It has become official--I don't blog anymore. But despite my totally giving up on documenting my basketball activities throughout the year, I'm still posting my NCAA tournament picks on the off chance that someone still wants to read them. I'm bypassing the usual preamble because 1) anyone who is taking the time to read my picks has undoubtedly read some version of the preamble 4-5 times before and 2) I'm lazy. So let's get right to picking games. Winners are in bold, and I'm refusing to use the NCAA's non-sensical nomenclature and will be referring to the round of 64 as the "First Round" because it's completely ridiculous for the NCAA to refer to the four play-in games as the "First Round" Here we go:
vs. North Carolina A&T or Liberty (16): Per usual, I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about a one seed playing a sixteen seed. The upset has never happened, and I’m not going to be the guy to start picking one now. Let’s just hope North Carolina A&T gets the job done on Tuesday so that Louisville can take on a team with a winning record.
Colorado State (8)
vs. Missouri (9): I know next to nothing about either of these teams, but I do know that Ohio State former walk-on sensation turned writer, Mark Titus, likes to make fun of Mizzou coach Frank Haith
regularly in his weekly power rankings on Grantland (if you’ve not been reading Titus’s weekly pieces this year, you’ve really missed out on something great). So notwithstanding the fact that I’ve had a few great trips to Tropical Liqueurs near the Mizzou campus, I can’t pick a team whose coach is so openly mocked by the nation’s top college basketball humorist.
Oklahoma State (5) vs. Oregon (12)
: My pal Austin is a huge Oregon fan, so I’ve paid a bit of attention to the Ducks this year. My knowledge is minimal, but I can confidently say that along with Illinois, Oregon is one of the more wildly inconsistent teams that I’ve noticed this year. In general, inconsistency is a bad thing. But in the tournament, the fact that a team is inconsistent simply means that it has a chance to play at a level way above its seed. So I’m gambling on the Ducks playing to their ability and depriving the country of the chance to really get to know Marcus Smart. The key word in there, though, is “gambling.”
St. Louis (4)
vs. New Mexico State (13): My friend Peter got a masters degree from NMSU. And while that’s awesome, St. Louis has two guys from Milwaukee in the rotation. So I’m sticking with the local players over my loyalty to my friend.
Memphis (6) vs. Middle Tennessee State/St. Mary’s (11)
: Normally I don’t pick the winner of a play-in game to win its first real tournament game. But I was a fan of St. Mary’s star Matthew Dellavedova
even before my pal Ferd astutely pointed out how much he looks like Curtis Armstrong
, aka Dudley “Booger” Dawson from Revenge of the Nerds. As to Memphis, they went undefeated in Conference USA, which is a) a near-annual occurrence and b) extremely underwhelming. Memphis’s weak conference catches up with them and the Tigers lose here to the best team they’ve played in two months.
Michigan State (3)
vs. Valparaiso (14): Valpo won the Horizon League. I had season tickets for their Horizon league foe UWM this year. And at $50 for the whole year, I could still make an argument that I overpaid for those tickets. A Horizon League team isn’t taking down perennial tournament powerhouse. Michigan State walks through this one.
vs. Cincinnati (10): I thought about just writing Doug McDermott’s name 15 times here, but on second thought, I’m just going to pick against Cincinnati since they were one of the teams that broke out those awful Zubaz-like uniforms last week. And I can’t endorse any team that wears something that ugly.
vs. Albany (15): You’d have to be dumb to pick against a senior-laden Duke team with a 2-seed. I’m not even discussing this.
vs. Colorado State (8): I try to write out most of these picks prior to seeking out any outside analysis, but given that it takes time to write up justification for the winners of 63 games, sometimes I can’t avoid all media. So I know that Alaa Abdelnaby of CBS Sports Network was touting Colorado State as a team that he likes. I’ve always been bitter about the Bucks trading away the draft rights to Tracy Murray for Abdelnaby, so I’m not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on his opinion of the Rams (I’m sort of re-thinking even picking them over Missouri now). Louisville moves on.
