Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nine Years Later: Another Crean Ending

Just under nine years ago Tom Crean announced he was leaving Marquette. A day later, I wrote what has ultimately become the most widely read post in the history of my blog. And all these years later, each year I still know exactly when Indiana’s season is turning south when I get an e-mail notification that someone has commented on the blog that I stopped updating long ago. That e-mail notification undoubtedly means the same thing each time–someone on an Indiana basketball message board has linked to my old Crean post and a small group of people is essentially proclaiming me to be Nostradamus. And I’ve got one post from the old blog that’s going to be pretty popular for a couple of days.

I get a few smiles when my old blog gets dredged up and a bunch of nice strangers say that I gave a perfect analysis of who Crean is and how his time at Indiana would play out. Like the people linking to it, I’m also kind of amazed that I was so strangely accurate in my forecast. As is true for most people, I get things wrong a lot more than I get them right. But I will admit that when I wrote the Crean post, every opinion that I held about him something that I felt very strongly about. So it’s kind of cool to think that I really did know what I was talking about back in .

I thought with the benefit of nine years worth of perspective that it might be fun to reflect on my old blog post for anyone who might be interested in what I’m thinking today, as a much quieter college basketball fan. This was actually already in the works before Crean’s firing earlier today, but his termination obviously makes it a good time to reopen this topic. I was always fond of bullet points when I was writing the blog, so I’ll stick with that format for my various reflections here:

–I always get a chuckle reading the message board posts that link to my Crean post, as they almost always say something to the effect of "This Marquette fan really got this right." It’s technically fair to say that I’m a Marquette fan. I certainly wrote the post from that perspective, have always liked watching Marquette games, and even had season tickets for a brief time. But I’m actually a UW-Madison graduate and am a pretty die-hard Wisconsin fan. So it’s mildly amusing that my most popular post defines me as a fan of my favorite team’s most bitter non-conference rival.

–Despite that aforementioned rivalry, one thing that my Wisconsin fan friends and my Marquette fan friends have long agreed upon is that it’s highly enjoyable when we get to see a Tom Crean team lose. I think some of my MU friends even faced a bit of a moral dilemma over who to root against when the Wisconsin and Indiana played each other.

–Since I’ve mentioned sympathies toward different schools, I’ll suck up to any Indiana fans reading and note that IU was my second choice school coming out of high school. If not for the lure of in-state tuition, I’d likely be a Hoosier. As a matter of fact, last week I finally wore out the mesh shorts I bought in the bookstore when I toured the campus back in 1995. Or rather, my wife did–I should never have allowed her to borrow such a sacred article of clothing.

–Nine years later, I’m a bit more sympathetic to the Crean hiring than I was when I wrote my blog post. That’s partly because I didn’t understand how low things had sunk at Indiana at the time. Sure, we all knew that Kelvin Sampson’s reign had put a black cloud over the Hoosiers. But when things started trickling out like the story about Eli Holman angrily breaking a flower pot in a meeting with Crean, or Eric Gordon talking about how he had to stay away from his teammates because a number of them were using drugs, the need for a complete overhaul of the program became way more clear. As I wrote at the time, hiring someone clean was the biggest consideration for Indiana. And Indiana definitely hired the most high-profile clean guy they could find.

Furthermore, while there are plenty of negative things to say about Crean, one has to concede that he’s pretty good at rebuilding programs. Consider what he’s done at Marquette and Indiana. At MU, he took a program that was trending more towards a mid-major conference than a power conference. Four years later, he found himself in the Final Four and parlayed that into a spot in the Big East, which at the time was probably the best conference in the country. At IU he took over a program on probation and a roster littered with guys he needed to weed out for the good of the program, and by his fifth year the Hoosiers were the preseason #1 team in the country.

Sure, I think we can all agree that Crean’s personality and shaky basketball knowledge will probably keep him from ever building a consistently great program. He’s got a less than satisfying ceiling. But in terms of public relations and recruiting, it still remains hard to beat him. Even as a guy who pumps his fist in excitement every time I see Crean lose in heartbraking fashion and sprint through the post-game handshake line without looking at anyone from the opposing team, I must concede that if my program was in a dark place, he’d be the first guy I’d call in an attempt to turn things around. He’d be a perfect hire for a lot of schools if you could force him out right when things started to get good again. Unfortunately, that’s not really how the world works.

–My favorite moment of the Crean era? That’s an easy one–Crean’s first Big Ten win–a 2009 home win over Iowa. I didn’t like this moment because Indiana won (my preference was still for Crean losing). I liked it because his reaction to the win was the most Crean thing ever. Here’s Indiana, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, notching a win (what would ultimately be IU’s only Big Ten win of the season, no less) over an Iowa team that entered the game 2-7 in Big Ten play and would finish just above the Hoosiers as the last two teams in the conference that season. And what does Crean do? He turns it into an impromptu pep rally in Assembly Hall, grabbing the microphone, gleefully addressing the crowd, and shouting to the fans "This is your win!"

I wish I could find archived video of Crean speaking to the crowd. I’m sure it would seem just as ridiculous to me if I saw it today. The best I can do is this video I found of a student TV production recapping the win. That video is amusing in and of itself, as none of the three players interviewed, Kyle Taber, Nick Williams and Malik Story, would be with the team the next season. Taber graduated, but Williams and Story, both freshmen at that point, did as so many other Crean players have and transferred elsewhere at the end of the season.

I say none of this to degrade the experience of IU fans at that game, by the way. I’m sure any small victory felt magnified for loyal fans gritting their way through the dark days of Indiana hoops. But Crean’s amplification of this nice little moment into something completely over-the-top was a great insight into how he runs things. Promote the heck out of any success that you have, and completely downplay the negatives while hoping that everyone just moves on. It works, but I’ve also always found it highly disingenuous. (I'm reminded of how, when he was at Marquette, he was always quick to join the post-game radio show after wins, but after tough losses you could bank on him sending out an assistant to do the talking.)

Ultimately, Crean's tenure at Indiana was not that much different than his time at Marquette--it was just magnified by a higher level of expectations. Crean’s got significant strengths, but they’re very specific. Indiana needed those specific strengths when Crean was initially hired, but the Hoosiers’ needs quickly changed as he got the program out of the gutter. Tom Crean, quite simply, is not a guy you want running your program unless it needs some major fixing. And once he fixed the major problems at IU, Crean was a terrible fit for the Hoosiers.

In the end, I’ll remember him as I saw him at the end of Tuesday night’s NIT game against Georgia Tech–sprinting through a handshake line after a loss without genuinely acknowledging his opponents and hoping that everyone will forget what just happened as soon as possible.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him next. And for the fans of whatever school Crean ends up at, please know that even though I’m not blogging regularly anymore, I’m always here for you, happy to lend support through this difficult era for you. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Bracket Breakdown

It was fun last year, so let’s make this a tradition–once a year I’m reviving the old blog for a day to share my NCAA tournament picks (for those Indiana fans who’ve been checking in on my old Tom Crean post, I might do a bonus update sometime in the near future, as well, since that’s an insanely fun topic for me).

Before I get to the traditional preamble, I need to vent about this year’s selection Sunday. As a Wisconsin fan, I saw the first two games of the tournament announced, stopped paying attention, and spent the remainder of the selection show angrily texting friends about Wisconsin’s 8-seed. And before you start telling me that’s not a thing to be upset about, I’d like to list the Big Ten conference standings for the top eight teams, followed by each team’s seeding:

#1 Purdue (4 seed)

#2 (tie) Wisconsin (8 seed)

#2 (tie) Maryland (6 seed)

#4 Minnesota (5 seed)

#5 (tie) Michigan (7 seed)

#5 (tie) Northwestern (8 seed)

#5 (tie) Michigan (9 seed)

#5 (tie) Iowa (NIT)

If you want to tell me that Wisconsin has some serious flaws this year, you’ll get no argument from me. Nor will I disagree if you point out that the Big Ten has not been its usual splendid self this season. It certainly hasn’t. But I would submit that the seeding of the teams (save for regular season champ Purdue) should not look like a bell curve when you list them out from first to last.

