What a long weekend of basketball! Don’t take me the wrong way. I ain’t complainin’! Every year I do something along the lines of Vegas, the Bahamas, Curacao, because I am going to be completely unproductive anyway. Might as well do it in an awesome environment. Once in a while, you get a little lucky. Rule #1 if you have never taken an opening weekend March Madness gambling trip. Expect to lose everything. If you don’t, it is a great final dinner, flight home, and a reason (excuse?) to go somewhere next year. Any hoops fan should do it once. Trust me. There was some unexpectedness and drama in every region, but without further ado, let’s break down each one, so you can keep the good times rollin’, or maybe try to make up for losses. I don’t mention point spreads. You can find that on your own. Just going to provide a tidbit of information to consider for your decision.
Let’s start in the East, because I have an East Coast bias. Or, because it has the best combination of games. Starting with a little recap of the weekend, North Carolina did not get hosed on a bad call. Iowa State won the game. They took it. Carolina had to get one stop, or have one good offensive possession to win that game. They didn’t. Iowa State had to make plays. They did. Virginia has been underrated. Still is. They can guard, they are smart, they don’t make mistakes…did I mention that they can guard?? You have to beat them. It won’t turn out in your favor any other way. They do not play as slowly as common conception may dictate, they just make it hard to do stuff. Yup, sometimes it’s just that easy. DeAndre Kane versus Shabazz Napier is the best individual match-up of this round. And on that note, let’s get to the games.
Virginia vs. Michigan State
Every analyst that you hear is going to pick Michigan State, because most of them picked the Spartans to win the whole tourney. I didn’t. However, I think they survive this game. Gary Harris is good enough to annoy Joe Harris, and without his scoring, they are average offensively. Joe’s long-lost little brother is better than you may think. He is a lottery pick. [That isn’t really true, the ‘brother’ part. Gary Harris is a lottery pick]. A healthy Michigan State just has a little too much talent for the Cavs. They had a great season and are on their way to becoming a perennial force in the ACC, but Team Izzo gets this one.
Iowa State vs. UConn
Fred Hoiberg is as good a fit for this job as anyone I have seen in sports. I am not speaking in hyperbole. He is from Ames, Iowa, born and bred. High school star. Played at Iowa State. Number retired by the school. Solid NBA career cut short by a heart condition. His family never moved. Came back to coach. Perfect fit, especially basketball-wise.
He puts his players in positions in which they can be successful. Maybe better than anyone. He doesn’t have plays designed for his 4-man. He has plays designed for you, if you are playing the 4. If you aren’t there, he doesn’t use them. As evidenced, both in the loss of Georges Niang, and the last four minutes of the UNC game. He realized, before the game, “Okay. All of these plays we run for Georges? Can’t use ’em.” So now what? Be stubborn and do what you do?
No. And it may have taken the entire team and staff most of the game to figure out, but they realized Marcus Paige was trying to guard DeAndre Kane man-to-man on many possessions. Mismatch. Marcus gives up about 30 pounds. Body him, get the ball in the middle of the court, and make a play. DeAndre Kane scored or assisted on 17 of ISU’s final 19 points. That’s a pro player. And a really good coach.
And that brings us to Shabazz Napier. The dude is good at basketball. Analysis done.
Really, though, no offense to Ryan Boatwright, but he is just a bad second guard for ‘Bazz to play with. They are going to struggle with the perimeter size of Iowa State. Napier may keep UConn in the game, and frankly, may win it for them. But, I see that as their only chance. Men against boys. All respect due to the Huskies, but their run ends here.
So, we have Iowa State and Michigan State advancing. Future BIG-27 rivals (are they still expanding conferences? How are Iowa and Iowa State not in the same one?). Anyway, we are taking it down South.
As Charles Dickens once wrote, this is the tale of two match-ups. I do not want to pay any disrespect to neither Dayton, nor Stanford, but one of you will win one more game. And that is it.
Stanford vs. Dayton
I think the size of Stanford, and the underrated athleticism of their bigs, gets them past Dayton. And kudos to Johnny Dawkins! But, the winner of the other game is going to the final four.
Florida vs. UCLA
I love this game. Partially, because I picked Florida to win the ‘chip. Also, because it provides us with a great match-up. Bergan-county’s own, Kyle ‘slo-mo’ Anderson, versus Scottie Wilbekin.
