March Madness is upon us!
Anyway, I've watched more college basketball this season than any other season for whatever reason, and I'm here to make my predictions. Screw Joe Lunardi on ESPN and his bracketology bullshit; if you want to win your NCAA bracket pool, you'll listen to me.
So I'll break it down by the teams that I think have a legit shot to win the whole thing, teams that I think are Cinderella possibilities, teams that I'm not 100% sold on yet and teams that are overrated by everyone.
Pittsburgh (RPI: 4, SOS:9)
Simply put, they are the most overrated team in the country. Yes, they play in a tough conference, and yes they will most likely be a number 2 seed, but their best player is a white guy who has basically no skills and is a slightly better version of Mark Madsen. And really, do you think Mark Madsen could lead his team to an NCAA championship. They have the 9th toughest schedule int he country, but even that is a bit decieving. Their early season games were a joke, playing against the likes of Delaware State, Oakland, Robert Morris, Buffalo, Florida A&M and so on and so forth. Their 4 losses have come against Wisconsin and Oklahoma State when both were ranked, and Marquette and Louisville, both of whom were unranked when they beat Pitt. Of those 4 losses, I'd rank 1 as a given (Wisconsin), another as a toss up (Louisville) and the other two as games they should have won if they were as good as people say they are (Marquette and Okla. St.- more on both in a second). Their two most impressive victories thus far have come against Georgetown (that victory looks much better now since GTown was struggling at the time they played Pitt but have come alive since) and Villanova (only cause I consider them one of the biggest darkhorse teams in the tournament). You could also consider West Virginia a good win, since in all likelihood they'll make the tournament, but for a team that's ranked 5th in the country, I'll leave that off.
Prediction: Of the 2 seeds, Pitt is the most likely to fall to a 15 seed in the first round. If they sneak by, look for them to get ousted by the 7/10 seed in the second.
Air Force (RPI: 13, SOS:79)
This team lives and dies by the 3 and if they're not dropping, it could be an early exit for the Falcons. While they are an impressive 23-4 overall, they are 10-3 in tehir own conference, the Mountain West Conference, which means 3 of their 4 losses have come against conference opponents. Can you name anyone else in the MWC? I thought not. Those three losses came against BYU, San Diego State (lost by 21!) and Utah (whose RPI isn't even in the top 100 in the country). Their other loss was a 15 point defeat at the hands of Duke earlier in the season. So while on paper their 23-4 record might seem impressive, take those losses against lesser opponents into account. Additionally, as a 4 or 5 seed, they would be matched up against a 12 or 13, which are traditionally not pushovers. Dangerous teams like Santa Clara, Winthrop, West Virginia, Purdue and Holy Cross could be in these slots, which would mean a first round exit for Air Force.
Prediction: Because of their tournment inexperience and reliance on the 3 ball, Air Force will lose in the first round if they are matched up against one of the teams I already stated. Otherwise, they could escape the first round, but will lose in the second.
Butler (RPI: 28, SOS: 132)
I watched Butler win the preseason NIT tournament, beating the likes of Tennessee and Gonzaga, but I wasn't that impressed then (cause Tennessee and Gonzaga aren't that good) and I'm still not to tell you the truth. This is another team that relies on their sharpshooter, A.J. Graves, coming off screens and draining shots, JJ Redick style. They've lost to Indiana State, Illinois-Chicago (who?), Wright State and Southern Illinois. The loss to the Salukis was understandable, because Southern Illinois is a good team, but the other three are inexcusable if you want to be considered the 15th ranked team in the country. THEY'RE NOT EVEN IN FIRST PLACE IN THEIR CONFERENCE! (which is the Horizon Conference, fyi). This is why I fail to understand college rankings sometimes. What you're telling me is that a team that plays in a conference with far lesser competition and has lost against the likes of Indiana State, Illinois-Chicago, Wright State and Southern Illinois is better than a team that plays in one of the best conferences in the country and has lost to Arkansas, Marquette, Notre Dame, Cincy, Pitt and GTown? How does that make any sense?? (that team is West Virginia, btw). Long story short, Butler is overrated, and I can't wait to hear Jim Nantz go on and on about how they were such a great story during the year and people picked them to go far in the tournament, right before they lose
Prediction: Butler should get a 4 seed, and should win their first round game, but I don't see them surviving whoever wins the 5/13 game.
Marquette (RPI: 32, SOS: 31)
Just really completely underwhelming every time I've watched them. I keep thinking they could be good and they showed flashes at the beginning of the season, but have faded hard since then. They're just way too inconsistent to predict that they'll go far in the tournament. Dominic James is something like 2 for his last billion 3 point attempts, yet he keeps hoisting them up there with 25 seconds left on the shot clock. They've had their moments- beating WVU, UConn, Louisville, Pitt, Duke- but have also looked terrible at times- losing to North Dakota State, DePaul, barely beating South Florida. I think their inconsistency is going to kill them. That and the fact that their leading scorer has scored in single digits in 5 of the past 7 games.
