another case of low separation between mid-majors, and Western Kentucky is going to beat them in the opening round. Perhaps even WKU could be the ones to make a run and take down the Bruins, who knows. I like their chances, or Drake's, better than UConn's in that half of the bracket.
- I'm also not going SEC when it comes to the Georgia Bulldogs, who had an incredible weekend that now their fan base thinks translates into them being a national power. Typical. Anyway, teams that make the magical conference tournament run almost never play well in The Dance, and typically they get bounced right away (see Syracuse three dances ago or Arkansas in 2000). And plus, Xavier is no gift. Sorry Georgia.
- I think the most difficult first round game to pick in the entire bracket is West Virginia vs. Arizona. If Bob Huggins and Kevin O'Neill get in a fistfight, the money I spent on Mega March Madness will instantly be worth it. When push comes to shove here, I think West Virginia has been more consistent and Arizona is the program in turmoil, so I think it's more likely that they crack under pressure than come together. Mountaineers move on.
- And now that I've talked myself into not picking UCLA in this region, I've gotta do one of my least favorite things: project Duke to advance deep into the tournament. On Facebook's official bracket challenge run by CBS Sports, every entrant is allowed to enter their favorite team and their most despised team. And so of course, there's a decisive edge to North Carolina and Duke for favorite team, with UNC holding a slight edge. So it also makes sense that these are the two most hated teams, because they hate each other, which they are. But while it seems like all Duke fans hate Carolina (approx. 21,000 Duke fans on Facebook and around 27,000 Tar Heel haters), there's absolutely no contest for hatred in college basketball: a whopping 57,000 people list Duke as their most hated team, with Carolina in second some 30,000 people behind. Take pride, Duke. But really, here's another potentially hot shooting team, who I don't predict running into trouble until the Sweet 16. And in a Duke-Xavier matchup...it's just hard for me to look at that and not pick Duke. I know they lost to VCU last year. I know Xavier is good. I'm picking Duke anyway. If we're not going with UCLA, we're going with Duke then, aren't we?
Looking back at this, it reads like I got bored halfway through and then just decided to spice things up: we've got Tennessee vs. Kansas on one half of the bracket, and Marquette vs. Duke on the other half. But we're rolling with it. Tennessee's road in my bracket already goes through Butler, Louisville, and North Carolina, so it might as well stay at the top with the Jayhawks. These two teams play a home and home the next two seasons, by the way. Kansas is deep and would present many of the same challenges that Memphis did. But obviously, if you're familiar with this blog, you know that if we've got the Vols going this far, we're not stopping now.
And really, this whole piece isn't "how can we construct an argument for Tennessee to win it all?" You don't have to do much construction this year - make threes, win the rebounding, keep them more than honest inside with Tyler Smith, and this time around, let's play defense eh? - but it's In Pearl We Trust, and again, I believe Tennessee is good enough to win six.
If number five is Kansas, I've got Duke over Marquette in that half at this point, just really because if this all actually happens (and if it somehow does, I'll be several thousand dollars richer between my bracket pools, because I'm not picturing many others with a Tennessee/Kansas/Marquette/Duke Final Four) we might as well get a chance to join the Duke hating too. And I'll admit, on a national level, I don't like Duke. At this point, it wouldn't be anything worse than what the Vols had already seen.
So yeah, you're stunned, but I'm picking Tennessee to win it all. That's the whole bracket. But right now in real life, I'm just focused on American University. One step at a time, six times. But one at a time. The Madness has clearly already begun on this blog.