We'll stop there, thought. You don’t want to read the three paragraph angry-fan rant about injustice in the world, and I don’t want to re-read it and get my blood pressure up again. Let’s just say that it was glorious and ended with me offering hugs to Wichita State fans. And let's move on.

On to the traditional preamble, part of which I’m partially disclaiming this year. As always, my ground rules for picking tournament games:

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 at work that you "totally called" Xavier knocking off Maryland, or telling him that some guy whose picks you followed clued you in that SMU is poised for a long run. 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) Normally this is where I tell you not to go nuts with picking upsets in the first two rounds, and that the NCAA selection knows more than you and has seeded teams appropriately. But this is a bizarre year. Leaving aside that the seedings of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wichita State and Creighton have me questioning if the selection committee may actually know less than all of us, I can't recall the last time that every team in the field looks reasonably beatable. The overall top seed Villanova has three losses. The other #1 seeds are a one-loss team from a weak conference (Gonzaga), a team that lost its opening conference tournament game (Kansas) and a 7-loss teams (North Carolina).

And it just gets worse as you move down the lower seeds. If ever there was a year when a big number of the top seeds fail to make it to the second weekend and the Final Four is invaded by multiple 7-seeds, this is it. That’s what happens when the entire field of teams can be described by saying "I don’t know, they’re sort of good." This year the only thing I can confidently say about the tournament is that I have even less an idea of what’s going to happen than usual.

So while I’d normally caution you not to make a bunch of bizarre picks and eliminate yourself on the first weekend by picking all of the 3-seeds to bow out early, things are weird this year. So when it comes to your picks this year, let lean into it. Let’s get weird!

3) Have fun and make some picks for goofy reasons. There are 68 teams in this tournament, and unless your name is Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale, you probably haven’t seen all of them. So go ahead and pick Kansas State to win a game because your favorite aunt went there, or pick against Butler because the intern in your office who thinks he knows more than everyone who’s been working there for the past decade goes there. After all, last year wasn’t your pool won by the guy who meant to pick Vanderbilt to win the championship, but mistakenly took Villanova after mixing up the two private schools beginning with the letter V? See, you need some quirks, too.

On to the picks.  Some of the formatting is probably off, but hey, cut me a break--I only do this once a year.  Winners in bold:

First Four

(16) Mount St. Mary’s vs. (16) New Orleans: I know nothing about any of the 16-seeds playing in the two First Four games. I remember when I was a kid and I was jealous of the kids who went to parochial schools who got to play organized basketball for their school before 8th grade, when us public school kids finally got to play. So I just sort of naturally associate a school named "Mount St. Mary’s" with basketball. So they’re moving on.

(16) North Carolina Central vs. (16) UC-Davis: Like I said, I know nothing about the 16-seeds. I had a decent law school professor who went to UC-Davis, so that seems as good a reason to pick them as any.

(11) Kansas State vs. (11) Wake Forest: I’m kind of intrigued by Kansas State getting hot in the last few weeks, and in my initial run-through, I actually picked them to win here. Then I remembered that Wake Forest has John Collins and Bryant Crawford, two legit stars. Not to mention UWM graduate transfer Austin Arians, who my pals with Panther season tickets and I spent three seasons making fun of for his oddly short neck.

(11) Providence vs. (11) USC: Andy Enfield of Florida Gulf Coast "dunk city" fame back in 2013 was hired by USC after that epic run. He’s still there, and I still think that the Trojans are a bunch of guys who like to chuck the ball at the hoop as quickly as possible. In fairness, I didn’t see much of USC this year, but I really hated them last year. So I have them losing to a thoroughly uninspiring Providence team.

First Round

East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s: In past years I always dump on Villanova and talk about how I don’t believe in them. Well, I’m a believer now. Take note, college programs—all you need to do to win me over is win a national championship (preferably in a game with a super-exciting ending).

(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Virginia Tech: As a Milwaukeean, I’m obviously familiar with VT coach and former Marquette coach Buzz Williams. And I’ll be honest—this matchup scares the hell out of me. Williams’ coached teams vacillate between being hyper-motivated and running their given opponent off the floor half the time and looking completely disinterested and unorganized the other half of the time. So while I know that this one won’t be close, I don’t know which way the blowout will go. I hope it goes the right way, or my outrage over Wisconsin getting a low seed is going to look really stupid.

(5) Virginia vs. (12) UNC-Wilmington: So the 5-12 matchup is the popular upset spot every year. But as my high school JV coach taught me way back when I was 15, defense is the one thing that never leaves you. Virginia’s defense isn’t going anywhere, and they’ll get by UNC-W in typically solid fashion.

(4) Florida vs. (13) East Tennessee State: Back when it existed last season, I became briefly enamored with daily fantasy college basketball. And Florida was always impossible to figure out, because every one of its players was good, but not great. Some would look upon that negatively (and indeed, it was awful for daily fantasy purposes). I call it balance and consistency. Florida wins this one, and I have no idea who leads the Gators in scoring in this or any other game.

(6) SMU vs. (11) Providence: If you asked me to describe Providence using one word, it would probably be "eh." The Friars are a complete non-entity to me. They’re so boring after losing their two stars from last year. As for SMU, I’ll just hold off on talking about them for now, because (foreshadowing alert) I’m going to talk a lot about them as I continue through my picks.

(3) Baylor vs. (14) New Mexico State: Have I mentioned that things are going to get weird this year? Here’s my first "let’s get weird" pick. Baylor has great big men, did well in a very strong Big 12 conference, and by all accounts should win this game. But Baylor University’s recent sexual assault scandals make it a pretty unsympathetic institution to root for. And given that my pal Peter got his master’s degree from NMSU, we’re going with the Aggies.

(7) South Carolina vs. (10) Marquette: I hope you like guards, because the big guys on both sides of this game are nothing to write home about. South Carolina defends really well. I didn’t see much of them this year, but every time I saw one of their scores come across the crawl this year, I thought to myself "oh yeah, I keep forgetting that those guys are surprisingly good." Ultimately, I’m giving the local guys the win this year, simply because history tells of that at least one of Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt, Markus Howard or Sam Hauser will go completely berserk from three-point range. And because I’m a shameless homer.

(2) Duke vs. (15) Troy: Duke is red hot, and some have even argued that they should have been a one-seed. Troy just sounds like the name of a complete douche you went to high school with that’s now attending Duke.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga v. (16) South Dakota State: Kudos to Milwaukee native T.J. Oltzelberger for getting the Jackrabbits to the tourney in his first year at SDSU. You need to save some goals for the future, though, so we’ll save the first tourney win for another year.

(8) Northwestern vs. (9) Vanderbilt: Great nerdy-looking point guard battle here. Vanderbilt has former Brookfield Central star Riley LaChance, who’s shockingly talented for a guy who appears comically undersized next to his teammates. Northwestern boasts Bryant McIntosh, the first Wildcat player to make me sort of like Northwestern since Vedran Vukusic. McIntosh really is pretty great, so we’re going Northwestern here.

(5) Notre Dame vs. (12) Princeton: I actually really like Notre Dame this year—they’re deep, they play well together, and as one of my friends convinced me week or two ago, if Mike Krzyzewski retired tomorrow, the best candidate to replace him out of all the former Duke assistants would probably be Irish coach Mike Brey. But right after the brackets came out, my dad commented to me "Princeton has a good shot at winning that one." It’s entirely possible he’s making that pick based on the play of 1960s Princeton star and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. But my theme for the tourney this year is "let’s get weird," and my dad picking an Ivy League winner is as good an excuse as any to get weird this tourney season!

(4) West Virginia vs. (13) Bucknell: West Virginia’s profile rose significantly when they pressed the hell out of then-#1 Baylor and ran the Bears off the court back in January. Less notable was their loss to Baylor a few weeks back. WVU hasn’t lost to any bad teams this year, though, so we’ll move them past Bucknell here.

