Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My 2010 NCAA Tournament Picks

It’s that time again–the NCAA tournament. Yes, I’ve been absent since mid-season when I officially gave up on jotting down entertaining bullet points about games that I’ve watched. While I've punted away the season in terms of documenting it on the blog, I've not stopped watching large amounts of basketball. And since I still get the occasional question from family and friends looking for guidance on picks, I figured it was time to dust off my keyboard and put forth my picks, if for no other reason than having an easy place to guide folks to when they ask my thoughts. As usual, I’m less informed that you’d think, as most of my time as a basketball junkie is focused on seeing local teams and sneaking in high school games on the cheap. I’ve seen a little bit of most of the top teams, but I’m certainly no expert on most of them, as my justifications for each pick will surely reveal. So listen to me at your own risk.

Before I get to this year’s picks, though, it’s time for my annual restatement of my general rules for filling out NCAA tourney brackets:

1) Don’t just completely steal my picks (or anyone else’s, for that matter). I don’t mind it personally, but what fun is that for you? Think of it this way–what’s going to be more fulfilling to you: telling the guy in the cube next to you that you “totally called” UTEP knocking off Butler, or telling him that some guy whose picks you followed got it knew that Purdue was going to be better than expected. Listen to advice from your doctor or your financial advisor, but the NCAA tournament is supposed to be fun. So relax and follow your instincts.

2) Don’t go crazy with upsets, particularly in the first two rounds. The NCAA selection committee knows more than you, and they’ve seeded these teams for a reason. Sure, you’re no fun if you don’t go out on a limb here or there, but picking 14 first round upsets isn’t just bold, it’s stupid. Yeah, you’re probably going to have a friend that picks that miracle 10-seed that made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and he’s not going to shut up about it. He’s probably not talking so much about the 5-seed and the 7-seed that he had in the Final Four who both lost the first day, though. My picks are notoriously and painfully boring, and I make no apologies for that, even though someone inevitably comments below to complain about my lack of originality and insight every year.

3) Have fun and make some picks for goofy reasons. There are 64 teams in this tournament, and unless your name is Jay Bilas, you probably haven’t seen all of them. So go ahead and pick Oakland to win a game because your favorite cousin from Michigan goes there, or pick against Louisville because you dated a girl who went there and was totally wrong for you. After all, last year wasn’t your pool won by that guy in your office who just picked teams based on the ferocity of their mascot? See, you need some quirks, too.

On to the picks. As always, winners are in bold. (And as a final FYI, I’ll have at least one more post to wrap up the season–a look at the financial impact of basketball on me in these tough economic times.)

First Round

Midwest Regional: First Round

Kansas (1) vs. Lehigh (16): For the team generally considered the best in the country, I really didn’t see much of Kansas this year. I’m still not sweating this one, though.

UNLV (8)vs. Northern Iowa (9): I think we’re past the point where Northern Iowa and their Missouri Valley Conference brothers are trendy picks, so I feel safe picking the Panthers here.

Michigan State (5) vs. New Mexico State (12): My good friend Peter is currently working towards a masters degree at NMSU. Peter’s previous university affiliations included Arizona State, back when absolutely no one was going to their games and Missouri, just as Quin Snyder was bringing massive scandals to the program. Because having Peter at your institution is a basketball curse, I’m going with MSU.

Maryland (4) vs. Houston (13): My favorite radio show out of D.C. occasionally has Gary Williams on as a guest, so the inadvertent emotional attachment to the Terps that I’ve formed forces me to pick them.

Tennessee (6) vs. San Diego State (11): The fact that Steve Fisher, generally considered to be a weak coach at Michigan, can consistently field solid teams at San Diego State is somewhat mind-boggling. And while the inherent inconsistency of Tennessee always makes it possible for the Vols to blow a game, I just can’t accept a loss to a Fisher team.

