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NCAA Tournament Picks

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There was a history professor during my freshman Fall term of college who used to come into lecture each Monday morning at 9 and begin class with a regular, "For those of you still following football...." He'd then spend five minutes recapitulating the events of the most recent football game before moving onto something that happened in American after 1776 and before 1860. He did this every week, and it was hilarious. Hilarious not because he was saying anything so crazy, but rather, because the premise of his statement--the "for those of you" implying that there weren't a university in Ann Arbor populated by a generally football-conscious student body--was absurd in a comedic sense. I mean, you wouldn't walk into a room full of fraternity brothers and say, "For those of you still following date rape"--even the ones who aren't active participants know what's going on. And he knew what he was doing, but he was so convincing in his ersatz ignorance that it was still ridiculous. I learned a lot in that class, but I don't remember anything as vividly as I remember that weekly ritual.

I think this story is an appropriate introduction for what follows, today, because even if you couldn't tell Billy Packer from Billy Preston, you likely know that tomorrow, the NCAA Tournament starts. And if, in fact, you don't know that the latter gave us "Outa-Space" while the former is just outta his mind, you're likely in the minority. So, for those of you still following the Tournament...I figured I'd throw up my picks along with some mostly worthless explanations and observations. Who am I to be doing this? I'm just like you: an average Joe(y) who watches too much ESPN Full Court and reads Wonk like it were a job. To the brackets we go...

...But first: The man pictured above is Kansas's Julian Wright. You know, the 6'8" dude with the seven-trillion-foot wingspan; incredible knack for rebounding in traffic; deft interior passing ability; selfless big-man game; and gorgeous basketball aura. Yeah, he's my favorite player, and that likely is affecting my judgment. And it's never good to bet with your heart. But still, he's just so...incredible. I remember seeing this dude in the Garden back in December and having to scrape my jaw off the floor because he had a prototypical body and was obviously the most talented player on the floor...

..And second, some caveats:

  1. I am still not certain that there is one great way to make picks when filling out brackets. I watch a lot of basketball, and that familiarity doesn't always help. I have boned up on statistics, and those numbers don't always help. I have played gut feelings, and the intuitions don't always help. Thus, I cannot, sadly, lay out the precise formula that helps me arrive at my choices. Instead, I rely on a delicate alchemy of empirical and ethereal inputs. Am I any good at this? I'm about as good as any other sports fan, so I'd say that my methodology has its strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Were I going to subscribe to a comprehensive or nearly comprehensive theory of picking, I might choose this one (even if it does emanate from some solitary lock-up cell somewhere in Ohio, what with all those Buckeye links on the right). Most importantly, as Jack Fu says, it's all about matchups. Like in boxing, styles make fights, and that's true in the tournament. I also like to pay attention to who's coaching, who has experience, and which opportunities arise for safe risk taking. For instance, if I am convinced that Tennessee is losing before the Sweet 16 regardless of which team it plays in the second round (if it even makes it), it gives me a lot more freedom to experiment with the idea of Winthrop winning. And that, of course, earns me upset points in many brackets.
  3. Can we please ban N.C. State from post-season play? I feel like every year, N.C. State is in a 7-10 game, and every year, I have no idea if it can win or not. The same 15 players seem to have been there forever; Herb Sendek is always embattled; the team is always better than I think but worse than its unexpected success should make it; and the Wolfpack is like my personal college-basketball Schrodinger's cat--the outcome is both until I pick one (and then it's always the other).
  4. Fuck a pod system.
  5. Michigan couldn't beat a single team in this Tournament, anyway. At least, not when actually playing in the Tournament.
OK...