Prediction: Marquette will most likely be a 6 or 7 seed. I can see them winning the first two round, the second round in a nailbiter, but losing in the third round. They're overrated because people think they're much better than this but they aren't.
Honorable Mentions: Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford
Not Quite Yet
Wisconsin (RPI: 5, SOS: 67)
I know, I know- they're one of the best teams in the country and have been all year. They've played consistently good basketball and have a player of the year candidate in Alando Tucker. So why are they in this category? Other than Tucker and Kammeron Taylor, the Badgers have no one- I just don't see them with the depth and talent level of the big boys. Of course they'll be a number one seed, but I think there are 4, maybe 5 teams that have a better chance of winning the whole thing than Wisconsin. To me, the Big Ten is just not as strong as it has been in years past- you have Wisconsin and Ohio State, and then a bunch of mediocre teams. Wisconsin has an early season loss to Missouri State and a defeat at the hands of Indiana, but have beaten OSU, Marquette, and Pitt. While I rank OSU among the top teams, we already know what I think of Marquette and Pitt. So color me unimpressed by Wisconsin. We'll see over the next week if Wisconsin is for real, as they play their last three games at Michigan State, at OSU and home against Michigan St.
Prediction: If one of the number one seeds is going to lose to an 8/9, it will be Wisconsin
Georgetown (RPI: 16, SOS: 32)
Not sure if this is because of my anti-GTown bias or not, but I've had to watch pretty much every GTown game this year because, well, I live in DC. I heard all the preseason hype and was pleased when the team struggled in the beginning of the season, as I had predicted. But as of late, they're coming alive and have played like a team that went deep into the tournment last year. My issue is with their inconsistency. They run the Princeton style offense, which is just annoying to watch when you have two guys on your team who could be absolute studs in Green and Hibbert. The games that I've seen where they make a conscious effort to get the ball inside to Hibbert and run their offense around him, they've been successful. Saturday was the first game I've watched where they didn't get Hibbert involved and had success, due mostly to Green having an absolute monster game (19 points, 9 boards, 8 blocks), but even then they barely escaped with a W. I was at the first Nova-GTown game and like I said, watched last weekend's, and the thing that I noticed was that the smaller, more mobile big men give Hibbert a lot of problems, basically because he is slow as shit and has no mobility, and these guys go right by him and get him in foul trouble. They have a terrible early season loss to Old Dominion, but what looks like a nice victory now against a good Vanderbilt team. They've also lost to Oregon, Duke, Pitt and Nova, two of whom i consider darkhorse tournment teams, while the other two are on my overrated list. This is why GTown is so hard to read.
Prediction: I can't really make one for GTown. This team will only go as far as Hibbert will take them, as we saw in the tournament last year. Depending on the matchups, they could exit early, or could go to the Final Four.
Texas A&M (RPI: 14, SOS: 59)
I have to admit, every time that I've seen A&M, they've seemed more and more impressive, the type of team that is perfectly suited for a deep tournament run. I was very skeptical at first, but am closer and closer to believing in them- just not fully yet. They had two a big wins at Kansas and against Texas, but have lost to Texas Tech, a bubble team, twice, UCLA, my next "not sure yet" team and LSU, who have fallen off the face of the earth. Other than that, their scedule ios fairly unimpressive, including a 101-27 cupcake game against Grambling State. Was that even necessary? Acie Law and Antanas Kavaliauskas provide solid senior leadership, which is important for a succesfful tournament team, but I'm not convinced they have what it takes to win the whole thing.
Prediction: A&M will probably go to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, but don't see them going further than that. Just too many teams with more talent out there
UCLA (RPI: 1, SOS: 6)
There's really no justification I can come up with as to why I'm unconvinced by UCLA- they have the most wins against teams with an RPI in the top 50, the number 1 RPI themselves and teh 6th toughest schedule in the nation. All these point to success, but I guess there are two reason why I don't like UCLA to win it all. First, whenever I watch them, they never seem to have that level of play that the elite teams do, where they can just kick it into high gear and go on a 20-4 run if they're behind. If UCLA gets behind early, I just don't see them coming back. Secondly, I'm unimpressed by their big men. Their tallest player is 6-9, and against teams that have strong inside games, as most of the other elite teasm do, I feel that they can just be dominated.