St. Louis (4)
vs. Oregon (12): St. Louis is my team of destiny this year (i.e. the team that I think is going to succeed for reasons beyond being good at basketball). Considered to be a talented veteran team coming into the year, the fact that Rick Majerus was forced to take a leave of absence from coaching the Billikens and later died on them could have either brought the team closer together or torn it apart. It appears to have done the former, and St. Louis is a legit 4-seed this year, and not just some random mid-major that everyone’s getting unjustifiably excited about.
Michigan State (3)
vs. St. Mary’s (11): Yeah, like I’m really going to pick a team that’s not even guaranteed to be playing in the game that precedes this one to beat the most consistently solid tournament performer of the last decade and a half.
vs. Creighton (7): Doug McDermott is a big, white senior who’s a candidate for player of the year. If anyone knows a thing or two about a guy with that profile, it’s Duke. Thus, the Blue Devils keep McDermott under control and continue on.
Louisville (1) vs. St. Louis (4)
: I said that St. Louis was the team of destiny in the last round, and if I’m being straight with you, I don’t know that I truly buy that proclamation. But this year Louisville is that team that I hate dealing with in the tournament. I know they’re good, and I don’t deny that they’ve got a 1-seed for good reason, but there’s something I just don’t buy about them. If I’m going to take a risk on an early 1-seed upset, too, I like the fact that whoever wins this game has to face one of the next two teams that I’m going to discuss. Having a roadblock like that really mitigates the risk in picking this upset.
vs. Michigan State (3): Here’s the round where I usually pick either Duke or Michigan State and give the justification of “There’s no team that’s more regularly successful in March than Duke/Michigan State.” No one else gets that justification–these are the two most solidly-coached, consistently-built-to-make-a-tournament-tournament run teams in the country. I can’t pull that trump card for both teams and have it determine the outcome when they’re playing one-another, though. And Duke has more talent, so I have to go with them (though it hurts my soul a little bit to have to pull the talent card when I’m talking about a team that gets its orders from Coach K).
vs. St. Louis (4): I’ve called St. Louis my “team of destiny.” Krzyzewski trumps destiny every time.
vs. Southern University (16): My friend Jesse noted during the selection show that Kelly Olynyk looks like Jay, of Jay and Silent Bob fame. So that’s sort of fun. Also, fun fact about Olynyk–while he’s in the discussion for national player of the year honors and is being discussed as an NBA lottery pick, the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook didn’t even project him as a starter for Gonzaga this year. Has anyone ever burst onto the scene more decisively?
vs. Wichita State (9): This one was a tough call. How do you pick against a team whose mascot is the Wheat Shockers? But ultimately, even though this year’s Pitt squad wasn’t amazing, I’m picking them here because I love how tough and hard-nosed Jamie Dixon’s teams always are. The Panthers are probably my favorite non-Marquette team in the soon-to-be-dissolved Big East.
vs. Ole Miss (12): I actually saw a few Ole Miss games earlier this year. Mostly during that one week when Marshall Henderson was getting tons of national attention for being a) a phenomenal basketball player and b) a tremendous douchebag. I like Ole Miss. A lot. I’d pick the Rebels as an upset team against most of the other 5-seeds in the tourney, and all of the 6-seeds. But if we’ve learned one thing during the past week, it’s that Wisconsin is great at taking up-tempo teams out of their game. And that’s what’s going to happen here. Look for lots of crisp passes, triple threat position, and tough rebounding as the Badgers grind one out.
Kansas State (4)
vs. Boise State/LaSalle (13): I already picked on play-in winner to advance, and I’m not picking a second here. The Wildcats move on.
Arizona (6) vs. Belmont (11)
: I’m underwhelmed by the Pac 12, so here’s my virtually unsupported first-round upset pick.