Georgetown (3) vs. Ohio (14): At the start of the year, I thought Georgetown was over-rated. I’ve changed my mind after seeing how Greg Monroe progressed and how Austin Freeman has quickly rebounded after his recent diabetes diagnosis. Oh, and I’m finally accepting that John Thompson III is a pretty outstanding coach, not just the son of an outstanding coach.

Georgia Tech (10) vs. Oklahoma State (7): Not knowing enough to form a valid opinion, I’m taking Georgia Tech. I have no good reason for doing so. If I need to add a fun fact about one of the teams, then I’ll note that I still maintain that Oklahoma State’s arena is the one college basketball venue that I would most like to see a game at of all the places that I’ve never been to.

Ohio State (2) vs. UC Santa Barbara (15): Club Trillion is much more amusing when the Buckeyes are winning, so I’m counting on Evan Turner and company for a win here.

West Regional: First Round

Syracuse (1) vs. Vermont (16): I didn’t even really know that Vermont had its own state school. Do they have dorms, or do the students just stay in bed and breakfasts?

Gonzaga (8) vs. Florida State (9): We’ve finally reached a year in which I can’t decide whether Gonzaga is under-rated due to playing in a mid-major conference or over-rated because everyone knows they’ve evolved past mid-major status. Is it possible that they’re actually properly rated? If so, I have to take them, because they’re the higher seed in this round.

Butler (5) vs. UTEP (12): Butler went undefeated in Horizon League play, which should be enough for me to pick them. However, I saw them play a few times, and feel like they’re more vulnerable than their record indicates. This one could burn me, but I’m picking a UTEP team that’s only lost one game in the past month.

Vanderbilt (4) vs. Murray State (13): Last night I saw a computer nerd on one of ESPN’s bracket analysis shows mentioning that his computer analysis said that Murray State was the most likely upset team not just of this tournament, but of the last five years. First off, I’m not buying that. Secondly, if word’s out about this one, I’d prefer not to follow the masses into a trendy upset pick that won’t net me as many catch-up points. So Vandy it is.

Minnesota (11) vs. Xavier (6): Tubby Smith should be given a medal for what he’s done his obstacle-laden team this year. Despite a bizarre number of roster problems, he’s managed to field a team that can win games. They’re not a great team and they're not a sure bet every night, but when things are clicking, the Gophers are a tough out, as they repeatedly proved in the Big Ten Tournament. Their placement in Milwaukee and my state’s kinship with our neighbors to the northwest only bodes well for their reception when they take the floor at the Bradley Center.

Pittsburgh (3) vs. Oakland (14): I’ve seen both teams play in person this year. Pitt’s the kind of team that I’d want to cheer for if couldn’t cheer for my local favorites. Oakland is the type of team that’s always good, but never quite good enough (all while wearing cool jerseys). And that’s why I have to take Pitt.

BYU (7) vs. Florida (10): Florida was widely rumored to be on the bubble, but got a #10 seed. I suspect that the committee knows something about them that I don’t in order to rank them this highly.

Kansas State (2) vs. North Texas (15): While it pains me to pick against a team whose nickname is “The Mean Green,” I’m afraid that I have to.

East Regional: First Round

Kentucky (1) vs. East Tennessee State (16): I hear this John Wall guy is pretty good...

Texas (8) vs. Wake Forest (9): Really? Can I pick neither? Both teams have been dreadful during the final stretch of the season. Texas was ranked #1 for a bit, though, so I guess I’ll coast on those memories.

Temple (5) vs. Cornell (12): Tough pick for me. I know nothing about Temple, as I figured the Owls would become irrelevant after the John Chaney era. I continue to be wrong. Meanwhile, Cornell is one of the only Ivy League teams that I’ve ever seen create a buzz during my lifetime. I’d like to pick Cornell here, but I’ve heard some TV commentators who are very high on Temple, so I’ll defer to others’ wisdom.

