For part two of our NCAA Tournament Roundtable I asked the guys to run through predictions for each region.
Below are their answers.
Maize in Spartyland (Blog) - I have Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio, and Kansas as my final four.
Kentucky may have the toughest bracket, and an early potential match-up with Connecticut over the weekend, but they are simply more talented than any of the other teams in their region.
Michigan State is an interesting team - they lost Branden Dawson to injury, but seemed to be okay without him in the Big Ten Tournament. Teams with length and the ability to spread the defense have the potential to beat the Spartans. While there are plenty of athletic teams in the West Region (Missouri, Marquette, and Memphis, to name a few) none have length AND the ability to spread the Spartans D. The Spartans have a dangerous draw with the Blackbirds of Long Island, one of the highest scoring teams in the country. I don't see LIU beating MSU, but LIU kept it close against 2-seed North Carolina last season in the NCAA Tournament.
If you have been following the Las Vegas odds, you'd know that Ohio is the odds on favorite to win the East Region, despite being a two seed. The Buckeyes have a potentially tough match-up against a physical Florida State team, but Ohio has been used to physical play all season in the Big Ten - the ACC simply isn't as physical of a conference as the Big Ten is. Only problem is the officials in the Big Ten have been more than willing to swallow the whistle, which may change in the NCAA Tournament - guys like Jared Sullinger may rack up fouls quickly.
I've heard numerous people writing off a team like Kansas, and I'm not really sure why. I'll be honest - I didn't think much of Bill Self at Illinois and his early tenure at Kansas left a lot to be desired (for what its worth, I was that guy who had Bucknell over Kansas in 2005 and Bradley over Kansas in 2006), but Self has been good the past few seasons, especially in the NCAA Tournament. Including the 2007 NCAA Tournament, Kansas has been in the Sweet 16, at least, in four of the five years and been to the Elite Eight in three of the five seasons.
Kansas would have to be my "sleeper" pick because of how much they have been undervalued. A couple other teams I'm watching, though, are Wichita State and Florida State. Wichita would have to get through Kentucky, but if the Wildcats get bounced by Connecticut, the road gets a lot easier. Florida State has a tough, physical match-up with Cincinnati, should both teams get through their first round match-up. Should Florida State survive the first two rounds, they will need to shoot well in order to beat the Buckeyes; Florida State struggled against teams like Boston College, but beat Duke and North Carolina.
Alex Cook (@Alex_MnB) - In the South, the obvious favorite is Kentucky. I'm not of the opinion that Kentucky can simple waltz into the national championship and win it with ease, but the combination of talent between Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Terrence Jones, among others, will carry the Wildcats pretty far in the dance. Their defense -- probably the best in the country, in my opinion -- is their best asset, and really their only Achilles' heels are their three point shooting and front court depth if Davis gets in foul trouble. The seeds from 2-4 are weak in this region (Duke, Baylor, and Indiana) so that helps Kentucky's case. My sleeper is Wichita State; they're a very good mid-major, have a legitimate seven-footer in Garrett Stutz, can hold their own on the defensive glass, and have a shooter in Joe Ragland that can get hot and carry them into the Final Four. Of course, they could lose to VCU in the first round. I guess that's the fun of it.
I hate to say it, but I think Ohio State is the favorite out East. I know Syracuse has had a stellar season, but I'm not sold on their rebounding in the 2-3 defense, their lack of a go-to scorer, and Jim Boeheim's tournament history. They certainly have the talent to make the Final Four and their depth is the best in the field; I just haven't personally been that impressed by them as a national title contender this year. Florida State is a very, very good defensive team and their offense is simply not that great. I find it hard to pencil them into the Final Four with their frequent offensive struggles. Wisconsin typically hasn't done well in the tournament and Vanderbilt -- even though they're probably my sleeper pick -- has fared even worse. That leaves Ohio State: Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas can certainly carry the Buckeyes into the Final Four. As for Vanderbilt, everyone's hopping on that bandwagon but the 'Dores have made an early exit frequently under Kevin Stallings. I personally think that the Final Four team will come from Ohio State, Syracuse, and Florida State.
To be totally honest, I have no idea what will happen in the West region with Michigan State, Marquette, Missouri, Louisville, New Mexico, Memphis, and Florida. Something's telling me to go with the Spartans, but their route would be: LIU Brooklyn, Memphis (or St. Louis; they're both good mid-majors), Louisville or New Mexico or maybe even Long Beach State, and then Marquette or Missouri. I think they'll feel the loss of Branden Dawson and lose somewhere along the line. Missouri's defense isn't very good, so I'll tentatively go with Marquette and Jae Crowder as my favorite in the West. He, Darius Johnson-Odom, and Vander Blue provide the talent to make a Final Four run, and the Eagles' good shooting and ability to get to the line will help them through the region. As for a sleeper, I'll go with Murray State. Everyone seems to have forgotten about them but Isaiah Canaan is super talented and the Racers haven't lost often -- we just don't know what they can do. I would go with New Mexico, but their road is much tougher than Murray's.