New Mexico (3)
vs. Harvard (14): Here’s an interesting thought–six or seven years ago, New Mexico coach Steve Alford and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker were the two most mediocre coaches in the Big Ten. And both have oddly gone on to much success at their new schools. But Alford’s had more. It’s probably easier for him, having scholarships to give out an what not, whereas Amaker has to find semi-smart kids who want to pay their own way to go to school at Harvard and also happen to have some basketball ability. There’s only so much relaxing of academic standards that you can do to make up for that. New Mexico moves on.
Notre Dame (7) vs. Iowa State (10)
: I’m torn on Notre Dame. On one hand, I think Mike Brey is a solid coach. On the other hand, nothing jumps off the page about the Irish this year. And while I was going to try to get through this matchup without mentioning it, I don’t see how I can ignore that Notre Dame’s neon-green uniforms are utterly embarrassing to pretty much everyone who has ever worn clothing of any kind. So I’m going with Iowa State, which has become a popular option in recent years for Wisconsin high school hoops stars. And yes, Korie Lucious
really is still around.
Ohio State (2)
vs. Iona (15): The Buckeyes knocked off my Badgers to win the Big Ten tournament, so I think I’m morally obligated to pick them in the first round.
vs. Pitt (8): I love it when people who have probably seen Gonzaga play less than 10 minutes this year dismiss them as a fraudulent 1-seed because they play in the WCC. Those hoops gurus who can’t be bothered to stay up past 10pm to watch the Bulldogs deserve to be shown the error of their ways, so I have to pick Gonzaga. (By the way, please conveniently overlook the fact that I’ve seen less than 10 minutes of Memphis this year and have picked them to bow out early because they play in conference USA. Pointing out that inconsistency in my reasoning would be way too embarrassing for me.)
Kansas State (4) vs. Wisconsin (5)
: This is one of the tougher picks on the board. On one hand, Wisconsin should be able to beat Bruce Weber. I mean, they used to do it all the time. On the other hand, Bruce Weber tends to do well when he’s coaching players that he didn’t personally recruit. I honestly don’t know which way to go, so I’m just going to make the homer call and take the Badgers.
New Mexico (3)
vs. Belmont (11): Even if Belmont doesn’t pull of this random upset and Arizona’s sitting there in place of the Bruins, New Mexico’s been getting it done for enough years now that it’s time to start trusting them in March. And so that’s what I’m doing.
Ohio State (2)
vs. Iowa State (10): Even before they went on their run in the Big Ten tourney, I was a fan of Ohio State. And when I started reading Mark Titus’s book, my respect for Thad Matta increased tenfold. So the Buckeyes send Iowa State and its gaggle of transfers packing.
vs. Wisconsin (5): I can give you a lot of justifications for Wisconsin winning this one. Jared Berggren matches up well with Gonzaga’s top player. The Badgers are battle-tested, and have beaten teams that are just as good, if not better, than the Bulldogs. Gonzaga’s up-tempo attack is just the sort of thing that is most vulnerable to Wisconsin’s disciplined approach to the game. But at the end of the day, I thing that a) Gonzaga is simply a better team and b) Wisconsin always seems to have difficulty pulling together three straight well-played games. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.
Ohio State (2)
vs. New Mexico (3): Good Lord, I have no idea who to pick here. I like them both, and wish one of them had been in another region. The coin that I just flipped says Ohio State, though, so I’m sticking with that.
vs. Ohio State (2): Everyone hates Gonzaga as a 1-seed, which is why I have to take them. When everyone else likes to zig, I like to zag (yes, nod your head to that inadvertent play on words by me right there). Seriously, though–when have you ever seen a 1-seed that could be considered a value play? Mark Few says this is his best team ever, and who am I to doubt him?
vs. Western Kentucky (16): I miss the days when Western Kentucky was a mid-major darling instead of a 16-seed. The Hilltoppers were never a 16-seed when Anthony Winchester was playing.