Prediction: UCLA will probably go far based on their strong backcourt play, but will be pressed to win if they run into a team with anything resembling a dominant big man
Honorable Mentions: Boston College, USC, Texas, Kentucky
Virginia (RPI: 35, SOS: 44)
I think I've seen Virginia play only once this season, but for some reason I'm excited about this team. They opened up the season with what, at the time, was a more impressive win than it appears now, against Arizona. They've also beaten Duke, Clemson and Maryland (2x). They lost by 2 to Purdue, a potential tournament team, 10 to UNC, 5 to BC and 1 to Stanford, so they've put up good fights in all those games. Their bad losses, however, have been very bad- 11 to Appalachain St. (who may be another tournament team at this point, so the loss doesn't look as bad as at first glance), 24 to Utah, and 27 to Va. Tech. So despite tehse bad losses, why do I think Virginina can be successful in the tournment? Like UCLA, they have exceptional backcourt play in J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary (both averaging 18.4 PPG), but have a slightly bigger front line than the Bruins. Make no mistake, I;m not saying that Virginia is better than UCLA; however, I do think that they could cause some problems for other teams and go further in the tournment than people think.
Prediction: Virginia will be seeded anywhere between 5-7, so it really will be dependant on their matchup. However, I could see them going to the sweet 16 if the right matchup comes their way.
Duke (RPI: 10; SOS: 3)
While this might not seem like a darkhorse given Duke's past performance, and believe me, as much as it pains me to even put Duke in this category, I feel that they'll slide under people's radars, especially when peole just look at the records. However, you can't overlook the fact that Duke has played one of the toughest schedules in the country and have been in pretty much every game until the end. A few breaks their way, and we could be looking at a top 5 team right now. Not to mention that 6 of their 7 losses have come in-conference and for my money, the ACC is still the best conference in the nation (seriously, it goes 11 deep. I guarantee you put Wake or NC State in the tournament they win a game or two. Everyone but Miami is competitive).
Now, let me put a disclaimer on this as well. It's a slippery slope with Duke. While I think they are better than their record indicates, I do still think they are a little overrated. Paulus could be the most overrated player, not only point guard, in the country. McRoberts will be a better pro player than he is college player, but he won't even be that great of a pro player. DeMarcus Nelson is their best player, in my opnion, but they don't give him the ball enough. He should run the offense, not Paulus. Nelson can slash to the basket, dump it off to McRoberts when the D collapses or kick it out to Scheyer, who is a pure shooter. But they don't do this becase Duke PGs are and have always been overrated (seriously- Bobby Hurley, Wojo, Jay Williams, Chris Duhon, William Avery- none have ever been good enough to play consistenly at the pro level- Duhon is the closest).
Prediction: Duke will be in the 6-7 range and should go to the elite 8, knocking off at least one big name team on the way there.
(editor's note: I wrote everything above this point yesterday, prior to last night's Wisconsin and Air Force games- both of which they lost. All the more reason to listen to me)
Villanova (RPI: 18; SOS: 4)
For some reason, I really think that Nova is going to do really well in thr tournament. They have a nice backcourt tandem of the experienced Mike Nardi and young gun Scottie Reynolds, and solid big men in Curtis Sumpter and Will Sheridan, who are also veterans. I've watched them play a bunch this season, once live, and liked what I saw every time. They're a little undersized, but similar to George Mason last year, their front court players know how to use that size to their advantage and are stellar rebounders for their height. Reynolds will most likely be the Big East Rookie of the Year and is an electrifying scorer who can shoot the lights out. The have some questionable losses (DePaul, Drexel, Syracuse, Xavier), but have also played a tough schedule and have big wins at GTown and against Notre Dame, Texas, Louisville and Providence. I really like this team and think that they have a chance to go to the Sweet 16, if not further. Plus, Jay Wright is a great coach, something that can't be overlooked come tournament time.
Prediction: Nova gets an 8/9 seed, wins easily in the 1st round and, depending on the #1 seed they play in the second round, could knock them off. If they get past the 1 seed, this team can go as far as the Elite 8.
Santa Clara (RPI: 73; SOS: 144)
Another team that I haven't seen much of, but everything I've heard I've liked. They probably won't go deep in the tournament, but as a low seed are definately an upset special. 5 of their 7 losses have been against solid teams (Kentucky, Air Force, Gonzaga, Nevada, Missouri State) and they have a chance to win the conference that has long been dominated by Gonzaga. Their biggest wins have come against Stanford and Gonzaga.
Prediction: As a 12 seeed, Santa Clara will probably have a good chance to upset the 5 seed. After that, I don't see them going any further.