In our region, the Midwest, the favorites are North Carolina and Kansas. UNC boasts an absurd amount of NBA talent and are likely the most able team to defeat Kentucky, but the Tar Heels haven't always played up to their potential level and aren't the dominant force that they were supposed to be at the beginning of the year. Still, their talent is unmatched by anyone outside of Kentucky, and even that's debatable. Kansas is interesting because they have an outstanding player in Thomas Robinson and are playing near home in St. Louis. Both of those teams are far and away the most likely to make the Final Four. As for a sleeper, I'm tempted to pick Michigan -- after all, I've seen what they're capable of doing (like beating Michigan State and Ohio State) -- but I'm too afraid of jinxing them. Instead, I'll go with North Carolina State. The Wolfpack aren't much of a serious threat to reach the Final Four, but they have a lot of talent, favorable matchups (at least for where they're seeded) in the first two rounds, and could make some noise in the region and pull a few upsets.
Dave Ryan (@dryanbball) - My Final Four consists of Kentucky, Florida, Syracuse and North Carolina. Billy Donovan's Gators are clearly sticking out like a sore thumb as a No. 7 seed, but I'm banking on a bevy of upsets to shake things up over the next four days. I also like how Florida matches up with many of the teams it could face, so there's that too.
I'm not sure there's a team that can beat Kentucky on a neutral court at the moment, so I have Calipari's Wildcats taking the whole thing over North Carolina in a wildly entertaining finale. Also in the South region I can't help but go all-in on the UNLV Rebels for how unbelievably well they pass the ball as a team, and I truly believe they could do some serious damage if the bounces and whistles go their way. Colorado in the second round is a very difficult draw as it is, and Baylor, followed by what will most likely be Duke, makes the Rebels feel like a longshot for a deep run. Even so, I'm going to go out on a limb to say that UNLV finds itself in the Elite Eight.
The West region is where I think the most chaos takes place. I absolutely love Draymond Green and would hardly be surprised if he led the Spartans to New Orleans, but I'm not picking it to happen. I think Louisville and Memphis will each be extremely difficult opponents for Izzo's crew to take down, and even if people want to act like it isn't as significant as it really is, the loss of Brenden Dawson is just too painful for me to believe MSU will win a championship this year Dawson, in my mind, was the No. 1 x-factor for a deep MSU run before he got hurt. Because of this, I'm taking a high-upside pick in Louisville to drop the Spartans in the Sweet 16.
As far as my Florida pick, it's more of a product of head-to-head matchups than anything. Missouri's lack of size could be a detriment at any point in the tournament, and Marquette doesn't strike me as a team that is consistent enough to seriously threaten for a Final Four. Florida's inside-outside game, along with the devastating high pick-and-pops with 6'10" forward Erik Murphy, can frustrate any team in the region. It will take plenty of luck with the draw in front of them, but I'm expecting a nice showing from the Gators this postseason.
Over in the East, I'm not entirely sold on Syracuse immediately falling from the ranks without Fab Melo. The talk about this program now getting bounced out by Kansas State is completely knee-jerk to me. This might be the single deepest team in college hoops, and one injury hardly changes the way this team plays basketball. The loss of Fab could be enough to hinder the Orange from beating North Carolina or Kentucky specifically, sure, but the Final Four is absolutely within reach. The only two East schools that even pose a remote threat in my opinion are Florida State and Ohio State, and 'Cuse will only be forced to play one of them (or neither). I'll fully admit that I ripped up a bracket (had 'Cuse losing to UK in the finals) after hearing the news, but I won't fully bail on Boeheim's team after what I've seen all year. These guys are still very legit.
Michigan Midwest region is an obvious favorite, and has a nice mix of non-power conference and power-six conference schools. The mighty North Carolina Tar Heels are my pick, although I have a surprising amount of madness located at the bottom of my bracket. In the third round I'm going with St. Mary's to upset Kansas, opening the door for a vastly underrated defensive Georgetown team to reach the Elite Eight. It's my belief that Michigan will fall in the Sweet 16 to UNC in a game that may never be close, but I'd still be extremely happy with UM's season if this ends up being the case.