North Carolina (8)
vs. Villanova (9): Early in the season, North Carolina was not a tournament-level team. If the Heels had been playing the way they’ve been the last few weeks, they wouldn’t be an 8-seed. Here’s your value play, friends.
Virginia Commonwealth (5)
vs. Akron (12): Two years later, it’s clear that Shaka Smart didn’t just get lucky with his first tournament run.
vs. South Dakota State (13): I’m picking this one solely on the basis of which team’s players’ fathers have logged the most NBA minutes. So we’re looking at a Michigan blowout.
UCLA (6) vs. Minnesota (11)
: I love this matchup of arguably the two most dysfunctional teams in the tournament. UCLA’s past chemistry problems under Ben Howland are well documented, and it seems like little has changed in Brentwood. As for Minnesota, perhaps the whole team isn’t dysfunctional, but let’s be honest–Trevor Mbakwe is a total jackass. But he’s an insanely talented jackass, so I’m taking the Gophers in an upset.
vs. Northwestern State (14): When Florida beat the tar out of both Wisconsin and Marquette early in the season, I was getting ready for the Gators to walk away with the NCAA championship. I’m backing off a bit after some lesser performances of late, but Florida still gets out of the first round.
San Diego State (7)
vs. Oklahoma (10): Picking Steve Fisher is always oddly fun.
vs. Florida Gulf Coast (15): I love that people keep doubting Georgetown when they’re completely awesome. I’ll talk more about that later, though, since it’s worthless to justify the reason that a 2-seed will win.
Kansas (1) vs. North Carolina (8)
: It’s a little known fact that I have a huge blind spot for Kansas. I’ve not seen the Jayhawks play an entire game this season, or probably during any of the past three seasons. It makes essentially no sense, as Kansas frequently plays prime-time, nationally televised games, is possibly the greatest program of all time from a historical perspective, and has great uniforms. I should love watching them, but instead I have somehow come to more or less deny their existence. My brain knows that Kansas is one of the top teams in the country, not just because they always are, but because they’ve chalked up a 1-seed this year. All that said, though, I’m ready to do the unthinkable and fully commit to this idea that North Carolina’s is playing like a 4-seed now, but has to be given an 8-seed because they spent the first half of the season playing like a team that was bound to lose in the semi-finals of the NIT. Don’t make me look stupid, Tarheels.
Michigan (4) vs. VCU (5)
: Look, I think that Michigan has the talent to win this entire tournament. And let’s face it–watching John Beilein-coached teams (particularly one with these athletes) is pure fun. But one of my most frequent hoops-watching pals was friends with Wisconsin native Shaka Smart while growing up. And that’s just the kind of completely irrelevant factor that I just can’t ignore.
vs. Minnesota (11): Minnesota simply isn’t winning two tournament games. The idea that that could happen is laughable. And if I’m wrong about the Gophers actually winning their first game, the alternative opponent is UCLA, for whom two tourney wins is even more laughable. Florida’s in the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s not even a question.
vs. San Diego State (7): Dear people that only watch basketball in March and don’t really know that much about hoops: I’d like to introduce you to Otto Porter. I think you’re going to like him.
Virginia Commonwealth (5)
vs. North Carolina (8): If you can’t pick the consistently good mid-major who’s sitting three seeds higher than arguably the greatest college basketball program of all time, I can’t talk to you anymore because you have no soul.
vs. Florida (3): We’re getting to the point where it’s tough to justify these things, so I guess I’ll just pick one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions over a school from the state with a good percentage of the nation’s most insanely foolish people.
vs. VCU (5): Both great programs with great coaches. It’s a tough call, but I’m going with Georgetown because a) as a fan of Wisconsin, I’m morally obligated to root for the team that is often overlooked due to its decidedly unsexy style of play, and b) if given the choice, I’d rather live in D.C. than Richmond, Virginia (apologies to my family that lives in Richmond, but you have to concede that D.C. is awesome).
vs. LIU-Brooklyn/James Madison (16): Even Tom Crean can’t screw this one up.