(6) Maryland vs. (11) Xavier: Melo Trimble probably should have gone pro two years ago (side note--I didn't realize that he's still only a junior until hearing talk about whether he would go pro on a radio interview with Terps coach Mark Turgeon on Monday), as he suffered the classic freshman star fate of sticking around and letting people pick apart his game in order to make him undraftable. Meanwhile, Maryland has a couple of freshmen whose stock will trend in the right direction in the coming years. But for now, I’ll take a Xavier team from a better conference (and yes, it did hurt my soul to admit that).

(3) Florida State vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast:  Florida State has outstanding athletes, but as one ESPN talking head I saw over the weekend said, "I don’t trust Florida State, and I don’t even think Florida State trusts itself." Add  the excitement of the 2013 "Dunk City" FGCU team, which I'm going to say (with no evidence to support my point) is the reason that all of the 2017 seniors decided to attend FGSU, and this felt like a wonderful place to pick an odd upset. Note also that there’s a very reasonable chance that the crowd in Orlando turns on FSU if this game gets close.

(7) St. Mary’s vs. (10) VCU: I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to me that St. Mary’s is for real this year. Australian center Jock Landale puts up crazy number every night (besides having a completely awesome name), and has a stable of other steady forwards locking down the frontcourt with him. Against a post-Shaka Smart VCU team, that should be enough to move them along.

(2) Arizona vs. (15) North Dakota: Where would you rather live—Tempe or Grand Forks? I rest my case.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (16) UC Davis: Fun fact: I strongly considered both institutions for law school. I ultimately concluded that I wouldn’t get into UC Davis and didn’t apply, saving $60 on an application fee. Kansas admitted me, offered me generous aid, and I nearly went there. 17 years later, the warm feelings between me and the Jayhawks continue.

(8) Miami vs. (9) Michigan State: Never pick against Tom Izzo in March. Well, unless it’s last year. Then you should have picked against them. I’m going to say you’re on safe ground picking against the Spartans this year, too. Izzo is still great, but instead of a bunch of well-seasoned stars, this year he’s got a bunch of freshmen (albeit super-talented freshmen) leading the way. Yeah, in the last month they’ve finally gotten just good enough to be kind of scary in the tournament. But Miami coach Jim Larranaga is no slouch himself and is uniquely poised to make his team stand up to the Spartans where others would wilt. Don’t worry—Izzo should be poised to conquer the world again next year.

(5) Iowa State vs. (12) Nevada: Iowa State is my pet team. They always have plenty of Wisconsin natives on the roster (including star forward, Milwaukee Vincent grad and MU transfer Deonte Burton) and they play a super fun up-tempo style. This game is being played in Milwaukee, and if it wasn’t at the exact same time as the Wisconsin game, I’d be out on the corner of 4th and State on Friday night scalping tickets to cheer on Monte Morris and his pals. This one’s going to be fun, just not if you’re a Nevada fan.

(4) Purdue vs. (13) Vermont: Boilermakers vs. Catamounts is presumably the most unique first round mascot pairing around. I don’t know anything about Vermont, but I do know that I love Caleb Swanigan, and I loved him even more after reading
this SI profile about his rocky path to becoming a college hoops star. I can’t bring myself to pick against a kid who overcame stuff like that in the first round.

(6) Creighton vs (11) Rhode Islans: Creighton record before losing star point guard Maurice Watson for the season: 18-1 (and that one loss was to #1 Villanova). Creighton record after losing Maurice Watson: 7-8. Was the seeding committee aware that Creighton lost its point guard back in January? Because a 6-seed for a team that’s gone under .500 over the past two months seems very generous.

(3) Oregon vs. (14) Iona: Ironically, despite their array of colorful uniforms, the Ducks aren’t a ton of fun to watch. They’ve got a really good starting five, though, so I guess there’s that.

(7) Michigan vs. (10) Oklahoma State: I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of times about what a great story Michigan winning the Big Ten tournament was. And despite them beating my Badgers in the championship game I’m not going to crap on that story, because it’s actually a pretty great one. So let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that the Wolverines walked away from a freaking plane crash, nearly voted to forfeit their first game in the Big Ten tournament, flew to DC a few hours before their 11am opening game against Illinois, beat the tar out of the Illini, and vanquished three more foes en route to winning the tournament. Meanwhile, one of Oklahoma State’s top players is 5'11" 
Phil Forte, whose photo I can already picture being examined by a bunch of kids in the future as someone tells them "See–I told you. Grandpa Phil really did play college basketball for the Cowboys."

(2) Louisville vs. (15) Jacksonville: Louisville is not actually good (more on that later), but they’re good enough to get by a 15 seed. The gods aren’t ready to reward us with such an early Rick Pitino departure.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Texas Southern: My favorite campus in the country vs. a school located in a place where geographic clues imply to me that there’s presumably a ridiculous border wall about to be erected next to the quad? Get my sharpie so that I can write in "UNC."
(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Seton Hall: Having watched Seton Hall match up against Marquette this year, I cannot understate how good the Pirates’ big man Angel Delgado is. He’s a complete beast. Arkansas has their own beast down low in Moses Kingsley, but I simply saw Kingsley play less this year, so I’m going with the dude from the Big East who you can almost always count on for 15 rebounds.

(5) Minnesota vs. (12) Middle Tennessee State: I’m picking this one mostly because of the steam coming out of my ears when the Gophers snagged a 5-seed while Wisconsin came away with an 8-seed. Starting guard (and noted UWM transfer) Akeem Springs just blew out his Achilles and is done for the year, so there’s a logical reason to pick against Minnesota, as well. But I’m more concerned with balancing out injustice in the world.

(4) Butler vs. (13) Winthrop: I’m going to level with you–for a team that was in Marquette’s conference, I didn’t actually watch a lot of Butler this year.  I feel like they're just going to crash and burn next round anyway, so let's eliminate them now at the hands of a Winthrop team that I know nothing about.  It's a low-risk way to work in another upset in a year when we're going to see lots of them.

(6) Cincinnati vs. (12) Wake Forest: Every time I would see Cincinnati on TV this year I’d go into the game thinking that they weren’t that great, and then be quickly reminded that they never seem to lose. In any other year I’d probably pick against the Bearcats because head coach Mick Cronin preemptively called the NCAA selection process "rigged" a few weeks back (heaven knows I hate conspiracy theorists). But after my palpable anger when the seeds were released on Sunday night, I find myself kind of liking this Cronin fellow now. The strong run by Wake Forest to close out the season ends here.

(3) UCLA vs. (14) Kent State: I’ll talk later about how UCLA is overrated, but for now, let’s just agree that they’re still good enough to out-talent a Kent State team that snuck in by winning the MAC tournament.

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Wichita State: My gut reaction when I saw this game announced was to think that Wichita State was seeded too low, but to then question how much I really knew about Wichita State. After some digging, I learned that I was right–Wichita State is seeded too low. That’s a shame not just for them, but for a legitimately good Dayton team that shouldn’t have to play the Shockers this early. In a just world, I’d be talking about how great both of these mid-major teams is and how they’ll each make waves in the tournament. But instead, here I am talking about which one will be killed off immediately. So I’m going with a sympathy pick for the team that got hosed. Plus, the Wichita State fans my pal Samip and I befriended at the opening round games in Omaha two years ago were really cool.

(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Northern Kentucky: Fun fact: I visited the Northern Kentucky campus six years ago (back when they were Division 2) and own an NKU jersey and two NKU basketball t-shirts, thanks to an unbelievable clearance sale going on at the bookstore. Less fun fact: As a season ticket holder for a Horizon League team this year, I can tell you definitively that winning the league is a bit less impressive feat this year than usual. Which is to say that the starters for Northern Kentucky are going to be crying in the second half of this one, while the starters for Regular Kentucky are going to be resting.