Honorable Mentions: Notre Dame, Nevada, Louisville, Maryland, Southern Illinois (although they're not really a darkhorse anymore, but I feel like people will underrate them because they don't know enough about them and have them losing early- this is a good team)
The Big Boys
Kansas (RPI: 17, SOS: 63)
North Carolina (RPI: 2, SOS: 7)
Ohio State (RPI: 3, SOS: 34)
Florida (RPI: 7, SOS: 56)
Memphis (RPI: 9, SOS: 58)
I'm just going to group these 5 together and talk about them all at once. These are the top 5 teams, in order, heading into the tournament. Kansas has the most raw talent, UNC has the most depth, OSU has the best player and the most dominant big man, Florida has the best balance and Memphis has the combination of talent, depth and balance that could make tehm deadly.
Kansas just has unbelievable talent- Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Mario Chalmers, Sharron Collins and Darrell Arthur all avergae 10+ points a game. They've beaten Florida, Oklahoma State, BC and Kansas State and other than disappointing losses to Oral Roberts and Depaul and lost to Texas A&M and Texas Tech, two good teams. The last game of the season for them, against Texas, should provide a good measuring stick for where they are come tournment time. Although they've traditionally disappointed in the tournment, exiting far earlier thant they should have, I think this is the year they harness that talent and reach the Final Four, perhaps further.
UNC is talented and deep. They've played the toughest schedule by far of the top 5 teams I have here, beating Tennessee, OSU, Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, BC, FSU, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Clemson, all top 50 RPI teams. Their worst loss was a rivalry game with NC State, and like I said before, NC State is an underrated team as it is. Hansborough, Brandon Wright and Rayshawn Terry make one of the best front lines in college basketball, while Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson (Ray Felton redux) provide a stallar backcourt. They have talent off the bench in Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson, all of whom would probably start on 95% of the other teams, and a sharpshooter in Wes Miller. Not to mention, a Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams. In my opinion, Kansas and UNC are the two heavy favorites to win it all this year.
I've like Ohio State a lot since the beginning of the year; initially, I thought they'd be the surefire national champs, but I've tempered my expecations a bit. Oden has been unbelievable, basically playing the entire season with his off hand and still managing to score while changing the game on the defensive end as well. If both he and Durant declare for the draft, it will be interesting to see who goes first, because both are really, really good. I think they key for Ohio State has been the recent emergence of Mike Conley Jr., Oden's high school teammate, as a the floor leader and an increased scoring threat. This had to happen for OSU to make a run for the national championship. You have to remember that Oden didn't play until December 2 against Valparaiso, meaning OSU played the first 7 games of the season without him (he missed the game against UNC). Then they insert this monster into the lineup, who by the way isn't really fully healed yet so he needs to adjust his game, so the other guys who have played 7 games without him have have a transition period, let's say a month, where they really get used to him fitting into their offensive gameplan. That puts us at game 14 against Illinois. Since that time, they've lost one game, in Wisconsin, by 3 points. Even further, it's only really been since conference play began that Conley has taken charge, and since he's familiar with Oden and how he plays, OSU has been firing on all cylinders ever since. Their big test will be this weekend when they play Wisconsin at home. I'm expecting an OSU victory, with Oden dominating because Wisconsin basically has no one that can stop him. This team has the makings of a national champ, so it will be interesting to watch them in the tournment.
Florida is a very good basketball team, all experienced from their run last year, but I'm not as high on them as other people are, and I'm not as high on them as I am on the three teams I've already talked about. Like I said, they are probably the most balanced team in the country and are great defensively, but I feel their balance hurts them a bit, as they lack that one big play guy who can take over the game for 10 minutes if they need him too (Rush/Wright can both do it for Kansas, Hansborough for UNC, Oden for OSU). Their 3 losses have come to Kansas, Vanderbilt and Florida State, so it's not like they've suffered any devastating losses, but I'm also not impressed with their schedule. Samford, North Florida, Jacksonville, Prairie View A&M, Stetson, Liberty and Western Kentucky don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Kansas, OSU, and Kentucky are the only three teams they've played this season who have been ranked when they played them. Another thing to consider is the fact that Florida played so far into the tournament last season, won it all, have pretty much partied ever since, especially since Florida won the football title as well, played an entire season this year and again have to make a deep run into the tournament, which will sport a much tougher field this year than in years past. Something to consider, and while it might not have that big of an impact on them, it will be very tough for them to repeat.
Memphis is my darkhorse/big boy team. Of the 5, they're the least likely to win it all, but for some reason I always find myself liking them. I like Calipari, I think he's a great college coach, and Memphis has the talent to sneak through if the bracket is favorable for them. Their biggest win has been against Kentucky, while they've fallen to Arizona, Georgia Tech and Tennessee. Honestly, they probably shouldn't be in the same class as the four teams I mentioned above, but call it a gut feeling, I like Memphis this year. I think they can shake up the bracket and will be a team to watch.