As has become all too apparent over the past three years, I’ve slipped a bit in my older age and have continued my shift from rabid fan to casual fan. But if there’s one thing I’ll never stop doing with the blog, it’s making my NCAA tournament picks. Frankly, I didn’t watch nearly as much televised basketball as I have in years past, so I’m less informed on non-local teams than I should be (including one #1 seed I haven’t seen play a full game all year). But I did just spend a long weekend in Las Vegas enjoying the conclusion of all of the major conference tournaments (side note--it was my first time doing this and suspect that it will be far from my last) and am sufficiently excited for the tournament. I'm no expert, though, and can virtually guarantee that you've got a couple of guys in your office pool with more well-informed thoughts than I have.
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” St. Peter’s knocking off Purdue, or telling him that some guy whose picks you followed got it knew that St. John’s had a path that would allow them to go deep into the tourney. 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. (One addendum to this note—while I’d never predict it in a bracket and don’t honestly think it will happen, if ever there was a year that the perfect record of 1-seeds vs. 16-seeds was broken, this would be it. It was a chaotic year, and this is not my favorite group of 1-seeds ever.)
3) Have fun and make some picks for goofy reasons. There are 64 teams in this tournament, and unless your name is Jay Bilas or Digger Phelps, you probably haven’t seen all of them (and in the case of Phelps, even seeing every team isn’t helping him make any sort of useful analysis). So go ahead and pick Oakland to win a game because your favorite cousin from Michigan goes there, or pick against Connecticut because a guy in your office who’s a total dick got his degree there. After all, last year wasn’t your pool won by that woman in your office who thought Duke had nice uniforms? See, you need some quirks, too.
Those are the rules. Now on to the picks. Winners are in bold:
Second Round (Why the NCAA can't just call this the first round is beyond me...)
Ohio State (1) vs. UT-San Antonio/Alabama State (16): I’m not going to try real hard on the my explanations for each of the 1-16 matchups, since we generally know how these are going to end, anyway. So I suppose I’ll just say that it amuses me that Dallas Lauderdale looks like he’s about a 42-year-old senior.
George Mason (8) vs. Villanova (9): Villanova, by Villanova standards, was fairly forgettable this year. And seeing as Jim Larranaga is a regular guest on my favorite radio show, the Sports Junkies, it’s easy for me to pick the Patriots here.
West Virginia (5) vs. UAB/Clemson (12): And here’s where the “First Four” games mess things up. If Clemson wins against UAB, I’d take the Tigers in an upset against WVU. If UAB was to somehow pull off a win in its opening game, I’d give this one to West Virginia. I’m feeling like a gambler today, though, so I’ll take UAB/Clemson on the assumption that Clemson will make take out the Blazers. It’s tough to pick a game when you don’t know who will be in it, though.
Kentucky (4) vs. Princeton (13): I like that Princeton has two Milwaukee-area kids (Whitefish Bay’s Jimmy Sherburne and Catholic Memorial’s T.J. Bray), but still can’t take the Tigers over Kentucky’s usual roster of freshman all-stars.
Xavier (6) vs. Marquette (11): Normally my knock on Marquette is that the Golden Eagles are wildly inconsistent—able to knock off the top team in the country on one day and lose to a mediocre mid-major the next. Not this year, though—Marquette is plenty consistent, but simply isn’t all that inspiring. Xavier rolls them in this one, and the Golden Eagles can start their offseason of trying to figure out who’ll step up and be a leader next year.
Syracuse (3) vs. Indiana State (14): I feel it must be noted that if we’re strictly talking nicknames, Orange vs. Sycamores has to rank up there as one of the worst matchups of all time. But hey, at least orange is an attractive color.
Washington (7) vs. Georgia (10): I can’ get too worked up about Pac-10 or SEC hoops this year. Lorenzo Romar’s teams always seem to be good, but also seem to fly under the radar a bit, so give me the Huskies in this one.
North Carolina (2) vs. LIU (15): UNC got a 2-seed, and it doesn’t seem like a travesty? Back in early December I’d have never believed that this would happen. Seeing as things got so much better after he departed, Larry Drew is not looking real good right now.
Duke (1) vs. Hampton (16): Duke’s okay now, but I’d give my right arm to see Duke playing with Kyrie Irving like they were at the start of the year. I’m a lefty, though, so it wouldn’t be that big of a sacrifice.
Michigan (8) vs. Tennessee (9): While watching the selection show with a couple of buddies, this was the game that came up on the screen and prompted us all to immediately say “That one’s going to be fun to watch.” With the amount of running in this game, I’m going to be worn out just from watching it. Seeing as this year was a bit of a step back for Tennessee and a huge step forward for Michigan, I’m riding the Wolverines on their way up. And finally, no, I can't even come up with a decent Jeronne Maymon joke right now, and I feel sort of bad about that.