Holdin' the Rope (@HoldinTheRope) - In the South region, the obvious favorite is Kentucky, the SEC Tournament final notwithstanding. This should go without argument in nearly every basketball circle. In that same region, I think 6th-seeded UNLV is a team that could go far; in fact, I have them knocking out Baylor and Duke en route to the Elite 8, the lowest-seeded team in my Elite 8. The Runnin' Rebs score the ball with the best of 'em, and I think they will be well-equipped to keep up with the aforementioned big name teams. Chace Stanback is a player to watch for UNLV; at 6'8'', he shoots 46% from three on 168 attempts. I think Duke and Baylor's bigs could have trouble coming out and defending a guy like that. Pittsnogle Redux, perhaps?
In the West, I have the Spartans rebounding and defending their way all the way to NOLA; they are my favorite here, and I don't think that Mizzou, Georgetown, or Louisville present as serious a threat as some may be saying. I took some liberties with the word "sleeper" and came to the conclusion that Murray State has as good a chance as any sleeper in this field. I hesitate to call them a true sleeper, though, since Murray State is a team isn't exactly last year's VCU team coming into the tourney; that is to say that they are a known entity, for the most part. UVA is also a team that I think has a very good chance at making some noise on the back of their stingy defense. I have them getting by the Gators, and while I don't have them upsetting Mizzou, their distinctly Big Ten style could be the necessary approach to slow down the Tigers, who would like to play as if their pants are on fire at all times.
In the East, the news of Fab Melo's ineligibility makes it even easier to be bearish vis-a-vis Syracuse's chances to make a run that meets their top seeding. I had them losing in the Sweet 16 to Vanderbilt, anyway, but I think this definitely makes a second round loss (Round of 32, whatever) distinctly possible. As such, I have Vanderbilt and Florida State as my favorites here, which seems to me like a way to preemptively destroy my bracket. However, the 'Dores impressively knocked out the Ivan Drago that is UK basketball last weekend, and they certainly don't lack for experience. With that said, I'm generally leery of using conference tournaments as a reason to expect success in the Big Dance, and Vanderbilt's tournament performances of late do not exactly inspire confidence. Given that, I would not criticize anyone for picking them to get bounced by Harvard, but they are a team with a bevy of upperclassmen, which is very crucial come tourney time. I don't see them being intimidated by the top teams in their region after taking out UK. I struggle to come up with a true sleeper from this region, especially since my opinion of FSU precludes a first round upset by St. Bonaventure (a team many seem to be high on). If I had to pick one, I think West Virginia could be it. The Mountaineers get to face a Gonzaga team that has to travel all the way across the country for the opening round 7/10 game, which can only help the Mountaineers. Huggins's squad has also had a number of close calls against the Big East's top teams, which leads me to believe that this could be a team that exceeds its relatively humble seeding. I could easily envision the pairing of Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli's beard causing some problems for teams if WVU advances.
In the Midwest, the Wolverines's own region features both UNC and Kansas, the obvious favorites here (as boring an assertion as that is). However, neither is an exceptional 3-point shooting team, which could be an issue at some point but not until the Sweet 16, at least. Continuing the theme of my general cowardice in picking sleepers, I will admit that I have the top two seeds in this region advancing to the regional final. With that said, if I had to pick one, Belmont is it (not that that isn't a trendy pick). Belmont is looking at a first round matchup with Georgetown and then a very manageable meeting with San Diego State/NC State in the next; if they knock of the Hoyas, they could make some serious noise. Looking further into the future, if they advance to the Sweet 16, Kansas likely awaits, and we all know the Jayhawks have had a tendency to get upset by lesser teams in the past. As a team, Belmont shoots 38% from 3, which isn't something a team like Georgetown or anybody else really wants to hear.
A personal note goes here re: Belmont, but their top scorer, junior guard Kerron Johnson, played against me for my high school's main basketball rival (which wasn't so much a "rivalry" as it was a consistent bludgeoning by them of us...think Towson versus basically anyone this season). This obviously isn't high school, but let's just say that I know from personal experience that he is pretty darn good despite being not too big (6'1'' 175). He's not a 3-point threat (32%) but he's a very quick guy that is an effective distributor. His percentage from 2 is much more impressive (60%), which makes sense given my recollection of his overall game back in high school. He can find his shot off the dribble and he can also take it to the tin when it's there (he attempts 6 free throws per game). I currently have Belmont losing to Georgetown, but after writing all of the aforementioned I'm pretty sure that I'm going to go ahead and make this my top upset pick of this tournament.