Second Round

East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (8) Wisconsin: I love the Badgers, but I don’t trust them. It’s certainly possible I’m wrong, but when your second round opponent is the #1 overall seed in the tournament, I don’t see things ending well.
(4) Florida vs. (5) Virginia: I have a friend who’s a big Virginia fan. Loves the team, goes to most games, and knows more about them than 99% of the population. A few weeks ago when Virginia was in the midst of a rough patch, we were talking about their upcoming game against N.C. State and he noted he had randomly seen the Las Vegas line on the game and that betting against Virginia to win by 5.5 would be the easiest way of making money ever. Virginia proceeded to win the game by 15, contradicting everything that my friend said (and making me very happy that neither of us was anywhere near Vegas at the time). But his lack of confidence in UVA’s ability to score still speaks volumes. Take the Gators here.

(6) SMU vs. (14) New Mexico State: I’m not just picking the Mustangs here because I picked a 14-seed to be their opponent. SMU is legitimately awesome. They have no bench and rely almost exclusively on a 6-man rotation of interchangeable guys. But every one of those guys is pretty great. They’re athletic, fun to watch, and while I’m not saying that their team trainer found a cure for cancer earlier this year, I’m not *not* saying he found a cure for cancer. I think other people have caught on to how good the Mustangs are, so they may end up being a trendy upset pick. This mildly angers me, as I was on them months ago.

(2) Duke vs. (10) Marquette: Steve Wojciechowski has decent talent and will be taking on his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, a coaching legend, who has outstanding talent. Duke wins every metric here. They’re even traditionally better at getting hot from three-point range. Marquette always has a puncher’s chance with their three-point shooters, but that chance is pretty slim in this one.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (8) Northwestern: In an ironic twist, Northwestern falls here because a weak Big Ten failed to prepare it for the talents of the West Coast Conference champion.

(4) West Virginia vs. (12) Princeton: Fact: Less than a month ago while coaching against Texas, WVU head coach Bob Huggins collapsed during a timeout when his defibrillator went off, shocking his heart back into correct rhythm. He proceeded to briefly talk to team medical staff before shaking off the near heart attack, heading back to the bench, and continuing to coach. So yeah, I’d say he’s not leaving until he’s good and ready.

(11) Xavier vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast: My "let’s get weird" proclamation puts me in a situation where neither team looks like a realistically good bet to get to the Sweet 16. Xavier is more of a proven commodity, however, so let’s go with the Musketeers here.

(1) Arizona vs. (7) St. Mary’s: As I said last round, St. Mary’s is legit. One problem, though. Their star player Jock Landale who completely overwhelms most opponents? He tends to struggle mightily when he has to play against good big men who can stand up to him. I’m thinking he’s not going to like Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (9) Miami: Frank Mason is well-rested after Kansas’ early exit from the Big 12 tournament, and teammate Josh Jackson is even more well rested after his suspension from that tournament game for damaging the car of a KU women’s hoops player. A well-rested KU team wins this on easily.

(5) Iowa State vs. (4) Purdue: Let’s take a look at that
Deonte Burton dunk in the Big 12 tournament. I want more of that in my life. Plus, have you heard that the Big Ten isn’t actually all that good this year? Cyclones advance.
(11) Rhode Island vs. (3) Oregon: My pal Austin is a huge Ducks fan. A couple days ago I texted him my condolences on Chris Boucher’s torn ACL closing out one of the most patently unfair senior seasons for any player ever. Austin replied that he thought this development put Oregon’s ceiling at about the Elite Eight. Taking the standard discount for rabid fan expectations, this means Oregon shouldn’t make the second weekend. I actually kind of think they’re going to win this one, but hey, I’m not the expert on the Ducks.

(7) Michigan vs. (2) Louisville: If you don’t think real hard, Louisville looks really good. Then when you look at their schedule, it reveals that they’ve got a 5-7 record against teams that were top-25 at the time the Cardinals played them this season. And one of the wins in that total was against early-season Indiana, which we now know was an overrated garbage team. I looked up that info basically just because it seemed like I needed a better justification for this pick than really liking Wolverine big man Mo Wagner.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (9) Seton Hall: Seton Hall’s trio of junior stars (Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Kadeem Carrington) make this one closer than anyone expects, but the Pirates ultimately can’t overcome Carolina’s super deep, super talented roster.

(13) Winthrop vs. (12) Middle Tennessee State: I once saw an episode of Bar Rescue that featured a place from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Middle Tennessee State is located. Let’s just say I have no interest in ever going to Murfreesboro.

(1) UCLA vs. (11) Wake Forest: Let’s get this straight–UCLA is maybe the most fun team to watch in the entire country. Fun does not always equal good, though, and so I think they’ve been overrated for a good portion of the year. The 3-seed they received, though, implies that people eventually caught on to the Bruins’ flaws. I’ve been waiting since December to pick someone to upset them in the tournament, but none of the thoroughly uninspiring first and potential second round opponents is going to get the job done. Plus, for the good of the country, we need to see UCLA play an insanely entertaining Sweet Sixteen game against...

(2) Kentucky vs. (10) Wichita State: Right about now Kentucky’s players are realizing that this is their last shot at a national championship. Not because they’re seniors who’ve exhausted their eligibility, but rather because they’re freshmen who stopped going to class second semester and would be ineligible to play next year. So this game is going to mean a lot more to them, since it's their final chance to shine before going pro.


Sweet Sixteen


East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (4) Florida: I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for promising that things would get weird, and then making my first game prediction for the Sweet 16 one where both seeds hold, and the 1-seed keeps winning. If it’s any consolation, Villanova is usually the 1-seed that I proclaim to be a sham and have losing in the second round.
(2) Duke vs. (6) SMU: Can we talk for a moment about Grayson Allen’s bizarre career? His first year, he was largely unknown before being forced into action in the national championship game and almost single-handedly stealing the title from Wisconsin. His sophomore year he became arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the country. And now? He’s no longer a starter, stays on the sidelines during crunch time, and is best known for his dirty tactics on the floor. Anyway, enough about Grayson Allen. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye is leading SMU to victory over his old teammates. Mark it down.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) West Virginia: A few weeks back I heard a few media types talking about how people tend to think that Gonzaga rarely lives up to expectations in the tournament, but that when you actually look at things, they tend to live up to exactly what they’re supposed to do in the tournament. This year the Zags have a stacked roster and are supposed to make a deep tournament run.  Presuming that those media types are accurate (and I did not stop to check their research), the Zags should keep moving on.

(2) Arizona vs. (11) Xavier: Arizona isn’t going to let freaking Xavier get in the way of a chance to avenge its December 3rd loss to Gonzaga. I just wish they’d show next round’s rematch at 10:30pm so that it could feel normal to those of us who like to take in the occasional West Coast hoops game.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (5) Iowa State: As noted earlier, Iowa State is my pet team. They also went 1-1 against Kansas during the regular season. So it’s only natural that I’d take the Cyclones to steal one more against a conference rival they’ve proven they can beat. Your square friends are all picking the Jayhawks, because 1-seeds are safe. Safety is for chumps this year, though.
(7) Michigan vs. (11) Rhode Island: I should be freaking out and questioning my sanity for having these teams playing for a spot in the Elite Eight, but I’m not. The higher seeds in their bracket are ones that aren’t going to win your bracket for you, anyway, so I’m happy taking a shot with these two. Let’s go with Michigan for the win here because a) I think a 7-seed going to the Elite Eight still sort of qualifies as getting weird, and b) it will make me feel better about Wisconsin losing to the Wolverines in the Big Ten championship game.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (13) Winthrop: Winthrop may or may not be playing in this game, but given that the toughest potential opponent that the Tarheels could play here is Butler, I'm highly confident that North Carolina won't be challenged here.
(2) Kentucky vs. (3) UCLA: Good God is this going to be fun. I’m working out now just so that I don’t lose my breath just watching these teams run up and down the floor. Besides enjoying the massive point total that this game will produce, it will be fun observing your friends who watch less college hoops than you notice UCLA forward Thomas Welsh try to blend in with everyone and hearing them eventually ask "How did that tall, dorky-looking dude sneak past security and get a UCLA jersey?" Wildcats take this one on the last day when Malik Monk ever feels like he has the upper-hand on Lonzo Ball.