ROUND ONE

Southeast Region

  1. Duke
  2. Southern
- Next...
  1. George Washington
  2. UNC-Wilmington
- GW is everyone's favorite school to dump on, and I don't think its winning more than one game, but it is also an athletic, fast-paced team, and that can often be a problem in the Tournament if you're not used to that style.
  1. Syracuse
  2. Texas A&M
- The 'Cuse expended a lot of emotion and motivation beating UConn and winning the Big East. Meanwhile, Texas A&M, not exactly a paragon of encouraging mental composition, is still the third most efficient defensive team in the country. I like this 5-12 upset pairing.
  1. LSU
  2. Iona
- LSU has more size than the Gaels.
  1. West Virginia
  2. Southern Illinois
- I would like to pick Southern Illinois because they've been so good to me in the past (where have you gone, Jermaine Dearman?), but I respect the Big East and I think WVU's style is really hard to prepare for.
  1. Iowa
  2. Northwestern State
- Picking Northwestern State seems like it's growing in popularity. I haven't seen this team play. I have seen Iowa, though. A bunch. It plays good defense and makes most games ugly. I'll take that against a 14 seed.
  1. Cal
  2. N.C. State
- See #3 above. Fuck. I have no idea. Leon Powe is the best player in this game, N.C. State is a little banged up, and it doesn't have Julius Hodge this year. Fine, Cal. I'm just glad that this is over with.
  1. Texas
  2. Penn
- Texas has too much talent and has been much better since the Duke-Tennessee Interlude of Doubt that seems to have forever colored this season for the Longhorns.

Midwest Region

  1. Villanova
  2. Monmouth
- Well, last night was cute.
  1. Arizona
  2. Wisconsin
- Show me an Arizona team mentally tough enough to deal with the boring, slow, cruelly effective Badger style and I'll remind you that Miles Simon is long gone. Plus, as Ice Cube would say were he a Ph.D. candidate in bracketology, Mustafa Shakur ain't exactly that point guard you love to trust. Even if he did play with my boy J-Dub at Friends Central.
  1. Nevada
  2. Montana
- I watched these Nevada motherfuckers last week, and I liked what I saw. There's more than just Fazekas here.
  1. Boston College
  2. Pacific
- If this were 2005, I'd be picking the upset. It's not, though, and B.C. has too much tweener power with Smith and Dudley.
  1. Oklahoma
  2. Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- UW-M has seven seniors back from last year's Sweet 16 team, so that's nice.
  1. Florida
  2. South Alabama
- South Alabama plays a frenetic style that seems reminiscent of earlier Billy Donovan teams. Too bad it doesn't have the players of earlier Billy Donovan teams.
  1. Georgetown
  2. Northern Iowa
- This could be an ugly game if hot-and-cold Georgetown is cold. I was reading and hearing about Northern Iowa all season, and every time it seemed like the team was on the cusp of cementing its legitimacy, it would lose. So I don't know what to make of this game. I was also of the belief that John Thompson was a good coach until I saw his disastrous final minute against Syracuse, and now that's up in the air, too. When in doubt, I'll go with the better athletes. And I don't mean that as a euphemism.
  1. Ohio State
  2. Davidson
- I know nothing about Davidson. I know that OSU seems impossible to guard from behind the arc. And Matta is a great coach.

East Region

  1. Connecticut
  2. Albany
- At the outset, I just want to go on record about something: UConn should win this tournament. Its talent is so clearly superior to everyone else's. I mean, on any other team in the country, my second-favorite player (after Julian), Jeff Adrien, would be a Tyler Hansbrough. On this team, he's just one of the six guys who will wind up in the NBA. That said, UConn needs to concentrate for the entire Tournament or else it can be beaten.
  1. Kentuckah
  2. UAB
- Why is this going to be any different than last time?
  1. Washington
  2. Utah State
- This is one of those styles-make-fights games. Washington wants to run while Utah State wants to be deliberate and execute. I tend to give the edge to teams that want to slow it down because transition-loving teams are often impatient and frustrated when they have to walk instead of run. The talent level isn't equal, but I wonder about Washington creating shots against a set defense if it can't run. Call this a safe hunch to play, and a way to try and find another 5-12 upset.
  1. Illinois
  2. Air Force
- Air Force shouldn't even be in this tournament. That's that.
  1. Michigan State
  2. George Mason
- New math: Tom Izzo + the Tournament - George Mason's best player = a Spartan victory, even though this is not a stellar MSU team.
  1. North Carolina
  2. Murray State
- It's amazing what winning a title can do for a coach's reputation. All year, I've heard about how great Roy Williams is. And all month, as the Tar Heels have been surging, I've heard about what a good tournament coach Williams is. Had UNC lost to Illinois last year, we'd be hearing about Williams's inability to win the big one; the potential of a UNC flame out; and we'd be wondering if he finally gave a shit about Carolina. BTW, I think UNC wins.
  1. Wichita State
  2. Seton Hall
- Seton Hall is another one of those good-light, bad-light teams. I don't really trust it to win one for its unfairly lame-duck coach.
  1. Tennessee
  2. Winthrop
- I think Tennessee is spent, having peaked too soon, so I'd like to pick Winthrop. But Winthrop plays like Tennessee does--fast paced, lots of threes--and I doubt it can do it better with worse personnel. If only it had a significant big man...

