Monthly Archives: March 2013

March Madness First-Round Matchups

Despite bowing out early in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana was awarded the East Regional’s top seed, and their opening round matchup against the play-in winner (either Long Island or James Madison) should be little more than an exhibition. The Hoosiers simply have too much depth, talent and superior coaching. The Hoosiers road then becomes considerably more difficult however, with a second-round meeting versus either N.C. State or Temple, the 8-9 seeds. N.C. State, in particular, has the makings of a tough matchup, with a starting five as talented as any nationally. In the other sub-regional bracket, 5th-seeded UNLV takes on the 12th-seeded Cal Golden Bears. The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, especially freshman Anthony Bennett. Cal’s defense holds the key to advancement, and coach Mike Montgomery has plenty of NCAA experience. 4th-seed Syracuse has a history of overlooking first-round opponents, and this season’s foe is Montana, the 13-seed. It’s difficult to believe that Jim Boeheim won’t have the Orangemen prepared however. On the other side of the East bracket. #2-seed Miami, fresh off their program-defining ACC Championship, faces an under-publicized Pacific squad. The Hurricanes surely didn’t make it this far to come up lacking now. Their potential next opponent will be either Illinois, the #7-seed, or #10-seed Colorado. An upset (at least seed-wise) by the Buffaloes wouldn’t come as a shocker. The other East sub-regional features an interesting matchup between the Marquette Golden Eagles and Davidson. Both are deliberate, walk-it-up teams, and the team that finds their shooting eye more successfully should advance to play either 6th-seeded Butler or Bucknell, the 11-seed. Butler’s recent NCAA experience should give them an advantage, and coach Brad Stevens ALWAYS has the Bulldogs ready.

Being a No. 1 seed has advantages, and one of them is usually playing close to home early on. Such is the case with Kansas, who open in Kansas City against the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. This should be as easy a “no-brainer” as the first-round offers. The always entertaining 8-9 matchup features Roy Williams’ always-dangerous North Carolina squad against a nearly equally tough team, Villanova. The Tar Heels have been living and dying by the three-pointer recently, and how well ‘Nova defends the trifecta should hold the key. Shaka Smart’s swarming band of VCU Rams takes on the Akron Zips in the 5-12 matchup, which promises plenty of up-and-down action. In the other sub-regional contest, Michigan, playing virtually at home in Auburn Hills, should spoil South Dakota State’s second-ever Tournament appearance, although the Jackrabbits gave Baylor all they could handle last season. The South Regional’s other half features an interesting mixture of past champions (Georgetown, Florida, UCLA) and relative newcomers (Northwestern State, Florida Gulf Coast). The Hoyas welcome FGC to the Party, and it could get ugly. Their next opponent comes from either the San Diego State Aztecs or Oklahoma. SD State has made some noise in the Tournament in recent years, and should handle the Sooners. Florida’s upset loss in the SEC Tourney relegated the Gators to a three-seed and a meeting with 14th-seeded NW State. Billy Donovan’s talent-laden squad will be eager to atone for losing to Ole Miss. The young and talented UCLA Bruins, sixth-seeded but playing without injured Jordan Adams, will more than have their hands full against 11th-seeded Minnesota. An upset here is almost expected.

Mark Few’s Zags finally earned a top seed after years of “close but no cigar” assignments. Talented, experienced and extremely well-coached, expect them to dispatch of Southern fairly easily. The 8-9 matchup promises both a competitive game between Pittsburgh and Wichita State, as well as a tough matchup with Gonzaga in Round 2. Pitt’s size and depth should prevail. One of the first-round’s more unlikely matchups occurs with fifth-seeded defensively-minded Wisconsin taking on the freewheeling Ole Miss Rebels. Marshall Henderson of the Rebels is talented and fearless, but he’s also never faced a defense like Bo Ryan’s, and the Badgers should persevere. Hard-playing Kansas State will face the winner of the play-in game between Boise State and La Salle. Bruce Weber’s ‘Cats were embarrassed in the Big-12 title game and will be itching for some payback. The West’s other sub-regional tips off with Big Ten champion Ohio State matched up with the Iona Gaels in Dayton; that’s in Ohio by the way. Thad Matta’s talented group will then take on either Notre Dame or Iowa State. An upset by Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones wouldn’t surprise most observers. In the opposite sub-regional, Steve Alford’s New Mexico team has been touted as a sleeper nearly all season, and going against Ivy League champion Harvard gives them the opportunity to prove it. Next up for the Lobos should be the 6th-seeded Arizona Wildcats, although they will have to get by a hungry Belmont squad that’s 0-5 in NCAA Tournament play and is ready to change that zero.