Elite Eight

Midwest Region

(1) Villanova vs. (6) SMU: If you read my earlier comments, you’re probably thinking "Really, Chris–a team that mostly plays just 6 guys is getting this far? Aren’t they going to get tired at some point?" And I’ll answer that fake question that I made up to fit my own narrative with another question: Do you remember what it was like to be 20 years old? I was a worst case scenario at that age: overweight, out of shape, and my only regular physical activity came when they played "Jump Around" at Wisconsin football games and six times per year I had to jump up and down for 45 straight seconds. But whenever one of my buddies randomly asked if I wanted to play pick-up hoops at the rec center? I was running up and down the floor like a crazy person for two hours without ever even thinking about my stamina. So no, I’m not going to worry about some college kids wearing down from playing four basketball games over a two-week period. I think they can handle it.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (2) Arizona: Right about now is when you should usually start questioning how good Gonzaga is, given that they play in the WCC. But this is a roster that would compete in the Pac-12. And they’ll prove that by taking down the Pac-12 champ. 

East Region

(5) Iowa State vs. (7) Michigan: Two of my battles to get to the Final Four involve one and two seeds facing off, so let’s be happy that I effectively lived up to the "let’s get weird!" theme in at least one region (truth be told, I have extreme trouble getting weird). I’m thinking Michigan’s strong end of season run finally ends here, though. Without doing any historical research, a loss in the Elite Eight feels like the usual John Beilein team ceiling. (Note: Don’t read that as a slam on Beilein–top eight is a pretty great landing spot.)

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Kentucky:  This is a pure odds play.  Kentucky's half of the bracket features about four other teams that could end up in this spot without it being totally surprising.  I see only one team on North Carolina's side of the bracket (I'm looking at you, Seton Hall) that I think has a legit shot at beating them.  So because UNC is so much more likely just to be here than Kentucky is, I'm picking the Heels.

Final Four

Gonzaga vs. SMU: So by now you know how much I love SMU. And you probably know that I want to pick them through to the finals. But they’ve got one fatal flaw: my friend Adam picked them as his sleeper team this year. Each year Adam runs through some weird amalgamation of statistics that he compiles and finds one team that he completely falls in love with. And it has been my experience that while Adam is a really wonderful guy, his statistical models are pure garbage. So while my gut tells me that SMU can do this, my brain tells me that Adam can’t possibly be right about something this big.  I’m hedging my bets and picking Gonzaga through to the finals.
North Carolina vs. Iowa State: Logically, UNC wins this game. But two #1 seeds in the finals in 2017? That’s just not right. Iowa State–you’re in the right place at the right time, so I’m saying you win this game. Let’s get weird! Let’s get weird! Let’s get weird!


Gonzaga vs. Iowa State: Honestly, I wondered how Gonzaga couldn’t take a step back after losing Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, the stars of last year's team. Enter transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, a healthy Przemek Karnowski, and McDonald’s All-American freshman Zach Collins and against all odds, the roster actually got better. We’ve known for close to a decade that Gonzaga isn’t just some tiny mid-major from the Northwest, and this is finally the year that they notch their first national championship to validate their status as a national power and reward coach Mark Few's decision to stick around for awhile (say, what's Dan Monson up to these days?). Plus, I’ll level with you—I’m confused at how I picked Iowa State to get this far. That’s honestly probably not happening. I’m realizing just now that I may have gotten too weird.

I’ll be happy for the Zags when they pull this off. But I’ll be sad for the rest of the nation, as we’ll be resigned to at least two years of listening fans of every mid-major program in the country bitterly arguing that their team should be able to do exactly what Gonzaga just did if they just start doing things the right way. Yeah, you have fun with putting that really easy plan together Quinnipiac fans.

Enjoy the games, and enjoy getting weird with the brackets!


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Back From the Dead: 2016 NCAA Tournament Picks

After a few years away, I’ve decided to briefly break my long silence to do one of my favorite things—write up my picks for the entire tournament.  Every damn game.  Why now, you ask? 

One, I missed the old blog and wanted to check in.  No, I’m not planning on reviving it or anything, but a quick burst of basketball pontification is probably good for my soul. 

Two, I watched a lot of non-local basketball this year.  Back when I was blogging regularly I was so busy going to high school games, making sure that I watched every Marquette, Wisconsin and UWM game, and generally keeping up on local stuff that I didn’t get to pay much attention to other teams.  This year?  Let’s just say I watched a lot of Big 12 games, and that my wife who falls asleep at 9pm has no idea how well acquainted I am with UCLA (which admittedly does me no good in the tournament).  So I’m probably more informed about the tourney teams these days than I was back when I was actually writing about things every day. And it would be a crime not to put my picks on the record before the tournament starts.

So I’m back.  It’s probably a one-off, so the lucky one or two of you reading this shouldn’t get too excited.  Just know that I’m still happily watching plenty of hoops, but that I sadly don’t have time to write an essay about it every freaking day anymore.

Before the picks, here’s my traditional preamble, last posted (gasp—has it been this long?) five years ago:

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” Northern Iowa knocking off Texas A&M, or telling him that some guy whose picks you followed got it knew that Arizona 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 always 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 68 teams in this tournament, and unless your name is Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale, you probably haven’t seen all of them. So go ahead and pick Cincinnati to win a game because you had a really fun weekend in that city once, 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:


Before I get to the games themselves, I’d like to take a moment to personally thank the NCAA for no longer calling these “first round” games and confusing us all about what to call every round of the tournament.  Not elevating the First Four over what they are is a huge step in the right direction.  It almost makes me fully accept a 68-team tournament instead of a 64.  Almost.

On to the games:

Vanderbilt (11) vs. Wichita State (11):  Finally, a First Four game that will be delightful to watch!  Wichita State is going to be a popular pick because a) they were legitimately awesome last year, and b) Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are very good players who have seemingly been around forever.  But I’m going with Vanderbilt here.  The Commodores have under-performed, but I’d put up the talent of Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones as being even better.  And Baldwin and Jones are surrounded by more talent.  Bonus points for Brookfield’s Riley LaChance playing for the Commodores, though I’m raking some of those bonus points back due to LaChance’s loss of a starting spot and reduction in minutes this year.  Come on, Kevin Stallings—play the Wisconsin guy!

Florida Gulf Coast (16) vs. Farleigh Dickinson (16):  Fun fact—a few years back when the “Dunk City” FGSU team became national darlings on their super-fun and super-improbable trip to the Sweet 16, I was one click away from fully jumping on the bandwagon with an online purchase of a Florida Gulf Coast jersey.  Because that was one of the most awesome Cinderella teams ever.  This year the fiscal responsibility that I showed in not buying that jersey is finally rewarded as Farleigh Dickinson reminds us that it’s not 2013 anymore.

Michigan (11) vs. Tulsa (11):  I know nothing about Tulsa, but I know Michigan well.  The Wolverines are just good enough to be annoying, but not much beyond that.  So get ready for at least one more game of announcers talking about how Duncan Robinson transferred from a division three where he didn’t play all that much.  I know I love repeatedly hearing that story every time the camera pans to Robinson during any game.

Holy Cross (16) vs. Southern (16):  Buzz off, Bill Simmons.


Kansas (1) vs. Austin Peay (16):  I just hope that during this game we’ll hear the crowd chanting “Let’s go Peay!” at some point.  That legitimately never gets old.

Colorado (8) vs. Connecticut (9):  You’re going to hear a lot of talk about how over-seeded the Pac-12 is this week.  I’m not saying that’s incorrect, but that’s not what this pick is about.  I like Colorado.  But you know how everyone talks about how Michigan State is great in March?  How come no one talks about UConn being pretty darn good in March, too?  I mean, they always seem to get hot at the right time.  And if nothing else, there are few head coaches more fun to watch when they’re excited than the Huskies’ Kevin Ollie.