Arizona (5) vs. Memphis (12): Arizona won the Pac-10, yet no one seems to know or care about this. Well, Wildcats, I care. I care.
Texas (4) vs. Oakland (13): The fact that Texas stumbled a few times down the stretch concerns me and I do love Oakland’s nickname (the “Golden Grizzlies”) and jerseys with the players’ names below their numbers. But I just can’t pick against the Longhorns this early.
Cincinnati (6) vs. Missouri (11): I love Yancy Gates, but let’s be honest, I’m taking Cincy here largely because I don’t want to pick against a team that starts a guy named “Cashmere.”
Connecticut (3) vs. Bucknell (14): Kemba Walker has a great sense of timing. He’s a good player who has turned it on to become great when he happens to be in any sort of a tournament that is being seen by the entire country. He did it in the Maui Invitational, he did it in the Big East tournament, and given that the NCAA tournament dwarfs both of those, it’s safe to say that Walker should explode for about 65 points in helping his Huskies take down Bucknell.
Temple (7) vs. Penn State (10): I want Penn State to go out and win this one, mostly because I’m sick of people talking about Penn State like they finished tied with Indiana in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions wre the 6-seed in the Big Ten tournament, and while that doesn’t mean they had a mind-blowing year, it’s still a fairly good indicator that they don’t suck as much as most people seem to think.
San Diego State (2) vs. Northern Colorado (15): SDSU is 2-2 against teams that were relevant at the times that the Aztecs played them. Not a ringing endorsement, but good enough to pick them over a 15-seed.
Kansas (1) vs. Boston University (16): Fun fact—if you’d like to know how derelict I’ve been in my basketball watching this year, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen a full Kansas game from start to finish all year.
UNLV (8) vs. Illinois (9): This pick says less about UNLV (though they did give 2-seed San Diego State a good run in the Mountain West tourney) and more about my lack of confidence in Illinois. I actually like it when the Illini are good, but they just never reached their potential this year.
Vanderbilt (5) vs. Richmond (12): I dislike Vanderbilt--the basketball team, the institution of higher learning, and probably even the family itself. And while I have a ton of reasons why I’d like to pick against the Commodores, I just can’t bring myself to do so.
Louisville (4) vs. Morehead State (13): I’m always going to pick a Big East team that has stepped up its play down the stretch, particularly when it has a coach who’s been through the tournament a few times in his day.
Georgetown (6) vs. USC/VCU (11): I suppose I understand why it worked out this way, but I find it amusing that the other “First Four” game is being played for a 12-seed, and this one is for an 11. Either way, I already picked the other First Four winner to advance, and I’m not picking them both. So Georgetown moves on.
Purdue (3) vs. Saint Peter’s (14): I know literally nothing about Saint Peter’s, though I’ll make an educated guess that it’s a small Catholic school, probably from the East Coast. I’ll take Purdue to win this one, as I continue to shake my head in disappointment at friends who expected the Boilermakers to completely fall apart when they lost Robbie Hummel to injury before the season. Were you simply unfamiliar with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore?
Texas A&M (7) vs. Florida State (10): I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of Florida State when I’ve seen them this year. I’m probably not giving enough weight to Chris Singleton’s broken foot on the ‘Noles chances, but it wouldn’t be the first time that I overlooked an obvious angle on a game.
Notre Dame (2) vs. Akron (15): For a team that finished 14-4 in the Big East, I never found myself looking at Notre Dame and thinking “Wow, that’s a great team.” But that said, you’re doing something right if you go through the most challenging conference in the country and come away largely unscathed.
Pittsburgh (1) vs. UNC-Asheville vs. Arkansas-Little Rock (16): I can’t see the words “UNC-Ashville” without thinking of Kenny Gregory, the Bulldogs’ 7’7” center from a few years back. Was there anything more fun that just watching guards lob the ball as high as possible to a giant near the hoop?
Butler (8) vs. Old Dominion (9): I was shocked when I saw Butler as an 8-seed this year. The Bulldogs are on a nice streak now, but they had a stretch late January/early February where they lost four of five games in the Horizon League, a conference that doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of outsiders. I think this year’s Butler team, while decent, is getting a little too much attention based on their Final Four appearance of a year ago and rich history. I like to pick one game each year where I zig when everyone else is zagging. This is this year’s game, as the rubes in your office pool are going to stick with the name they know and just ignore Old Dominion.