Wisconsin (4) vs. Wofford (13): This may be the most boring game of all time, given that both play very deliberate styles of basketball. But in a boring game, I’ll always take the Badgers.

Marquette (6) vs. Washington (11): This may end up being the most exciting first round game to watch, given that both teams always seem to give a maximum effort. While the Pac-10 was dreadful this year, Washington is one of those teams that just never seems to be all that bad. You never know what’s going to happen when Marquette takes the floor these days, but their history of winning close games bodes well for this one. Lazar Hayward and Quincy Pondexter should have a battle for the ages.

New Mexico (3) vs. Montana (14): I never want to live in either place, but Montana scares me more. So I’m picking the Lobos.

Clemson (7) vs. Missouri (10): Tigers vs. Tigers–I love it! My Clemson-grad cousin is predicting an early loss for her alma mater, but I still like them in the first round. Truth be told, I’m probably making this pick mostly out of bitterness over my one failed attempt to see a game at Missouri a few years back.

West Virginia (2) vs. Morgan State (15): It’s tough not to respect a team that wins the Big East tournament, so I’ll stick with the obvious choice of West Virginia.

South Regional: First Round

Duke (1) vs. Play-In Winner (16): My stance on the play-in game is well documented, but I’ll offer a refresher. Wednesday night Winthrop and Arkansas-Pine Bluff will meet in a small, nondescript gym like the ones that they usually play in and play a game that no one outside of their immediate fan bases care about. One team will lose, go home, and never get to experience the once-in-a-lifetime joy of playing at a huge arena in front of a sell-out crowd. Meanwhile, a mediocre Florida team that scooped up one of the last spots in the tourney will get the opportunity to play another in a long line of games in front of a huge audience and hopefully win one more game so that their fans don’t feel like the season is a total loss. Something about that doesn’t seem right.

Louisville (9) vs. California (8): Each year during basketball season I order the Directv expanded sports package, mostly so that I can watch Pac-10 games late at night. This year, the Pac-10 was truly wretched and I didn’t come close to getting my money’s worth on the package, as there were so few games worth watching. So I have to pick Louisville to win this one. I’m largely unimpressed by the Cardinals, but my spite over the fact that the Pac-10 provided me nearly no entertainment value for my dollar this season wins out.

Texas A&M (5) vs. Utah State (12): When you don’t know much about either team, go with the higher seed (even in the infamous 5-12 matchups).

Purdue (4) vs. Sienna (13): Yes, I know Robbie Hummel is done for the year. That doesn’t change the fact that JaJuan Johnson, Keaton Grant and E’Twaun Moore are still talented and well-coached. This may be a popular upset pick, but I’m not falling for the hype.

Notre Dame (6) vs. Old Dominion (11): It seems like just two weeks ago that people were wondering if Notre Dame would make the tournament. The reason that it seems that way is because people really were wondering whether the Irish would make the cut. That near-bubble status may concern some people, but I take the opposite view–if a team can suddenly and successfully reinvent itself like Notre Dame has over the past few weeks and work their way up to 6-seed, then I expect them to continue doing things right, at least for a little while.

Baylor (3) vs. Sam Houston State (14): Every time I see Baylor on TV, I’m continually amazed that they’re a good team. I mean, teams have overcome academic issues or violations involving paying of players, but it was only a handful of years ago that Baylor had a murder scandal. I’ll say that again: a murder scandal. Any school that can gut the program and rebuild from something like that as quickly as Baylor did has to sort of impress you, so they get my pick.

Richmond (7) vs. St. Mary’s (10): Great mascot matchup, as the Spiders take on the Gaels. I’m taking St. Mary’s in this one because they’re from the same conference as Gonzaga, consistently lag just a half step behind Gonzaga and won the conference championship from Gonzaga this year. Thus, my theory is that they’re essentially like Gonzaga 10 years ago, before anyone knew exactly how good the Bulldogs were.

