Thus far my March has been maddening.
I'm both elated and frustrated. I'm elated in that my wife and I are in the process of finally moving into our dream home and frustrated in that moving residences forces you to tackle one of life's more difficult challenges head on – dealing with utility companies.
For those wondering where I've been lately, I've been time warped back to the 1970's when the only person who had the Internet was apparently the Internet's inventor, Al Gore.
I absolutely refuse to get DSL and my local cable company isn't aware that my new residence even exists yet so here I am, wandering the world aimlessly without daily access to the Internet. And let me tell you, not having access to the World Wide Web as a sportswriter is like being denied food and water. I mean I'm literally withering away here. Throw on top of that an impromptu rectal exam from my Urologist this morning and it's been a heckuva two weeks.
Fortunately, I do have satellite television and my Mega March Madness subscription has already been purchased. That will help to satisfy my appetite come tournament time but what am I to do until then? How am I to communicate to my audience?
I'm writing this story on Tuesday at 10 PM, PST and you will have to trust me when I say that I first looked at a tournament bracket on paper about two hours ago. I still don't have access to the Internet and the fish wrap I purchased today offered more coverage of the Women's Tournament than the Men's so I'm flying by the seat of my pants here.
So, with the little information I've gathered from watching Sportscenter for the fifth time today and what I've got left in my head after a long week of unpacking important things like my Sports Illustrated collection, the following are my "initial" thoughts on this year's Big Dance:
My Sweet 16 pick of the decade is Long Beach State. I haven't been this confident since picking Loyola Marymount to beat Michigan. Tennessee is the perfect guard-oriented good team that is ripe for a first round exit. I also like Albany over Virginia which sets up a nice path for the 49ers to escape the first weekend. Even if Virginia does beat Albany, they too are the type of backcourt heavy team that lives and all too often dies when their guards don't have great games.
I think Florida's toughest game along their road to the Final Four is clearly a match up with Arizona. The Wildcats will beat Purdue because Arizona traditionally plays well against teams whose star player is a power forward or center. While Florida could easily roll Arizona, I actually like Arizona's chances here. The formula for beating Florida this season is being a team that is athletic enough to run with them but smart enough to not force shots in the transition game when they're not there. What I mean is this: Florida will bait teams into thinking the fastbreak is open, especially when it's a two-on-two, or even a one-on-one situation. When the offense commits itself to the rim it seems as if a second or third Gator trailing the play comes out of nowhere to block what looked like an easy lay up. Before a team knows what hit them, Florida is then going the other way on their own three-on-two fastbreak that DOES end in a lay up or dunk. If Shakur can recognize these situations and avoid them, then Arizona has the experience and talent to play in the half court with Florida and beat them.
I think the Midwest is the easiest bracket for a powerhouse team like Florida to breeze through, but may turn out to be the one bracket with the most upsets. I know I'm talking crazy here but outside of Arizona, no team in the entire bracket matches up well with the Gators better than the Wildcats. Purdue, Maryland, Notre Dame, Oregon and Wisconsin are all not good fits against Florida. Plus, I doubt many of them will even advance past the second round. I do have the Ducks playing the Badgers for a birth into the Elite Eight, but I have Davidson upsetting Maryland and Winthrop beating Notre Dame.
My buddy Jeff desperately wants to pick Gonzaga over UCLA in a second round upset but is afraid the Zags might not get out of the first round. With Darren Collison turning an ankle in today's practice and with the Zags returning to their true Upset-Special-10-Seed, Jeff probably should go with Mark Few's bunch. Then again, I've got the Bruins losing a heartbreaker to the Jayhawks so for now I'm hoping Jeff's intuition is a bit off.
Virginia Commonwealth has an outstanding point guard. The yearlong struggles of Duke's point guard have been well-documented so this could be a potential pitfall game for the Blue Devils. Plus, you have the whole payback/karma thing going on with Henderson that could make things interesting. Coach K is one tough cat to beat and at first glance I have Duke advancing to face Pitt but the more I think about it the more I like VCU. In fact, I just convinced myself. Duke will lose Thursday. Somewhere Tyler Hansborough is smiling.
I like North Carolina in this tournament but my goodness is the East Region brutal. Marquette, Michigan State, Southern Cal, Texas, Washington State, Vanderbilt, Texas Tech and Georgetown – whew! If it's not a team having a great season, it's a team with a great coach. If it's not a team with a great coach, it's a team with a star player who can single handily carry his team to the Final Four. Still, I like the Tar Heels to reach the Elite Eight before losing to the Hoyas in East Rutherford.