Kansas State (5) vs. Utah State (12): No solid reasoning this year—I’m simply taking the number of Utah State t-shirts that I saw while I was out in Las Vegas over the weekend of a sign of something big to come. (Side note—I saw more Utah State and BYU gear in Las Vegas than perhaps any other school this past weekend. I found this odd, as I based on what little I know about Las Vegas and the Mormon religion, I would think it would be a sin for most Utah folks to even enter Las Vegas city limits.)
Wisconsin (4) vs. Belmont (13): I struggled with this one quite a bit, so prepare for me to ramble on about it. While watching games with my friends on Sunday about three hours before the selection show started up, I said to everyone “Who’s that mid-major team that lost 3-4 games all year and won it’s conference championship game by like 40 points? I forget their name right now, but I know we’re going to hear it 8,000 times in the next 3-4 days, since every talking head in the country is going to name them as their sleeper pick.” That would be Belmont. Every year there’s a team that becomes such a popular sleeper pick that it actually becomes so overrated that it is no longer a sleeper. This year, it will be Belmont. And it’s tough to argue—Belmont has a great resume. Little did I know that they would be matched up against my favorite team. And knowing Wisconsin as well as any team out there, their performance at road and neutral sites concerns me. The fact that they laid an egg in their last game of the year against Penn State doesn’t help my perception, either.
On the flip side of the equation, the Southeast region is a great one to be in, and Wisconsin could have some success there. Gary Parrish has picked Wisconsin in his Final Four, and explains his logic here. It’s pretty solid reasoning. As he points out, top seed Pitt is always solid but doesn't have athletes that leap off the page, Florida was unranked not too long ago, and BYU, having lost its leading rebounder, isn’t exactly the same team as it was just weeks ago. So if Wisconsin gets by Belmont, it stands a good chance of going pretty far.
So my thoughts on this are conflicting. I always hate picking the hot sleeper pick, because a sleeper that everyone knows about doesn’t bring as much value. And there’s some risk in picking the sleeper, as I don’t see Wisconsin as a team that will lose right away if the advance past the first round (particularly since I’m projecting Utah State, a 12 seed, as the second round opponent for the winner of this game). But at the end of the day, I come back to two key reasons to pick against my alma mater here: 1) Belmont is the trendy sleeper pick for good reason, and 2) Wisconsin scares the hell out of me when they’re not playing at the Kohl Center. So with great regret, I’m picking Belmont in the upset. It hurts my soul to do so, and I’ll be rooting hard for the Badgers, but I have to concede that I think it’s the right pick to make. I’m horrifically wrong a lot of the time, though, so let’s hope that this is one of those times.
St. John’s (6) vs. Gonzaga (11): There used to be a time when Gonzaga would be a sleeper pick as an 11 seed. Now it just means that the Bulldogs had a somewhat crappy year. I like the way that St. John’s has played down the stretch, and am pleased with the Red Storm coaching staff’s decision to make the “Coaches for Cancer” sneaker gimmick an all season long thing. Just when you thought Gene Keady couldn’t look any more ridiculous, there he is in a suit and some bright white sneakers.
BYU (3) vs. Wofford (14): I’m not sure people know what to think of BYU right now. On one hand, you’ve got people writing them off because of the suspension of Brandon Davies. On the other hand, it’s borderline impossible to not be excited about the Cougars after watching Jimmer Fredette put on a show to the tune of 52 points against New Mexico this past weekend. BYU is either overrated or underrated, but I don’t think anyone (myself included) has them properly rated. But it doesn’t really matter in the first round—they’re still beating a solid Wofford team.
UCLA (7) vs. Michigan State (10): It’s tough to get super-psyched about either of these teams, so I’ll just stick to my general rule that if you have any doubt (and often even if you do have doubt), you don’t pick against Michigan State in March.
Florida (2) vs. UC-Santa Barbara (15): UC-Santa Barbara is the alma mater of a fairly cool guy that I went to law school with and used to talk hoops with from time to time, as well as Steve Czaban, a favorite sports radio personality of mine. That said, I’m still not picking the Gauchos over Florida.
Ohio State (1) vs. George Mason (8): Remember that game where Ohio State shot over 90% from three-point range against Wisconsin a few weeks back? I sure do.
Kentucky (4) vs. UAB/Clemson (12): I’d be a fool to pick UAB or Clemson here, since they have to win two games to even play in this one. That’s two events that could keep picking them through to the third round to even be a viable option. I like Kentucky’s team, but frankly, even if I didn’t, I’d be compelled to pick them simply for safety reasons, given that I’ve got them playing a play-in game winner.