Maryland (5) vs. South Dakota (12):  I’d like to see South Dakota State point guard and former Wisconsin Badger, George Marshall, get a chance to pull the upset here.  But Maryland’s starting five is just way too talented for a mid-major to upset.

California (4) vs. Hawaii (13):  Cal has a talented senior point guard in the backcourt, two freshman who were McDonald’s All-Americans in the frontcourt, and has been playing very well over the last month or so.  I kind of love the Bears—they’re among my handful of favorite teams in the tournament.  Hawaii plays in a time zone where it’s impossible to see them, so I have no intelligence on them.  But let's be honest--I was picking Cal here no matter who they ended up paired with.

Arizona (6) vs. Vanderbilt/Wichita State (11):  I’ve already put forward that I think Vanderbilt wins the play-in game, but both of the potential 11-seeds for this game are flawed teams.  Arizona beats Vandy because they’re one of the few teams that can keep up with the Commodores’ athletes.  And they beat Wichita State because the Wildcat roster is simply more talented.  Arizona is moving on no matter who they play.

Miami (3) vs. Buffalo (14):  I could get into analysis of analytics for both teams, or I could just give a dismissive quip about how I’d rather spend a week in Miami than a week in Buffalo.  I think I’ll be lazy and go with the latter.

Iowa (7) vs. Temple (10):  Unquestionably the toughest game to pick of the first round.  Iowa is definitely one of those situations where the sum is better than it’s mediocre (save for Jared Uthoff, who I think is phenomenal) parts.  Despite their freefall over the last few weeks of the season, I think the Hawkeyes right the ship and get past a very solid Temple squad.  Is this rational?  Probably not, but lots of things in the tournament are irrational.

Villanova (2) vs. UNC-Asheville (15):  The only thing I know about UNC-Asheville is that that were totally fun to watch a few years back when they had 7’7” center Kenny George who could pretty much dunk without jumping.  I’m pretty sure they don’t have anyone that tall anymore, so I’ll go with Villanova here.

WEST REGION: First Round

Oregon (1) vs. Holy Cross/Southern (16):  Ducks win big, and as always, reserve forward Dwayne Benjamin finishes out the game looking like the coolest guy in the building. 

Saint Joseph’s (8) vs. Cincinnati (9):  This sucks.  I hate picking against Phil Martelli.  He’s a good coach, and Saint Joe’s flew under the radar while having a good season in the A-10.  But every time I saw Cincy play this year they were surprisingly solid.  So I’ll begrudgingly pick the Bearcats here.  Either way, a good team is going home at the end of this one.

Baylor (5) vs. Yale (12):  Sometimes you don't pick a game in the tournament because of the game itself, but instead do so taking a long view of the tournament.  I actually have seen Yale play and like the Bulldogs a lot.  I certainly wouldn't kill you for picking them here.  But ultimately, I'm looking ahead to the next round when I want to call an early exit for a Duke team that severely lacks depth.  And Baylor's the more likely team to get that job done, so I have to pick them here. 

Duke (4) vs. UNC-Wilmington (13):  If the sentiment of the state of North Carolina controlled the outcome of this one, Wilmington would roll.  Unfortunately, the outcome of this one will be determined much more by Brandon Ingram’s jump shot than how the citizens of the home state of both teams feel.

Texas (6) vs. Northern Iowa (11):  Hey, remember when Northern Iowa beat North Carolina and Iowa State earlier this year?  You don’t?  Well believe it or not, I’m not making that up.  Yeah, the Panthers weren’t world-beaters in a down year for the Missouri Valley Conference, but they get up for big games.  Don’t worry, Texas fans—while this won’t be Shaka’s year, he’ll take your Longhorns far in the near future.

Texas A&M (3) vs. Green Bay (14):  Is this a sentimental homer pick or do I simply disrespect the SEC this much?  A little from column A, and a little from column B.  But I honestly don’t think that this is an unreasonable upset pick.  After all, Green Bay has more talent than it should, given that it has one of the more terrible campuses in the UW system.

Oregon State (7) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (10):  Oregon State is a big “meh” for me, particularly with second leading scorer Tres Tinkle likely still sidelined with an injury.  But VCU’s up and coming coach is gone, and I’m ready to jump off the bandwagon now.  Go Beavers!

Oklahoma (2) vs. Cal State Bakersfield (15):  If Buddy Hield releases his half-court shot .1 seconds earlier last Friday, there's a decent chance we're all talking about the Sooners' great run to the Big 12 championship right now.  The clock can be cruel sometimes.

EAST REGION: First Round

North Carolina (1) vs. Florida Gulf Coast/Farleigh Dickenson (16):  Fun fact—when I was a kid I wanted my parents to let me paint a Carolina blue lane area in front of the hoop in our driveway.  Instead, we compromised and I was allowed to paint a small black free-throw line so that I could work on the most boring part of my game.  And my parents driveway remained decidedly not weird.

USC (8) vs. Providence (9):  No more talented duo in the tourney than Providence’s Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil.  USC is one of those crazy teams that is entertaining to watch, but is actually maddeningly inconsistent.  I’ll take the talented duo in this one.

Indiana (5) vs. Chatanooga (12):  I want to pick a team called the “Mocs,” but IU is going to win at least one to keep me infuriated with Tom Crean's success.

Kentucky (4) vs. Stony Brook (13):  Kentucky doesn’t start five lottery picks this year, but they’ve still got more of them than Stony Brook, so I think I’ll take the Wildcats.

Notre Dame (6) vs. Michigan/Tulane (11):  Let’s see—two teams that probably shouldn’t be in the tournament versus a Notre Dame team that always seems to be a let-down in the tournament.  Geez, can I just pick none of them?  I guess I’ll go with Notre Dame, but I’m not happy about it.

West Virginia (3) vs. Stephen F. Austin (14):  In isolation, it makes virtually no sense that I own not one, but two West Virginia basketball jerseys.  But I assure you that if you hear the story behind why I acquired each of them, both acquisitions make complete sense.  Kind of.

Wisconsin (7) vs. Pittsburgh (10):  I didn’t see a lot of Pittsburgh this year, but I feel like they weren’t the most consistent team around.  I’m probably wildly wrong about that, as I’m basing it on nothing more than never being sure how many points Jamel Artis would score on Fanduel.  The Badgers have been pretty good over the last two months, so let’s keep them moving on.  And let’s hope I can get out of work early enough to watch the game in Plover on Friday night with some pals.

Xavier (2) vs. Weber State (15):  When you have a point guard whose name is phonetically the same to that of a legendary jazz musician, you have to pick that team.


Virginia (1) vs. Hampton (16):  Remember back when Tony Bennett was coaching at Washington State and everyone thought he was cool because he wore a shirt and blazer with no tie?  Yeah, I thought that was a cool look, too.

Texas Tech (8) vs. Butler (9):  I could tell you that I put a lot of thought into this game, but let’s be honest—of the two teams involved, I’ve really only seen Butler play, and I can’t pick against a guy with the crafty-old-man-at-the-YMCA game of Roosevelt Jones.  That dude is super fun to watch.

Purdue (5) vs. Little Rock (12):  Big drum beats Little Rock.  (I recognize how lazy and dumb that comment is, and I apologize.)

Iowa State (4) vs. Iona (13):  Last year I picked Iowa State for the Final Four, and while traveling to Omaha to attend Wisconsin’s first round game, a friend and I pulled off to a Buffalo Wild Wings in Iowa and had our pick of tables as angry Iowa State fans came streaming out the doors after their surprising first-round loss right as we arrived.  The Cyclones won’t be taking anyone lightly this year.