West Region

  1. Memphis
  2. Oral Roberts
- The #1-seed dominance continues.
  1. Arkansas
  2. Bucknell
- Bucknell beat Kansas last year and got ranked this year, so everyone is riding its jock. But Arkansas has been strong lately, and it has a very athletic roster. I'll take the #8 seed for a change.
  1. Pitt
  2. Kent State
- Again, styles. I think that Pitt will beat up the Golden Flashes and force them to play more halfcourt possession than Kent State would otherwise like to.
  1. Kansas
  2. Bradley
- Bradley is the 11th most efficient defensive team in America. Kansas is first. I think this could be ugly, and Kansas could struggle, but I like the team's rhythm right now. The youth scares me, though. Especially because, well, we'll get to that.
  1. Indiana
  2. San Diego State
- Before any Michigan fans take any dumb ideas too far: Steve Fisher is not that good. OK? What did the Fab Five ever win? Anyway, I do like Fisher's team here. Indiana is so up and down, so manic. I just don't get the sense that this team is ready to accomplish anything else. And SDSU has some scorers.
  1. Gonzaga
  2. Xavier
- I won't be shocked if the no-defense Zags lose, but I can't pick that. Not when Gonzaga has a guy who could hit for 60 in any game.
  1. Marquette
  2. Alabama
- This is the second-hardest game for me to pick. I just have no idea who should win. I have a lot more respect for the Big East than the SEC, but I also don't like picking teams that need to hit threes to win. A part of me is concerned that Alabama will let Novak go off since he's goofy and white and all that, but I also wonder if Marquette can bang with the Crimson Tide. I think not, but who knows?
  1. UCLA
  2. Belmont
- Is UCLA really one of the top eight teams in the country?

ROUND TWO

Southeast Region - Lots of chalk here, huh?

  1. Duke
  2. George Washington
- Duke is just more disciplined and has better players.
  1. Texas A&M
  2. LSU
- Same as the Duke game.
  1. West Virginia
  2. Iowa
- The whitest second-round game, and perhaps the whitest game ever? Again, the West Virginia style is hard to prepare for, and I think that Iowa is a mentally tough team that has overachieved.
  1. Cal
  2. Texas
- Texas gets better guard play and has more weapons. Plus, it has the size to deal with Powe.

Midwest Region - Still too much chalk?

  1. Villanova
  2. Wisconsin
- Villanova's guards are going to get in the paint, and the Cats are a more versatile offensive club. On top of that, Villanova plays with a supreme focus that isn't common among most college teams. Sadly, the sports media will likely pick up on this determination, group it with Ray's injury and UConn's supposed dominance, and tritely declare this team to be "on a mission."
  1. Nevada
  2. Boston College
- I am not sold on Boston College's guards, and I think that shaky backcourt production will catch up with the Eagles.
  1. Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  2. Florida
- Total hunch. Wisconsin-Milwaukee doesn't panic on the big stage and pulls off a big upset.
  1. Georgetown
  2. Ohio State
- I think that Georgetown is more athletic than OSU, and it has the frontline needed to match up with Dials and make the baskets harder to come by.

East Region - Or, am I now knocking out too many high seeds too early?