Syracuse (3) vs. Xavier (6): Syracuse struggled mightily during the middle of the season, but you have to like that the Orange have put things together for a good late-season run. And their 2-3 zone, run to perfection, is the sort of thing that always tends to bother teams that haven’t seen it before.
North Carolina (2) vs. Washington (7): I like that I’m back to looking at North Carolina and thinking “Why wouldn’t they win this game?” Harrison Barnes is finally playing like people expected all along, and things are clicking for the Heels again, so I can’t end their run this early.
Duke (1) vs. Michigan (8): If I may make a superfluous jump back in time for a moment, how awesome was the portion of The Fab Five, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that premiered on Sunday, where Jalen Rose noted that he thought Christian Laettner was a “bitch” and that Grant Hill was one, too? Great stuff—almost as great as those games between the Blue Devils and the Wolverines in the early 1990s. As to this weekend’s game, I’d put the over-under on total three-point attempts by both teams around 55. And while Michigan is heading in the right direction, Duke’s already where the Wolverines want to be, so I’m moving the Blue Devils along.
Texas (4) vs. Arizona (5): Neither team has been a model of consistency down the stretch, but I’ve just got a feeling about Jordan Hamilton getting hot.
Connecticut (3) vs. Cincinnati (6): UConn is seeded 6 spots higher in the NCAA tournament than they were in their own conference. And interestingly, while seeded three spots lower than UConn in the NCAA tournament, Cincinnati was seeded two spots higher than UConn in the Big East tournament. I’ll take the team that’s trending upward.
San Diego State (2) vs. Penn State (10): Penn State is a team that I think will challenge San Diego State, but the Aztecs have something to prove, and I don’t see them letting down against a mid-level Big Ten team.
Kansas (1) vs. UNLV (8): Like I alluded to earlier, I know little to nothing about Kansas, but you pick an upset of a 1-seed this early in the tournament at your own peril.
Louisville (4) vs. Vanderbilt (5): It was supposed to be a re-building year for Louisville, but you wouldn’t know it by watching them late this season. I’ll stick with the hot hand here. Besides, I really hate Vanderbilt.
Georgetown (6) vs. Purdue (3): Let me get something straight—while I’ll defend Purdue against people that thought losing Robbie Hummel would end their season and I am a huge fan of JaJuan Johnson, I stop well short of having tons of confidence in the Boilermakers this year. Georgetown’s style of play would put them right at home in the Big Ten, so I think the Hoyas enjoy a solid win here.
Notre Dame (2) vs. Florida State (10): And the least-exciting (though arguably the best) 2-seed moves on. Who knew Ben Hansbrough would be this good?
Pittsburgh (1) vs. Old Dominion (9): Have I mentioned yet that I am a big fan of the way that Jamie Dixon gets his teams to play?
Utah State (12) vs. Belmont (13): Did I really just pick two underdogs to advance to this game? I guess I’ll take Belmont to move into the Sweet 16 because a) as I mentioned earlier, they’ve got a stellar mid-major resume, making them more likely to win if this game actually takes place and b) if they manage to take out Wisconsin, it would at least be mildly validating to have them win another game and prove themselves to be a worthy team.
St. John’s (6) vs. BYU(3): Jimmer and friends, meet the representatives from the Big East. You’re not going to like them.
Michigan State (10) vs. Florida (2): For the record, about a month ago I saw Michigan State’s squad get their doors blown off at Wisconsin. It has been a rough year for the Spartans, and there were doubts that they’d even make the tourney. However, if they can pull a mild first round upset, they get, in my estimation, the weakest of the 2-seeds. And just like they’ve done in the past, the Spartans will again find themselves inexplicably playing on the second weekend of the tourney. Don’t bet against Tom Izzo in March, even when he’s got a weak team and it makes logical sense to do so.
Ohio State (1) vs. Kentucky (4): Ohio State has that rare mix that makes a team special—a bunch of seniors that have been around the block and know how to behave in tough situations, and a super-talented freshman player that’s only going to be around for one year. So Kentucky’s going to have to wait until next year, when they bring in an entirely new crop of one-and-done talent.
North Carolina (2) vs. Syracuse (3): I like both of these teams a lot, but don’t trust either of them. North Carolina started off the year by continuing last year’s epically disappointing play, while Syracuse had a brief free-fall in the middle of the season. But seeing as I spent the past weekend watching North Carolina get down 15 points every day before charging back against their opponents, I’ve got to take the Orange here. It’s nice to be able to get out of a hole, but why jump into one to begin with?
Duke (1) vs. Texas (4): Back in February, Coach K was saying that Duke was still trying to figure out how to play without Kyrie Irving. I’m trusting that they’ve figured it out by now. Look for Mason Plumlee to bust out a stellar game at some point.