What I like about Georgetown is they play a style of basketball that does not require them to play their best basketball in order to win games. Granted, eventually if they advance far enough it'll take great games to win the big ones but I hope you get my point. The Hoyas play solid team defense. They have a good mix of athletic wings, towering frontline guys, and quick guards who can knock down threes. Plus, they run the Princeton-style offense which allows them to wear down opponents by making them work on the defensive end.
Everyone loves Oral Roberts to beat Washington State. If I didn't know better, I'd probably go with that pick as well. But as anyone living west of the Rocky Mountains knows, Wazzu has been getting second-guessed all season yet all they do is win big games. They beat Arizona twice this season. They took the Bruins to the brink at Pauley. They beat Oregon and USC and on and on. So, what am I trying to say here? Put Wazzu in your Sweet 16. Their talent has been underestimated by opponents' fans in every game they've played and yet their players remain un-phased.
Assuming Southern Cal gets passed Arkansas, I like the Trojans to beat Texas (assuming the Longhorns get passed a very good and really underrated NMSU). My buddy Joe is right on the money when he says that Tim Floyd likes to pick on one opposing player all game long and do something off the wall to take them out of a game. Floyd ran a pseudo-box and one against Arizona's Jawann McClellan for a while in their game at the Galen Center and it worked. I don't think the Trojans will try to pull a stunt like that against Durant but I wouldn't be surprised if they throw some kind of curveball at Texas' freshman point guard. A little six turnover, four points and three assists performance from that key position during a second round game could be just enough to overcome a Durant triple-double. Plus, USC has the X Factor Player in Rodrick Stewart who is capable of scoring 25 points out of nowhere to catapult his team to victory.
Speaking of X Factor Performances, all it takes to win a game on the tournament's opening weekend is for one unexpected player to have a big night. USC's Stewart is that guy. For Arizona, it's McClellan. JMac is one smooth athlete, but injuries have slowed him down this season. If he can find some magic in those legs during the opening weekend Arizona fans could be searching for hotel accommodations in St. Louis come Sunday afternoon.
Ohio State. Ohio State. Ohio State.
How great would it be to see Rick Pitino go head-to-head with John Calipari in the Sweet 16? Unfortunately, I have Stanford upsetting Louisville in the first round (you don't think those fans in Lexington, Kentucky won't be chomping at the bit to root for Stanford over Louisville – please). I also think Texas A&M is the Elite Eight representative from that part of the bracket so regardless of what happens in Louisville's opening game, I like the Aggies to move on.
I really like Southern Illinois. In fact, my gut tells me to put them in the Elite Eight with a win over Kansas but I just can't bring myself to pull the trigger. Plus, if they are going to lose it's going to be to Seth Greenberg's Virginia Tech squad.
Greenberg, in my opinion, is one of the best coaches in the country. Not just for what he's done with the Hokies but what he's done over the course of his entire career.
Speaking of great coaches, there might not be any greater ambassador to the game than Arizona's Lute Olson. After losing their opening game of the Pac-10 Tournament to Oregon, Coach O used a majority of his time during the post game interview session to praise Oregon's Maarty Leunen and to criticize an obscure Pac-10 voting rule that prevented Leunen from being named to the All-Conference Team. As a result of the rule, the Pac-10 Team is comprised of only nine players instead of the customary 10 student athletes.
Arizona deserves the seeding they received because like Bill Parcells always says, "at some point you have to come to the realization that you are what your record says you are." Still, I was expecting them to get the seven seed and boy oh boy I wish they did. Every two seed is beatable early except for Georgetown. Memphis could easily lose to either Nevada or Creighton although I don't think they will. Indiana has the size inside to upset UCLA while Gonzaga has the motivation from last year's fiasco to return the favor against the Bruins. Both UNLV and Georgia Tech will present match up and style problems for Wisconsin. Still, strangely I have all my twos surviving the first weekend.
I, like you, can't wait for this whole thing to start but I, unlike you, haven't had the luxury of browsing the Internet, researching teams, checking out stats and looking at trend lines. I have nothing but the memory of all the game's I've seen this season and what little prognostications I've been able to watch on television or listen to on the radio this week.
Hence, I'll be the first to admit that some of my predictions may be a bit out of whack. Still, if there is any truth to anything that you can hang your hat on it's this – if, and it's a BIG if, Arizona can beat Purdue and somehow get past Florida, they'll advance all the way to the championship game where once there, anything can happen.
Bear Down! And enjoy the Madness!