  1. UConn
  2. UAB
- This game really scares me, as a Huskies fan. UConn's key weaknesses are free-throw shooting and ball handling. The latter could be a major issue against a pressure team like UAB. What mitigates my concern is that UConn's guys run really well, whether it's Gay throwing down or Anderson spotting up. I think that Hilton Armstrong's versatility might be especially useful in this game; against 'Nova, he usually helped break the press.
  1. Utah State
  2. Illinois
- Illinois has the right sort of roster balance to match up well, and it has the best player on either team, Dee Brown.
  1. Michigan State
  2. North Carolina
- Michigan State is not the defensive team that Izzo's reputation and the Big Ten style would both have you believe. That's no good against a Roy Williams club. I also think that Hansbrough could make Paul Davis look like the obsolete model, if you know what I mean.
  1. Wichita State
  2. Tennessee
- Just write the headline now: Shocker! I like the balance of the Shockers to slow down fading Tennessee and challenge its interior defense.

West Region - This looks pretty good to me

  1. Memphis
  2. Arkansas
- Memphis has better players.
  1. Pitt
  2. Kansas
- This is the best game of the second round. Kansas is perhaps a little more versatile on offense, although Pitt has an experience edge. I really like the Jayhawk roster, I just don't know if it is too immature. This could be the pick that undoes my entire bracket.
  1. San Diego State
  2. Gonzaga
- Again, Adam Morrison gets it done.
  1. Alabama
  2. UCLA
- UCLA's backcourt has been good and consistent. And Afflalo cannot only shoot, but also defend. That works for me.

ROUND THREE

Southeast Region - 3 of the top 4 seeds

  1. Duke
  2. LSU
- Shock City, USA? If Davis and Thomas get Williams and McRoberts in foul trouble, doesn't this sort of become the Duke-UConn game of 2004 (although LSU is no UConn)? Will relying on a freshman PG finally hurt the Blue Devils? I think that I have more faith in UConn and Villanova making the Final Four than Duke, and I don't think three or four #1's are making it. Thus, I am going to take another chance here.
  1. West Virginia
  2. Texas
- How is Texas guarding Pittsnogle? With Buckman? That's what I would do, because you don't want Aldridge away from the basket. I've gotten this funky vibe all year from the Mountaineers: it's as though they're an NBA team that is just coasting along, trying to win its division so that it can get into the playoffs and wreak some havoc. Maybe I am just projecting my hopes onto this club, because that would be a great story, but that's sort of how I feel right now. At the same time, I can't stand it when I get duped by a team that should be better and just never comes around.

Midwest Region - What a fucked up region this is

  1. Villanova
  2. Nevada
- Talent and the Wildcat perimeter pressure become issues for Nevada.
  1. Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  2. Georgetown
- Georgetown has the better frontline. Nice run for a mid major, though.

East Region - 3 of the top 4 seeds

  1. UConn
  2. Illinois
- UConn just has a better, more complete roster.
  1. North Carolina
  2. Wichita State
- Ditto.

West Region - Chalk!

  1. Memphis
  2. Kansas
- Kansas's defense disrupts the athletic Tigers.
  1. Gonzaga
  2. UCLA
- Gonzaga does not play enough perimeter defense to stop the Bruin guards.

ROUND FOUR

Southeast Region - What a football game!

  1. LSU
  2. Texas
- Buckman and Aldridge bang on the inside; Gibson and Paulino match Mitchell; and Tucker is the difference.

Midwest Region - It's 1985 all over again

  1. Villanova
  2. Georgetown
- Villanova's superior backcourt and underrated frontcourt are too much for the Hoyas. Depth of the Big East on display.

East Region - CBS nuts itself

  1. UConn
  2. North Carolina
- Connecticut can neutralize Hansbrough, and the rest of the Huskies are superior to the rest of the Tar Heels.

West Region - The Dick Vitale "Are you serious?!" Nostalgia Classic

  1. Kansas
  2. UCLA
- Jayhawks clamp down on the perimeter and share the ball effectively on offense.

FINAL FOUR

National Semifinals - The Big East/Big XII Invitational

  1. Connecticut
  2. Villanova
- UConn remembers to play its game, not Villanova's, and beats the Cats in the rubber match thanks to its size and scoring balance.
  1. Texas
  2. Kansas
- Youth catches up with the Jayhawks and Texas gets revenge.

NATIONAL FINAL

Championship Game - Texas got lucky

  1. Connecticut
  2. Texas
- More of the same from UConn: Defensive versatility and interior ferocity; offensive balance and equity. Marcus Williams plays better than Daniel Gibson. Williams is Tournament MVP even though Hilton Armstrong deserves it.