Villanova (2) vs. Robert Morris (15): I have a cousin who attended Robert Morris, but my family loyalty goes out the window here due to the fact that Scottie Reynolds was the most entertaining player that I watched all year.

Second Round

Midwest Regional: Second Round

Kansas (1) vs. Northern Iowa (9): When one of the top mid-majors of the year takes on the top power conference team of the year, you simply have to take the power conference team.

Maryland (4) vs. Michigan State (5): Maryland has a coach that’s won it all in Gary Williams, one of my favorite players to watch in Greivis Vasquez, and has sort of flown under the radar after going through a few down years and playing in a weaker-than-usual ACC this year. I should pick them to win, but I can’t. Why? You’re utterly stupid if you pick against Tom Izzo and the Spartans in the tourney. They always seem to go on a run, even when it doesn’t quite make sense.

Tennessee (6) vs. Georgetown (3): I hate picking Tennessee games. While this year’s team is more steady than most, all Bruce Pearl-coached teams are the type of squad that can either blow the doors off of their opponent or completely embarrass themselves on a given night. You never know which team will show up. I hate picking Bruce Pearl, who has always seemed vaguely dirty to me (though admittedly, I have no facts to validate this feeling), over John Thompson III, who seems like a guy that does things the right way. But I have to pick the Vols, because their upside is always so high.

Ohio State (2) vs. Georgia Tech (10): If Ohio State plays all season with Evan Turner, they’re probably a #1 seed. I haven’t seen many teams in the country as good as the Buckeyes, and now is when they start proving it to the nation.

West Regional: Second Round

Syracuse (1) vs. Gonzaga (8): The excitement and speed of this game will be high, but ultimately Gonzaga will wilt as Syracuse gets Arinze Onuaku back from his leg injury just in the nick of time.

UTEP (12) vs. Vanderbilt (4): Twelve seeds usually only get one upset, so sorry UTEP, you’re going home.

Minnesota (11) vs. Pittsburgh (3): Minnesota’s hot streak comes to an end here. While the Gophers are hard-nosed, Pitt is even more so, and has a bit more talent.

Kansas State (2) vs. Florida (10): I can’t seem to watch Kansas State home games on TV. I hate looking at their arena–it just looks like a terrible, cheaply made place to play. Of course, every time I did turn on a bit of a K-State game this year, they were on the verge of knocking off someone good. That has to count for something.

East Regional: Second Round

Kentucky (1) vs. Texas (8): Kentucky wins this one, as Texas has collapsed down the stretch and can’t be all that confident at this point. However, there’s a bigger point to be made here–keep an eye on the East region, as the conspiracy theorist in me thinks that the NCAA has tired of the black mark that John Calipari keeps leaving on the game and has schemed to craft a bracket that is geared towards preventing Kentucky from getting to the Final Four. The first obstacle here is subtle (as it needs to be in the second round), but how many #8 seeds can you think of that were ever ranked #1 in the country?

Wisconsin (4) vs. Temple (5): Based on total lack of knowledge about Temple and a huge amount of homer sentiment, I’ll take the Badgers here. They got all of their bad shooting out of the way in the Big Ten Tournament, right?

Marquette (6) vs. New Mexico (3): Bad memories of Steve Alford’s stint at Iowa make it impossible for me to pick him here. Marquette wins going away and shoots its usual 65% from the arc in doing so. This pick has an added bonus for you if you're not from Wisconsin, as local excitement and knowledge of the Golden Eagles is bound to increase the number of Wisconsinites picking them through to the Sweet Sixteen. If you thought Buzz Williams was overly emotional and way too candid on the Marquette radio post-game show, just wait until you see him make it to the second weekend of the tournament.

Clemson (7) vs. West Virginia (2): For a team that I didn’t respect at the start of the year, WVU has proven me to be a fool, taking the Big East tournament crown in impressive fashion. Hopefully their hillbilly fans won’t throw things onto the court during this one.