N.C. State (8)
vs. Temple (9): A close friend of mine did grad school at N.C. State. So I’m picking the Wolfpack because of that. Oh, and their ability to stockpile loads and loads of talent.
UNLV (5) vs. California (12)
: Look, I’m going to level with you–I don’t know anything about UNLV. Yeah, I’ve heard of Mike Moser, but I can’t tell you why he’s great. And if you’re going to pick an upset game, it’s usually a bit less emotionally difficult to make the pick when there’s a gap in your knowledge that doesn’t allow you to credibly make the case for why the favorite should win. So go Cal Bears!
vs. Montana (13): I don’t even know what Montana’s school colors are. It’s in Montana, so I’m guessing it involves earth tones. As for Syracuse, they’re so up front with what their colors are that they made one of them their mascot. It’s straightforwardness like that which makes me choose the Orange here.
vs. Bucknell (11): As one of the top mid-majors out there on a year-to-year basis, Butler always runs a risk of being overrated. And the Bulldogs might be slightly overrated, but there’s no denying that Brad Stevens is a basically a genius. And he seems likeable, so I can’t pick his team to lose in the first round.
vs. Davidson (14): Davidson lost to UWM earlier this season. If you made it to the Klotsche Center to see UWM this year, you recognize how embarrassed Wildcats should be about that fact. And while I recognize that Davidson is significantly better than it was in that one terrible game, I can’t imagine a world where UWM managed to beat a team that Marquette could not. (Fun note: UW-Green Bay went collectively 4-0 against UWM and Marquette this year.)
Illinois (7) vs. Colorado (10)
: Remember earlier how I was saying that Oregon’s inconsistency made them a decent gamble to pull off an upset? That theory works in reverse, too. Illinois has been the most completely unpredictable team I’ve seen this year. One night they look like they could win the national championship, and the next night you find yourself wondering how they pulled off a winning record. So if you’re looking for an upset (albeit a mild one), you could do worse than picking against the Illini and hoping the horrid version of their team shows up.
vs. Pacific (15): Jim Larranaga appears on a D.C. radio show that I often listen to, and I like him. So, onward goes Miami.
vs. N.C. State (8): As a fan of a team that has beaten Indiana twice this year, I have a sense of what a successful plan to take down the Hoosiers looks like. Here’s a hint–throwing a team of loosely-coached, talented athletes from the ACC at them is the exact wrong approach. The Hooisers advance and it’s not close.
vs. California (12): I can’t get excited about either of these teams. So when in doubt, I take the legendary coach that is more or less the nation’s foremost expert on zone defense.
vs. Butler (6): I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this game, mostly because I can’t wait to see the looks of disgust on the faces of all of my hardcore Marquette-fan friends as CBS repeatedly re-runs the clip of Rotnei Clarke hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to take down Marquette in the Maui Invitational at the start of the season. I put the over-under on number of times we’re going to see this clip during the broadcast at roughly 35,000. Unfortunately for Butler, the only people that are going to be more perturbed than Marquette fans by the memories of Clarke’s phenomenal shot are the Marquette players themselves. Given that Marquette is fueled by emotion in much the same way that my car is fueled by gas, I can’t fathom a scenario where they lose to the team that beat them on a play that they had to re-live over and over again this year. Marquette wins, and wins angry.
vs. Colorado (10): Miami’s on the scene, just in case you didn’t know it.
vs. Syracuse (4): Every part of my body wants to see my grandfather’s favorite team (Syracuse) take down my least favorite human being involved in college athletics (Tom Crean). But I fear that I’d only be picking the upset here because of my thorough dislike of Mr. Crean. And the last thing I want to be is completely irrational, so I’ve got to stick with the Hoosiers, who I suspect are actually a pretty likeable bunch of guys once you get past their leader.