Zach Travis (@Zach_Travis) - Take one guess who I pick in the south. I'll wait. You said Kentucky, didn't you? No, I'm not wrong because you would be a fool to pick against Kentucky at this point. That isn't to say that I think the Wildcats are going to the Final Four --- I am incredibly leary of picking a team that is as reliant on freshmen as Kentucky is. All it takes is one bad game, and with a group of freshmen (however talented they may be) weird slumps happen. Hey, at least Kentucky ended up with Duke (overrated), Baylor (streaky), and Indiana (sans Verdell Jones III) as the main high-seed challengers. Kentucky it is. As for a sleeper I'll go with everyone's trendy pick and pick Wichita State mostly because I'm not enthralled with seeds six to thirteen.
I honestly don't know who to pick out of the east region, but I am leaning toward the three-seed Noles. I wasn't sold on Syracuse before Fab Melo was declared ineligible (I've been burned by the Big East too many times in recent years) and now that he is gone the rebounding problem just turned into a legitimate gigantic flashing-neon question mark. Ohio State is a picture of talented inconsistency, and as soon as Will-he-or-won't-he Buford goes cold against good competition I think OSU loses. That leaves Florida State. The Noles are playing very good basketball and I like this team's chances. As for a sleeper, probably Kansas State, which I think could surprise people with a win over the now weakened Orange before reeling off a few wins.
In the west I will pick Michigan State, but I am not very confident about it. Without Dawson MSU is missing a lot of athleticism on the outside and against some of the teams in the west bracket that could hurt. Still, Michigan State is the epitome of a tournament team, and if there is any coach that can scheme around this team's weaknesses it is Izzo. The real deciding factor will be the play of Adrian Payne and Derrick Nix in the middle. If they are on top of their game the Spartans are a tough out that should be Final Four bound. The sleeper in this part of the bracket would have to be Memphis. This is a real talented, athletic team that could heat up for a few games and really sneak up on teams.
In the midwest I am torn between UNC and Kansas as the odds on favorite. While I think UNC has the better team overall, living in Virginia around quite a few die-hard Carolina fans has exposed me to a great deal of dissent when it comes to Roy Williams' ability to coach. Namely, he struggles to maximize talent and win close games. Many a day have I heard the same rant from a different UNC fan. Kansas may be the only team talented enough to keep up with UNC, so I will go with Kansas. If I was going to pick a sleeper it wouldn't necessarily be a true sleeper --- you know, like everyone picking Belmont --- but more just me deciding that anyone seeded 4-7 could make a run for one reason or another. Lame answer, I know.
Remember Bo -
In the South, I took Kentucky. 'Nuff said. They've got the total package defensively and a hoss post man with a unibrow. What more does anyone need? The rest of the region is intriguing though - Baylor and Duke are both solid teams and Baylor has the necessary point guard to make a run and beat Duke, but I don't see it happening. I've got a 1 v 2 in the Elite Eight. Oh, and I love Wichita State.
In the East, I hate Syracuse with my whole heart. This is the Hoya in me coming out, but I see them losing in the first two rounds - getting a scare early and then falling to K-State. In my official bracket (I only do one,) I've got them falling to Vanderbilt. Other than that awesome guy on Murray State (Edward Daniel) with the awesome hair, I think the best player in this tournament with a chance to get hot and carry his team (yeah, I know it's a long superlative) is John Jenkins, that sweet-shooting PG from Vandy. They could win five games. They're my Final Four pick.
Midwest - Louisville. Peyton Siva is a baller - he's like a much, much better Grevious Vazquez from a couple years back - if he stays in control of the game, watch for Louisville to run through that weak region. I see Memphis beating Michigan State. I also like Marquette here, but Murray State is a team to watch out for. Elite Eight is all-Big East - Louisville/Marquette. Mizzou wrecked my bracket last time they were a solid seed and I don't want them doing it again. Sell high.
West - oh dear. My girlfriend picked Temple over Michigan, causing much consternation. I've got UNC over Michigan in the Elite Eight, meaning Kansas loses to St. Mary's (or, maybe, Detroit?) but Michigan's got the firepower to knock them off anyway. My (other team) Hoyas finally get into the Sweet Sixteen but ultimately lose to North Carolina in a rematch of the Elite Eight a few years ago.
A final disclaimer - IMHO, the tournament is won by two things: The best coach and the hottest player. Izzo and Coach K are the best coaches in the field, meaning they have the experience and their teams will play like they've been there before. Don't count out Duke and MSU, ever. Ever. As far as players go, I like Edward Daniel of Murray State, Peyton Siva of Louisville, and John Jenkins of Vanderbilt. A final shout-out to niche defensive schemes- 'Cuse's 2-3 (weakened without Melo) will keep them in games, and Michigan's 1-3-1 can really screw with teams, maybe winning them a few games they shouldn't.