This year's tournament features some amazing early matchups. Our take every year is that it's almost impossible to predict anything, so we usually just go round by round.Let's look at the Midwest first.
Florida won't lose the opener against Jackson State. But they face the winner of Arizona and Purdue, and while Purdue is improving, post-Keady, they're not there yet. Arizona has certainly underachieved, but they have a significant amount of raw talent. For whatever reason, Lute Olson hasn't been able to get them to play consistently well, and even he has questioned their heart. But the talent is there, and it could assert itself enough to push Florida.
The Gators have been pretty awful late in the year, losing to Vandy, LSU and Tennessee, and giving up 20 point leads to most of them plus Alabama. They did win the SEC Tourney, but with games against Georgia, Ole Miss, and Arkansas, it's not like they went through Murderer's Row to get it.
Teams which play like they think they can turn it on when they want to run into trouble, and that's what we think will happen to Florida at some point.
If we were Butler, ODU would scare the crap out of us. It's a solid program which wins a bunch of games every year. Butler has faded late, and while they're a 5 seed vs. ODU's 12, Old Dominion has a sharp coach in Blaine Taylor, who worked for Mike Montgomery. Like a lot of lower-level teams, ODU has made an art form of recruitng overseas. Valdas Vasylius (6-7, Lithuania), Arnaud Dahi (6-7, Ivory Coast) and Sam Harris (7-3, from Tasmania) all contribute.
Eight players are upperclassmen. ODU is likely to be a pain.
And if we were Maryland, Davidson would be an attention getter. Aside from a Lefty-like record of 29-4, Davidson is smart, disciplined, and has a real find in freshman Stephen Curry, son of former NBA star Dell Curry.
Davidson is disciplined, intelligent, and tenacious. In recent years, they've either beaten or almost beaten UNC, Kansas, and Stanford, and given Duke some games as well.
Winthrop moved up to an 11 seed, surprising some people and drawing #6 Notre Dame. Winthrop is a tough opponent, but their foul shooting will do them in, if not against Notre Dame, then against someone. Winthrop almost beat Wisconsin but fell short. They gave UNC fits in the pre-season NIT, and gave Maryland an 11-point game. But here's how you beat Winthrop: play defense and keep them off the boards. Easier said than done but with everyone rebounding, that means the lanes on the break should be open.
We can't find a reason to take Miami over Oregon so we'll take Oregon.
A lot of people will look at Georgia Tech and think of them as a nice darkhorse. If they play up to their talent, then yes, they will be a load. But Lon Kruger's teams play a slower, disciplined offense, and that can drive Tech crazy. If Tech can match UNLV's intensity, they can win. If not, they'll go home.
Wisconsin got a tough break when they lost big man Brian Butch. They should beat TAMU-CC, but life gets tougher after that.
In the West, Duke has a matchup with VCU, a 6/11 game. This is the team Jeff Capel left behind, and it's coached by former Florida assistant Anthony Grant, who has done a great job. He has some solid guards and a typical mid-major frontcourt, which is to say it's not as big or as talented as the major conference teams tend to be. Big deal. They're well-coached and quite dangerous. They're not exactly Marquette, but they have some similarities.
Duke would face the winner of Pitt vs. Wright State. Wright State did beat Butler, but we can't find much right off the top to suggest they could upset Pitt. We'll know more in a day or two though. However, you can be sure of this: Pitt is going to be steamed about their loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. They didn't come anywhere near their potential, and that will play a part in their next game.
Okay, here's an important factoid about Wright State: their coach Brad Brownell was at UNC-W, where he was very successful.
If Duke manages to win those two games, they'll get whoever survives between Indiana-Gonzaga and UCLA-Weber State. Weber State still has some fans around here after their upset of UNC a few years ago, but we'll be shocked if they manage to get UCLA. It's hard to pick Gonzaga over IU at this point. And it's hard to pick any of them over UCLA, including Duke. UCLA is a really tough team and plays incredible defense. If Duke can regain their defensive intensity of earlier this year, it'd be fun to watch those two go at it.
In the top half of the bracket, obviously Kansas is the favorite, but they've been upset-prone during Bill Self's tenure. We could see Kentucky doing it, should they win their game against Purdue. Virginia Tech has a tough draw against Illinois, and whoever wins that game has a very tough draw against Southern Illinois. The Salukis have been a constant in recent years, and you know they'd love a crack at the Illini. If you want a nice darkhorse, you could do worse than Southern Illinois. They're a #4 seed, which is really good for a Missouri Valley team.
In the East, UNC has a tough road. They'll beat Eastern Kentucky, then might beat the winner of Marquette-Michigan State. Not an easy opponent. We'd call that one a real tossup.
Lurking later, barring an upset, is Texas. However, the Longhorns are exceptionally young, and that is hard for an NCAA team to overcome. Still, Kevin Durant looks like a potential Hall of Famer, putting up numbers that are rarely seen in college hoops, and then showing a grasp of the game which is remarkable.
They open against New Mexico State, a school with more basketball tradition than a lot of people realize. Reggie Theus is making an impression as coach, and his team has some potential. But they are careless with the ball, and that is a dangerous trait in a tournament.
At some point, Brandan Wright may cause them some real problems: the talented big man has a lot to offer, but foul shooting is a real problem. He averages 53.9%, but in losses, that goes down to 43.6%. The team collectively shoots 70%, and is 3-6 in close games decided by eight points or less. Freshmen have problems in the tournament, and UNC has a bunch of them.
USC-Arkansas - we'd be really surprised if either team went anywhere, frankly.
We admire Vanderbilt's program, but they aren't a great team. Neither is GW. Someone has to win, so we'll take Vandy, but odds are that Oral Roberts will be there to meet them and will shock the winner.Oral Roberts has been a bit of a joke in recent years, but they're not a joke now. They're a very dangerous team. Coached by Scott Sutton - yes, of that Sutton family - they knocked off Kansas earlier this season. On the other hand, they also lost to Valpo, Oakland, and Utah State.
Nonetheless, this is a dangerous team, and if Eddie taught Scott well, his team defends like hell.
Boston College had some tough breaks this year, and overcame a lot. But Bob Knight has several days to get ready, and he'll figure out how to stop Jared Dudley and Tyrese Rice.
Georgetown is a nifty team, and one which bears watching. Belmont won't bother them much, and they'll have enough to stick it to the winner of B.C. and Texas Tech (Tech in our opinion). They should make a deep run.
Ohio State is our pick to win it all. They'll have to get past Thad Matta's former team, Xavier, but that's doable. Xavier does have Drew Lavender, a tough little point, but OSU has one of those plus a hugely talented big man.
We'll have to come back to UT/Long Beach State as we know almost nothing about Long Beach State.
But if we were UVa, we'd be very wary of Albany. They came very close to taking out UConn last year, and UConn had some real power, although they were pretty lackadaisical.
Special note in this game: in a quiet arena, you should be able to hear Dave Leitao curse and humiliate his players, which we understand he does on a regular basis.
Wow, how would you like to be Rick Pitino playing Stanford in Rupp? That's not going to be a lot of fun. Stanford is no powerhouse, but the crowd will help. Still, Pitino has a strong will and being hated will just help motivate him. The Cards should win.
Texas A&M should beat the crap out of Penn.
We should take Nevada over Creighton, but with Kyle Shiloh uncertain, who knows? Nevada was pretty up-and-down before his hamstring injury. It's not clear if he'll play. We'll stick with Nate Funk and Creighton here. Among other things, Dana Altman is a heck of a coach.
Finally, Memphis will beat North Texas.