Seton Hall (6) vs. Gonazaga (11): I guarantee you this will be a popular upset pick.  Gonzaga’s a perennial tournament team, has just finished a four-episode behind-the-scenes documentary series on HBO, and has two high-scoring forwards, one of whom (Domantas Sabonis) is the son of one of the best basketball players to ever walk the earth.  I’ve long referred to them as “Late Night Duke” due to Gonzaga’s status as the easiest team to see on TV if you’re awake past 10pm. But don’t go with the simpletons on this one.  The Bulldogs had to win their conference tournament to even be here, and Seton Hall just got done with a very impressive run to the Big East Tournament championship game.  The Pirates are the right pick here.

Utah (3) vs. Fresno State (14):  My friend Adam, who always has a gambling angle, told me back in November that Utah was his national champion futures bet pick in Vegas.  Given Adam’s propensity to be wrong about these things, that should be enough to disqualify me from picking the Utes to win a single tournament.  But given the mini-reemergence from senior forward Jordan Loveridge during the last 2-3 weeks or so, the Utes will be a moderately tough out.

Dayton (7) vs. Syracuse (10):  Geez, I honestly don’t know on this one.  Seeing as I didn’t expect Syracuse to make the tourney, and Dayton always seems to be better than expected this time of year, the Flyers get my nod.

Michigan State (2) vs. Middle Tennessee (15):  Did you see Mark Titus’s joke assertion on Twitter that Denzel Valentine wasn’t actually hurt earlier this year, but that Tom Izzo just didn’t want his team to peak before March?  That this seemed like a not-completely-insane theory to some people solidifies just how bankable Michigan State is in March.

SOUTH REGION: Second Round

Kansas (1) vs. Connecticut (8):  Kansas won the best conference in America this year.  UConn is the biggest name in a glorified mid-major conference.  Give me the battle-tested Jayhawks.

Maryland (5) vs. Cal (4):  My pal Ferd texted me right when seedings came out and told me how Maryland was going to absolutely destroy Cal in this game, basically stating that this was a universal fact.  I politely disagreed and added that Cal is one of my favorite teams in this tournament.  The Bears are peaking at the right time, and I think Diamond Stone is a total dick after he basically tried to injure Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown earlier this year.  And good always triumphs over evil in the end.  Suck it, Ferd—Cal’s winning this one!

Arizona (6) vs. Miami (3):  I’ve got the winner crossed out three times on my bracket.  How do I break down a solid, nondescript Miami team against an exciting Arizona squad?  Then I remembered that Miami is coached by the sneaky-good Jim Laranaga.  Yeah, I guess I’ll take the Laranaga team.

Iowa (7) vs. Villanova (2):  I admit I don’t feel great about this one, but to me, Villanova is like electronica music was in the mid-1990s.  You can tell me that it’s the next big thing all you want, but no matter how much you push, it’s just not happening.  Villanova can (and should) win the uninteresting Big East every year, as far as I’m concerned.  And I’ll still continue to top out my respect for them at the 3-4 seed level.  Seeing as I never broke down bought a CD by The Prodigy, I think that's more than ample respect for the Wildcats.  But they still lose to an okay Iowa team.

Oregon (1) vs. Cincinnati (9):  Am I really picking an Oregon team to win because I think they’re more consistent than the team they’re playing?  Good Lord, I think I actually am.

Baylor (5) vs. Duke (4):  I don’t love either of these teams, but I see Duke being done in by a) their lack of depth, and b) karma coming back to bite America’s most hated player, Grayson Allen, in some way.  I hope Allen tries to trip Rico Gathers, a man who’s built more like an NFL defensive lineman than a college hoopster, and gets appropriately pummeled.

Northern Iowa (11) vs. Green Bay (14):  Sorry to any Texans reading this—I know this was supposed to be your big Texas vs. Texas A&M game.  But this is a weird year in college basketball, and I actually honestly believe the game I picked could happen.  Green Bay’s luck is running out now, though.  I can’t be that much of a homer, no matter how surprisingly decent I thought the Horizon League was this year.

Oregon State (7) vs. Oklahoma (2):  I’ve pretty much been saying from day 1 that Oklahoma was my favorite to win the national championship.  They’ve had a rough last month, but hey, their conference was brutally tough this year.  I’m certainly not crossing the Sooners off in favor of an Oregon State team that, along with the rest of its conference brothers, has received way too much respect in the seeding process.

EAST REGION: Second Round

North Carolina (1) vs. Providence (9):  Oddly enough, Providence may be the one team in the country with two players more talented than North Carolina’s usual roster of highly recruited players.  But top to bottom, the Heels still have more overall talent.  And come on—in a year when Donald Trump is inexplicably leading the Republican candidate in the presidential race, there’s no way that a school that is commonly referred to in shorthand as “PC” is making a big tournament run.

Indiana (5) vs. Kentucky (4):  This is the best roster that Indiana coach Tom Crean has had.  He’d better not get used to it, because if history is any guide, this offseason 2-3 players will announce they’re transferring, one of his assistants will take a job elsewhere, and by the end of non-conference season Indiana fans will begin their annual ritual of linking to my post from when Crean left Marquette and telling me that I’m basically Nostradamus.  Man, do I dislike Tom Crean.  Oh yeah, and Kentucky is actually playing amazingly well right now.

West Virginia (3) vs. Notre Dame (6):  In the frontcourt, Notre Dame has Zach Auguste, a lanky, high-energy guy who looks like he skipped taking his Ritalin yesterday.  And West Virginia has Devin Williams, a badass dude whose arms look like they were cut from granite and is the first outstanding player in a long time to regularly sport rec specs.  If you think I’m not picking the guy with rec specs, you obviously have never seen a photo of me from my days as a mediocre JV center in high school.

Wisconsin (7) vs. Xavier (2):  Part of this is a homer pick on my part, and part of this is, again, my strong skepticism of anything that happened in the Big East this year.  Don’t get me wrong—Xavier is no joke, but if you asked me the 2-seed that I’d like to see Wisconsin face, I’d take this year’s Matt Stainbrook-less (man am I sad he graduated last year) Xavier over Oklahoma, Michigan State and Villanova every day.  Of course, if Xavier wins this one, I still get to chuckle as I read fans on Marquette message boards electronically high-fiving over a win by one of their conference foes and un-ironically pointing out that Greg Gard has never beaten a higher seeded team in the NCAA tournament.  So basically, if this game happens I win no matter what the outcome is.
Virginia (1) vs. Butler (9):  I watched a lot of random basketball games this season, and I think I finally get why people say that teams like Virginia, who play sound defense and methodically pound teams into submission are boring.  It’s because they are boring if you have no connection to them.  Yeah, I get that Tony Bennett’s system wins games, and I get that Malcolm Brogdon has been arguably the best player in the country this year.  And if I was a Virginia alum, I’d be making these points until I was blue in the face.  Because if I was a Virginia alum, a winning team with an epically great player would be truly exciting to me.  Any reasonable person should want Tony Bennett coaching his or her favorite team, because winning is fun no matter how it happens.  But as some dumbass fan who just wants to watch something exciting?  Sorry—I’m flipping on UCLA and watching Steve Alford force his son to take eight more shots per game than he should en route to losing to a mediocre Pac-12 foe with much less talent.  Anyway, Virginia’s not going down early this year—they’re super legit.  And frankly, they’re actually much more watchable than usual for the casual fan, even if they’re still not exactly Iowa State-level entertaining.

Purdue (5) vs. Iowa State (4):  You know how I just said that Iowa State is entertaining?  Incredibly, I didn’t even notice that they were about to be in the next game I had to write about.  In terms of teams that I have no connection to, Iowa State was my go-to team to watch this year.  They’re an up-tempo team with three Wisconsin natives in their main rotation, they played in the top conference in the country this year, and their star player, Georges Niang, gets less elevation than I do when shooting jump shots.  If the Cyclones get hot on any given night, no one short of the Golden State Warriors is stopping them.  The Cyclones aren’t always hot, thought, and a veteran Purdue team that is peaking at the right time is just the sort of team that will frustrate them out of the gym.  Take the Boilermakers here.

Seton Hall (6) vs. Utah (3):  Jakab Poeltl is great and all, and his teammates have finally been helping him out down the stretch, so the logical choice is Utah here.  But I just have a gut feeling that Seton Hall keeps playing over their heads.  Yep, that’s the sort of crack analysis you’re getting from me.