Probably the strongest region overall, the Midwest features no less than six former national champions and four former National Coaches of the Year. The tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals, captured the Big East Tournament title and is as well-suited as anyone to hoist the trophy on April 8 in Atlanta. Their first test comes against North Carolina A&T, which they should pass easily. Up next comes the winner of Colorado State-Missouri, with Missouri probably favored, but they’ve got a history of under-achieving in March. The PAC-12 champion Oregon Ducks, disappointed at receiving only a 12th-seed, will be looking to make the doubters believe, but they have to get by Oklahoma State and super-freshman Marcus Smart first. The Ducks interior play should help them advance. The Billikens of Saint Louis come in with their highest seed ever, a No. 4, and coach Jim Crews’ savvy, experienced squad should have no trouble with New Mexico State. The Midwest’s other sub-regional gives us the #2-seeded Duke Blue Devils and 15th-seed Albany, one of the tournament’s biggest mismatches. Coach K’s team then will have to take on either Creighton and Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott or the Cincinnati Bearcats. This should be among the more entertaining first-round matchups, with Creighton able to score against anyone but offering very little defensive resistance, while Cincy is almost their polar opposite, defensively strong but offensively-challenged. Josh Pastner’s 6th-seeded Memphis squad will have to rely on their elite athleticism against play-in winner St. Mary’s, an intelligent, make-few-mistakes squad led by the Australian do-it-all Matthew Dellavedova. An upset here would not be out of the question. Tom Izzo has been here a few times before, and his Michigan State Spartans should prevail, although not overwhelmingly against 14th-seeded Valparaiso.

This March Looks to be Extra Mad

The nearly three-week national phenomenon known as March Madness is fast approaching and along with all the usual suspects, hopeful middle-of-the-pack major conference contenders and mid-major wannabes are jostling for positioning as the regular season winds down. Every year reveals a handful of teams that no one had high hopes for early in the season, and conference tournaments always produce a few surprises; 2013 should be no different. Unlike in recent seasons, when even a novice could safely predict at least one Final Four participant, this year is shaping up to literally be a crapshoot, with at least a dozen teams having legitimate national title aspirations.

Defending champion Kentucky has been up-and-down, to be expected when relying on freshmen in key roles, and their repeat hopes were probably dashed when big man Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-February, taking away the nation’s leading shot-blocker. Definitely a “bubble team,” John Calipari’s Wildcats need at least a couple more wins to secure a spot. Kansas, runnerup to Kentucky in 2012, is safely in, but this Jayhawk squad isn’t nearly as dominant as some of Bill Self’s recent teams, and their best chance to obtain a No. 1 seed probably depends on how they fare in the Big 12 Tournament. The team that’s spent more time than any other atop the polls, the Indiana Hoosiers, are about as safe a bet to be handed one of the four coveted top seedings as any team nationwide, but they’ve stumbled in some conference matchups lately and need to regain confidence (and wins) before they can punch their tournament ticket.

The other teams that have been among the top 10 in the polls for most of the season and can’t be counted out for a deep run include Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Duke, Miami, Florida and Arizona.

Rick Pitino’s Cardinals don’t have the can’t miss All-Americans, but they are an excellent defensive team and score just enough to usually win. Syracuse, in their final Big East season before joining the ACC next year, have experience, elite athleticism and a top-notch PG in Michael Carter-Williams. Another Big East squad that is rounding into shape at just the right time are the Georgetown Hoyas. Otto Porter, Jr., just a sophomore, has been developing into one of the nation’s top all-around players over the past month, and appears capable of carrying Georgetown well past the first couple of weekends. Gonzaga is a team that’s been operating under the national radar (as they do almost annually), but coach Mark Few may have his best-ever team this year. Big men Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are as efficient a one-two front court tandem as any, while PGs Kevin Pangos and David Stockton keep the Zags offense humming like a well-oiled machine. PG Trey Burke heads up a star-studded Michigan Wolverine squad, with plenty of contributions from Tim Hardaway, Jr., Glenn Robinson III and freshman big man Mitch McGary. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans seem to always play their best towards the end of the season, and this year follows the pattern. Guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris thrive on the perimeter while big men Branden Dawson and Adrien Payne take no prisoners in the paint. With Ryan Kelly’s return, Duke presents an entirely new look for opposing defenses, while seniors Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry have plenty of experience and basketball smarts to carry most teams. The surprising Miami Hurricanes haven’t hit the proverbial wall as many expected, and they might be the most experienced team in the country with a starting lineup averaging nearly 22 years of age. It’s a sophomore however, PG Shane Larkin, who directs coach Jim Larranaga’s over-achieving squad. Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators are clearly the class of a watered-down SEC, and their guard triumvirate of Boynton, Rosario and Wilbekin fully capable of playing different styles and tempos, Florida presents a formidable matchup against anyone. The Arizona Wildcats are similar to Florida in versatility and experience, and coach Sean Miller is due for some national recognition.

Several teams started out the season with big expectations, both from the experts and themselves, only to fall short and forced to scramble to get back to their once lofty level. Kentucky could be included among that group, but there are many others that also fall into that category. The N.C. State Wolfpack shocked everyone by advancing to 2012′s Sweet 16 and as a result, entered this season as ACC favorites. Several buzzer-beater losses and a healthy dose of humility later finds the ‘Pack once again underrated as tournament time nears, but with an experienced starting five and as much motivation as most teams, they may be ready to pull off a repeat of last season.

Once March Madness kicks in, all bets are essentially off. Heroes will be created in the time it takes a ball to go through the hoop while once-revered superstars will just as suddenly discover how the other half lives. Some small school will throw a huge scare into a major power and a little-known head coach will be inundated with media requests whereas before he was merely another face in the crowd. About the only sure-fire prediction about March Madness is that one team will call the season a success while 327 others will have to wait ’til next year.