vs. Marquette (3): I’ll let you in a secret–I’m less excited about this Marquette team than any Marquette team in recent memory. I think it’s the lack of star power. No one can deny that Vander Blue had an excellent junior year and is poised for a breakout season as a senior, but neither he nor any of his teammates captures my attention like Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward or (to a lesser extent) Darius Johnson-Odom did. (Sorry, Davante Gardner–I was your biggest fan until I had to spend the entire season listening to you scream like you’d just been hit in the knees with a tire iron every time you tossed in a layup while there was a defender within five feet of you.) Miami wins this one, and we can maybe talk about a deeper Marquette run next year if Blue takes home New Big East player-of-the-year honors and incoming freshman Duane Wilson provides as much support as I think he will in the MU backcourt.
Indiana (1) vs. Miami (2)
: You and I both know that I’ve been looking for an excuse to pick Indiana to lose prior to the Final Four, and Miami finally gives me a reasonable way of doing so. Let’s talk head coaches for a moment. In 2006, Jim Larranaga took a team from a commuter school in the Colonial Athletic Association to the Final Four, the NCAA’s biggest stage. Now he has power conference players at Miami. As to Tom Crean, I’ll begrudgingly admit that he’s an amazing promoter and recruiter, and seems to be able to motivate his players. But if I’m in a tight game and I need someone who understands basketball, he’s not the guy I want running the show for my team. So gleefully, I’m taking the Hurricanes to bounce the Big Ten champs in a tight one.
Gonzaga (1) vs. Duke (2)
: Holy crap, what have I done? What if everyone is right about Gonzaga having played no tough competition in their mediocre mid-major conference? And I’ve picked them to the Final Four? I can’t take the risk of going any further with this. Any options to take them out? Duke? You mean that team that everyone hates because they’re seemingly always in the top-10, recruit a bunch of all-Americans every year, and has the most well-respected active coach in the game? Yeah, I guess that would be a good team to cop out with.
Georgetown (2) vs. Miami (2)
: I want to pick both of these teams through to the finals. Miami is the semi-upstart team that snuck up on the traditional powers of the ACC to steal the league’s regular season and conference tournament championships. Georgetown is the perpetually workman-like team (albeit one with a superstar player) that quietly goes about its business and racks up win after win without ever being a trendy pick. In the end, though, Miami flipping the balance of power in the country just feels more fun to me, so I’m going with the ‘Canes (and effectively invalidating my scolding of others for not paying attention to the boring old Hoyas).
Duke (2) vs. Miami (2)
: Every year when I fill out a bracket, there’s one team that gets to at least the Final Four that doesn’t make sense to me on a macro level. This year, that’s Duke. If you just asked me what teams I thought would make the Final Four and didn’t show me a bracket, Duke probably wouldn’t have been in the first ten teams I named. But then I start picking actual games and this team that I don’t love and find flawed in multiple ways is suddenly in the finals. So as this implies, I’m picking Miami. But in order to make it official, let’s do some actual hackneyed analysis:
Duke and Miami split the pair of games that they played against one another this season. Miami beat the Blue Devils down 90-63 on January 23 in Miami, forcing everyone who wasn’t paying attention to recognize their national relevance. When Duke hosted Miami on March 2, they got revenge on the Hurricanes, winning 79-76. I only watched the latter game. The two most notable things about that game were that a) Ryan Kelly’s 36-point outburst in his return from a lengthy absence due to a foot injury was probably the best individual performance I witnessed all season and b) Duke needed every bit of Kelly’s herculean effort to win that game. We’re in for a treat if we see a repeat of the efforts put forth by both teams in that game. But given that Kelly’s performance was a once-in-a-season sort of thing, my money is on Miami’s high level of play being more repeatable than Duke’s. So Shane Larkin and friends will be taking a championship trophy back with them to Coral Gables.
So there you have it. Check back in a week to tell me how ridiculously wrong I was, and enjoy the tournament!