After Paterson Catholic high school, a basketball power, closed its doors in 2010, Anderson set his sights on St. Anthony’s in Jersey City. He became the state’s player of the year, McDonald’s All-American, etc. Ryan decided to head out to UCLA to revive that program with the likes of Shabazz Muhammad. So much for that plan. Even still, he has played his way into becoming a probable lottery pick, if he chooses to enter the upcoming NBA draft. I have been asked to compare him to someone, because anyone that reads me, knows I hate comparisons. If Antoine Walker and Penny Hardaway had a baby…
Scottie Wilbekin is another breed. A couple of suspensions. Team rule violations. Probably will play some pro ball overseas. But one of those guys that you want on your side. I can get into all of the nerdiness of their sometimes-hybrid-low-line zone, but that’s not what you read this for. He will make it uncomfortable for Anderson, and take the Gators one step closer.
The Midwest is a particularly interesting region, as expected. If anyone uses the Kentucky game in some sort of ‘Wichita State didn’t deserve the hype or #1 seed argument,’ we can no longer talk ball. That was, and will probably be, the best game of the tournament. Maybe of the season, considering what was at stake. John Calipari doesn’t jump in the air at the end of many games. Cleanthony Early solidified my declaration that he deserves to be a high first-round pick. I am sorry to see the Shockers go. But, the games must go on.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Congrats, NCAA. You got what you wanted. The only better place than Indiana to play this game would be some dirt court in Kentucky. UK has won every game these two teams have played in the tournament. Ironically, Rick Pitino, the coach of Louisville, won a couple of those as the coach of the Wildcats. All that is interesting and good food for fodder. But, the game comes down to match-ups.
Hello, America! Montrezl Harrell is a pro. So is Julius Randle. In a game like this, I think really good players tend to cancel each other out. Neither is going to dominate; neither will not show up. The key to the game is Russ Smith. Whatever nickname you want to apply to him, the guy can go. He will not be an NBA player, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be the best player in this game. At -6’0″, -160 pounds, he plays fearlessly. Brooklyn, stand-up! Your hometown boy, Russ gets the Cardinals to the Elite Eight on shear ‘want it.’
Tennessee vs. Michigan
Now, this is interesting. Tennessee is on a role since winning their play-in, errrr, first-round game. Jarnell Stokes had 18 rebounds against Mercer. Mercer had 19. If he and Jeronne Maymon can dominate the paint like that, the Vols have a good shot at an upset. Josh Richardson can really guard and has been on fire lately, offensively. The trio of Wolverines, Nick Satuskas, Caris Levert, and Big Dog III, can get 60 on any given day. I just feel like Tennessee is in a groove. I like the Vols, in what I consider, a big upset.
Now, we can finish-up out West, which has basically gone true to form, aside from the loss by Creighton. And that is my intro to my little aside. Doug McDermott will play in the NBA. Stop it! He scored over 3,000 points. 3,150, to be exact! While shooting just under 55% from the field. His adjusted FG % is over 62! [Nerdy stat of the article]. Bottom line is, it’s a little saddening that America won’t get to see him play some more in college. He made Creighton nationally relevant. And don’t listen to these pundits that compare him to Larry Bird or Kyle Korver. That is so lazy. Pick a white guy. Or better yet, pick a white guy that went to Crieghton that can shoot! Yeah, that’s it! That’s who he reminds me of! Ugh. Sorry. The guy will be in the league for a while. He isn’t going to change a franchise, but he can definitely make one better. Rant is over. On to the games.
Arizona vs. San Diego State
This may contain my favorite one-on-one match-up in the Sweet 16. Xavier Thames, the Mountain West Conference’s Player of the Year, is a tough match-up. He isn’t overly athletic, nor a great shooter. He is just a really good basketball player. He is very patient with the ball, and probes and dives until he can get his body on you. Then he uses his leverage to create space and/or draw fouls. He averages right around 7 free throw attempts per game, and shoots at an 83% clip. Enter Nick Johnson. One of the finalists for the Naismith Award, and also one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. If he can keep Thames in check, and Kaleb Tarczewski can control the interior, Arizona should be able to advance. Although, it won’t be easy.
Baylor vs. Wisconsin
Man, Baylor is hot right now. 12-2 in their last 14 games. Cory Jefferson is playing like a man. 14 & 8 shooting over 50%. Isaiah Austin looks like he has found his role. Brady Heslip is as good of a shooter as is left in the tournament. Their zone defense is strange, and their length combined with their athleticism can make it really tricky to deal with. But, this isn’t your older brother’s Wisconsin. They get up and down. Ben Brust has been really good lately. Frank Kaminsky was first-team all-Big-10. Sam Dekker is an underrated wing athlete. I think the Badgers have a bit too much for the Bears. I will take ‘Sconsin in a close one. Traevon Jackson will be the difference.
Well, that about sums it up. Check back soon for updates as the tournament goes on. And remember. You can’t win a bet you don’t make.