South Regional: Second Round

Duke (1)vs. Louisville (9): Duke begins its path as that team that I don’t necessarily love, but whose path is paved by teams that I truly cannot get behind. Louisville is one such team, even if the presence of Jerry Smith still gives me a small soft spot for the Cardinals.

Texas A&M (5) vs. Purdue (4): Looking to zig when everyone else is zagging, I’ll take Purdue here. Everyone’s going to be picking A&M, since it’s no secret that Purdue’s seeding is in large part based on wins that they accumulated before star forward Robbie Hummel was lost to a knee injury. Do I trust the Boilermakers here? Heck no–I saw part of their dreadful performance against Minnesota. But when else can you gain upset cache by picking the higher seeded team? This is unique opportunity.

Notre Dame (6) vs. Baylor (3): Notre Dame is resurgent, but Baylor is flat out good, so I’m going with the Bears.

Villanova (2) vs. St. Mary’s (10): I’ve had the discussion many times about how many really good, but not quite great teams there are in the country this year. I always bring Villanova’s name up at some point in that discussion, so they’re not losing in the second round, no matter how proud of St. Mary’s I am for winning their conference tournament.

Sweet Sixteen

Midwest Regional: Sweet Sixteen

Kansas (1) vs. Michigan State (5): Finally, some powerhouse schools get to play one another. I said last round that it’s nearly impossible to pick against the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. However, when they’re playing the consensus top team in the tournament, picking against them gets a lot easier.

Tennessee (6) vs. Ohio State (2): Ohio State showed some cracks in the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes needed a ridiculous 35-foot shot to defeat Michigan and two overtimes to defeat Illinois. Neither opponent was deemed NCAA tournament-worthy. Despite the doubts raised by those performances, though, the fact that I’ve got them playing Tennessee means that I have to pick Ohio State. I learned last year what happens when you rely on picking a team as inconsistent as Tennessee to go deep into the tournament. It doesn’t end well for your bracket.

West Regional: Sweet Sixteen

Syracuse (1) vs. Vanderbilt (4): Vanderbilt could be a sneaky team, but when Syracuse is on (which is most of the time), I feel like they’re the best team in the country, so I’m advancing the Orange here.

Pittsburgh (3) vs. Kansas State (2): I think logic dictates that Kansas State wins this one, as the Wildcats have been playing very well down the stretch. But I’m not a logical guy. When Pitt played at Marquette a few weeks back, I remember saying to my friend Dez “You know, Pitt’s not the best or most talented team that I’ve seen this year, but they play like I’d want my favorite team to play.” After the first two rounds, every pick is something of a risk, and who better to take a risk on than a team who’s style of play you believe in?

East Regional: Sweet Sixteen

Kentucky (1) vs. Wisconsin (4): Much as I hate to admit it, I think Kentucky’s talent wins out over my beloved Badgers’ relentless consistency. But more importantly, let’s jump back into my conspiracy theory about the NCAA crafting a bracket to prey on Kentucky’s weaknesses. Here, an extremely youthful Kentucky squad would have to take on a junior and senior dominated Wisconsin team. And if there’s one way to defeat the overwhelming youthful talent of guys like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, it’s with consistent veterans who won’t back down (adding to my conspiracy theory, both Temple and Cornell also apparently fit this bill). I’m just saying...

Marquette (6) vs. West Virginia (2): Marquette on a few days rest is a dangerous team and should scare anyone in the country. That said, West Virginia is just too hot for me to pick against them right now, and they’ve got the psychological upper-hand after beating Marquette by one point when the teams met earlier this year.

South Regional: Sweet Sixteen

Duke (1) vs. Purdue (4): There’s only so far that I can pick Purdue after the Robbie Hummel injury, no matter how well-coached they are, or how much I expect other star players to pick up the slack for him. I’ve taken my shot with the Boilers, but now Duke moves on to (hopefully) see their first true challenge of the bracket.