San Diego State (2) vs. Connecticut (3): When I was in Las Vegas this past weekend, one of the most confusing betting lines of the day on Friday was when I looked up at the board and saw San Diego State vs. UNLV as a pick ‘em (the line had moved to SDSU -1 by the time I got in for one of my few good decisions of the weekend). Now, I know that the Mountain West tournament was being held in Las Vegas, making UNLV the hometown favorite. I don’t care where that game was being played, though—it simply doesn’t make sense to have an unranked opponent getting no points against the #6 team in the country. If my wallet and I learned one thing this past weekend, though, it’s that the folks running Las Vegas are smarter than I am. And if they say that San Diego State vs. UNLV is a coin flip, than I can only imagine what kind of a favorite UConn would be.
Kansas (1) vs. Louisville (4): I love the way the Big East is playing right now, but I can’t bring myself to put six Big East teams in my final eight. Yeah, that’s right—I just revealed where I’m going with the rest of my picks for this round.
Notre Dame (2) vs. Georgetown (6): Strictly a feel pick for me. Georgetown always feels like one of those teams that you don’t think is all that great, but ends up being a lot better when you see them on the court. Notre Dame always feels like one of those teams that you think is going to be awesome, but then you feel sort of underwhelmed when their game is over. So based strictly on my program stereotypes, I’ve got to take the Hoyas.
Pittsburgh (1) vs. Belmont (13): Nice run for Belmont, but Pitt’s not the kind of team that will allow a mid-major to sneak up on them. In the event that Wisconsin surprises me and powers through to play in this game instead of Belmont, here’s hoping that New Orleans has plenty of ice machines, because there are going to be a lot of sore players at the end of that one.
St. John’s (6) vs. Michigan State (10): I will admit that in many ways it is patently stupid to pick Michigan State to advance to this point. But like I said, logic often gets thrown out with the Spartans. But given that they really shouldn’t be winning either of the games preceding this one, I have to play it safe and knock them out here. Congrats, Steve Lavin—ditching your ESPN gig and getting back into coaching seems to have worked out well.
Ohio State (1) vs. Syracuse (3): Ohio State’s the obvious pick for the best team in this tournament. Three senior leaders, two stellar freshmen, and a bunch of other solid options helping out. This year’s Syracuse squad lacks its usual star power, but has righted their ship down the stretch. You can take two paths when picking late round NCAA tournament games—either play it safe with the favorite, or play some hunches and hope that everything works out. The former is my usual strategy, because let’s face it—you don’t want to be the only one left out in the cold when the team everyone else has picked is hoisting the trophy. But this year I just have a feeling about Syracuse, so I’m playing the hunch. Let’s hope it works out.
Duke (1) vs. Connecticut (3): I feel like I was in this position last year—I don’t love Duke, but I just don’t see anyone taking them out in this regional (that logic worked out fairly well last year, by the way). UConn’s the best bet, but the Huskies will have won seven games in a row dating back to the start of the Big East tournament by this point. And while UConn’s good, they’re not so good that I see them ripping off eight straight wins against good teams. So once again, I have to begrudgingly pick Duke through to the Final Four.
Kansas (1) vs. Georgetown (6): This one just boils down to logic and blind faith. I love Austin Freeman and Georgetown, but even though I’m totally unfamiliar with Kansas, the Jayhawks must be a #1 seed for a reason. So I’m picking them. Either way, if this game happens is will be a fun contrast of styles.
Pittsburgh (1) vs. St. John’s (6): Pitt lost to St. John’s about a month ago by one point. And while that could certainly happen again, Pitt doesn’t strike me as the kind of team that loses to anyone twice.
Syracuse vs. Duke: When you go with your hunches, as I did with Syracuse last round, you don’t go small. Duke had their turn last year—now Syracuse is getting a crack at the national championship.
Kansas vs. Pittsburgh: It will warm my heart if two true teams like this without the usual overwhelming superstars make it to the Final Four. Who will win? You may have noticed by this point that I have sort of an irrational love of Pitt’s toughness, so I’m putting the Panthers through to the finals.
Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh: It amuses me that I’ve got Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two teams that didn’t even make their own conference tournament finals, in the national championship game. I suppose that speaks to the fact that the Big East is a tough conference, though I think it also is somewhat related to the fact that the Big East contains something like 85 teams. Pittsburgh won during the first meeting, so I’ll take them as a winner again, restoring the nation’s faith in tough-minded team basketball. How old school is that?
So there are my 2011 picks. Happy bracketing, enjoy the best weekend of the year, and I'll check back in when it's all done...