Dayton (7) vs. Michigan State (2):  Izzo in March, yadda, yadda, yadda.

SOUTH REGION: Sweet Sixteen

Kansas (1) vs. California (4):  Call this one a fear pick.  I’d like to pick Cal, but they’ve got a much less certain path to even get to this game than Kansas (that’s right Ferd—I’m less confident about Cal beating Maryland than I showed in the text that I sent the other day).  So out of self-preservation, the Jayhawks are the pick here.  But if you're in a pool where boldness counts for something, go ahead--pick the Bears.  You could make a lot worse choices.

Miami (3) vs. Iowa (7):  Miami is a rock-solid team with no real stars.  Iowa is a semi-solid team with one real star (Jarod Uthoff) and another guy (Peter Jok) who can randomly go off for about 27 points on any given night. Am I actually picking Iowa to win because of their talent?  Yeah, even I’m confused now.

WEST REGION: Sweet Sixteen

Oregon (1) vs. Baylor(5):  Shield your eyes, because the lighting yellow incorporated into uniforms on both sides in this one is going to be utterly blinding.  Normally this would be where I would pick Oregon to lose, as I think they’re a 1-seed due to circumstance this year, as no one really jumped out and claimed those four coveted spots.  But Baylor?  Eh, maybe if Rico Gathers was healthy and playing like his old self, but not with Taurean Waller-Prince having to carry that much of the load and Johnathan Motley's playing time still being inexplicably inconsistent.

Northern Iowa (11) vs. Oklahoma (2):  I could justify this one by talking about how a senior-laden team with a star player (Buddy Hield) who took a leap to the next level reminds me a lot of my beloved Badgers last year.  And if you’ve spoken to me at all this year, you know that I do believe those things and think that’s why Oklahoma is going far this year.  But for this game?  Yeah, I picked an 11-seed to get through to this game.  I can’t justify taking Northern Iowa any further, no matter who they’re playing.

North Carolina (1) vs. Kentucky (4):  All the pundits are talking about how this has the potential to be an outstanding game, and Kentucky is probably North Carolina’s biggest roadblock en route to the Final Four.  And as much as I hate to agree with conventional wisdom, I think this has potential to be an outstanding game, and that Kentucky is probably North Carolina’s biggest roadblock en route to the Final Four.  Kentucky would almost be a sympathetic team here, given that two of their key players are seniors, and they haven’t just been blatantly out-talenting other teams this year.  Then you remember that Kentucky is just taking a short break from its annual tradition of having groups of 18-year-olds hang out on their campus for a year before heading to the NBA (you know, sort of how Skal Labissiere has taken a break from being a useful basketball player until the last 3-4 games of this year).  At the end of the day, Brice Johnson’s grabbing 20 or so rebounds and the Tarheels are moving on, even though this one will be every bit as close as expected.

West Virginia (3) vs. Wisconsin (7):  Bob Huggins seems like kind of a jerk, but he’s a hell of a basketball coach.  His West Virginia team reminds me of his early Cincinnati teams, in that you never think of them as one of the best or most talented teams, but they always seem to be standing around as winners at the end of the game.  That’s essentially what happens here.  I have them taking out my Badgers, who fought the good fight this year after losing a ton of talent from last year’s team and having to fight through plenty of turmoil caused by Bo Ryan’s scandal-filled exit.  But truthfully, West Virginia’s probably my biggest lock to advance to the Elite Eight regardless of who they play here.  The Mountaineers are just rock solid, even if you never took the time to notice them.


Virginia (1) vs. Purdue (5):  Get ready for lots of crotchety middle-aged white guys (like myself these days, I suppose) proclaiming that this game is this round’s best example of basketball “as it was meant to be played.”  Two teams that are pretty sound in every facet of the game and who seem to be riding momentum heading into the tourney should be fun to watch.  But Virginia actually has the pieces to back up its 1-seed this year, so I see them moving on, no matter how huge and awesome Purdue’s interior players are.

Seton Hall (6) vs. Michigan State (2):  I’ve given more respect to Seton Hall than any other Big East team, but there’s only so much respect I can dole out to them.  Plus, have you guys heard that Tom Izzo has a pretty good record in March?  Yeah, news to me, too.


Kansas (1) vs. Iowa (7):  Holy crap—I actually picked Iowa to get one game away from the Final Four?  The same Iowa that I’m not entirely sure can beat Temple in the first round?  Did I mention that I was on some pretty strong painkillers last week?  That might have something to do with that insanity. Yeah, going to have to go with Kansas here, even if Perry Ellis underwhelms me in virtually every way. Calm down, Kansas fans--even if you go to the Final Four by default, you’re still going.

Oregon (1) vs. Oklahoma (2):  I was all-in on Oklahoma after their second game of the season, and I’m not hopping off now, especially against a 1-seed that inspires some of the least amount of confidence in the history of 1-seeds.  The only thing that derails the Sooners is if there’s any truth to my wild, totally unsupported conspiracy theory that Ryan Spangler’s inconsistency is attributable to him fixing games for the mob.  But outside of help from organized crime, I don’t see the Ducks advancing.

North Carolina (1) vs. West Virginia (3):  I was in college at Wisconsin when Dick Bennett was coach, so I appreciate a solid, workmanlike team that overachieves.  West Virginia is a solid, workmanlike team that overachieves, so I appreciate them.  But there are limits to how far a solid, workmanlike team that overachieves can go.  And the regional finals are where a talented, athletic team will final take out the solid, workmanlike team that has overachieved.

Virginia (1) vs. Michigan State (2):  Tony Bennett is a reasonable, rational guy.  And it’s a good thing he is.  Because just about anyone else in his position would have spent this past Sunday night in the emergency room with a fractured hand from punching a hole in the nearest wall and using a smartphone with their off-hand to send 68 boxes of glitter to NCAA headquarters. That would be an average person’s response to getting placed in the same region as Michigan State for the third straight year, particularly when lots of people think the Spartans deserved your 1-seed this year.  And a less well-balanced man than Tony Bennett would probably completely lose his mind after losing to Michigan State again this year, because that’s unfortunately how the game is going to go.  But Tony Bennett won’t take this lying down.  He’ll keep grinding.  And after 2-3 years of him working so methodically that we don’t even noticing how strong he’s becoming, he will end the NCAA as we know it.  I have no idea how this will happen, and neither does Tony Bennett right now.  But let this be a warning to the NCAA—you’ve been messing with the wrong guy.


Kansas (1) vs. Oklahoma (2):  Kansas has beaten Oklahoma twice this year, including a triple overtime game on January 4th that was probably the best college basketball game I’ve seen in a decade.  So really, I could justify picking this one either way—choosing Kansas based on history, or going with the old bit about how it’s really tough to beat a team three times in one season.  In the end, I’m going to pick Oklahoma on the theory that they’re due.  Kansas is probably a slightly better team than the Sooners, but they’re not 3-0 better. 

Michigan State (2) vs. North Carolina (1):  A classic NCAA matchup if there ever was one.  Both teams are built with the goal of constantly going to the Final Four, and now they’re both here.  Ultimately, North Carolina’s depth and athleticism will finally be the one thing that wins out over Michigan State’s March super powers and the all-around greatness of Denzel Valentine. 


Oklahoma (2) vs. North Carolina (1):  I’ve kind of backed myself into a corner here.  I don’t like to take the favorite—particularly in a year when there’s no clear-cut best team in the country.  So rather than riding a North Carolina team that was one of the two locks for a 1-seed this year, I’m going stick with the team that I said back in November was my pick to win it all.  Yeah, they’re not coming into the tourney as hot as a few other squads, and some of the hype has worn off, but that’s a great moment to buy low on a team.  Here’s looking forward to Buddy Hield giving us all a goofy grin as he hoists the championship trophy on April 3rd

Enjoy the tourney, everyone!  You know I'll be doing the same...

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