Baylor (3) vs. Villanova (2): I could really make the case for either team here, but will pick Baylor simply to mitigate some of my apparent bias toward the Big East (I’ve already picked three other Big East teams to the round of 8, and I don’t want to back off of any of those other ones).

Regional Finals

Midwest Regional Final

Kansas (1) vs. Ohio State (2): Perhaps my toughest pick of the tournament. I've changed and re-written this justification about eight times. I’ve been telling people for the last month that I think Ohio State with Evan Turner is a Final Four team. I don’t want to back off of that. And while most people don’t remember this, they’ve got some Final Four experience on their team (it seems like ancient history now, but David Lighty started school with Greg Oden and Mike Conley a few years back). However, Kansas is talented beyond belief and probably the best bet to get to the Final Four. I try not to pick scared, because those type of picks are the ones that cost you in the end. But let’s be honest–I’m scared by Ohio State’s struggles to beat non-tournament teams in the Big Ten tournament, and I’m not sure how they handle Cole Aldrich. So, I have to pick Kansas here, but I’m not happy about it.

West Regional Final

Syracuse (1) vs. Pittsburgh (3): Pitt handed Syracuse one of their four losses this season, but in one of the few tournament games between teams that I’ve seen play a few times and feel like I somewhat understand, I just don’t see the Panthers getting one over on the Orange again. And my favorite team in the country rolls to the Final Four.

East Regional Final

Kentucky (1) vs. West Virginia (2): Round three of my NCAA conspiracy theory, and Kentucky’s band of fresh-faced rookies are facing a hard-nosed West Virginia team. While I may hate Bob Huggins and what he stands for, it cannot be denied that his teams are never lacking for toughness. And with the big game experience that they accumulated in the Big East Tournament, the Mountaineers become heroes to the NCAA and keep John Calipari from eventually vacating another Final Four appearance. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, fed up with the lowball salary that they’re making at Kentucky, take their talents to the NBA.

South Regional Final

Duke (1) vs. Baylor (3): I don’t know that I can justify my picking of Duke here other than to simply say I can’t envision a world in which Baylor is one of the last four teams playing for a national title. It’s not a good justification, but at least it’s honest.

Final Four

Kansas vs. Syracuse: Kansas is the safe pick, but as I’ve alluded to, I just really like Syracuse’s team. Concrete reasons for this pick (or really, any pick at this point of the tournament) are tough to come by. So I’m relying on the fact that my grandfather’s a big Syracuse fan and deserves the joy of an Orange run to the finals. God wouldn’t take that away from him.

West Virginia vs. Duke: Every year when I’m filling out a bracket there’s one team that I would never look at outside of the context of the bracket and say “That’s a Final Four team.” That year, Duke is that team. I’ve got them in the Final Four largely because as the South region is set up, there simply isn’t a challenge that I think should overwhelm them. But I can’t stress enough that while every one of Duke’s parade of big men is good, none of them truly inspires me, and I’m readily aware that Duke remains one guard injury away from being very shorthanded. But here’s the thing–as much as I love West Virginia and think their forwards are one of the only groups that can match up against Duke’s frontcourt, the Blue Devils will be more rested from their run through the early rounds. Duke finally restores some pride to a program that’s had, by its ridiculous standards, a down couple of years.


Duke vs. Syracuse: So far I’ve picked Duke over one great team and four teams that simply didn’t seem all that important to me. It’s bad enough that I’ve picked Duke through to the finals despite having no passion for them, but I can’t have them winning the whole thing. Plus, the story of Syracuse’s preseason loss to Division II LeMoyne in an exhibition game at the start of the year becomes even more legendary if they win the national championship. I think the Orange need to bring this home, and become the first ever team to lose in the first round of their conference tournament and win a national championship. (Yes, that last tidbit does scare me just a little bit.)

Enjoy the tourney–as always, it’s going to be quite the weekend.

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