Full disclosure: I’m the biggest KU fan you’ll find. In my nearly 18 years of existence, I’ve never once sat down to watch a Jayhawk game and thought they would lose. This includes even the most extreme circumstances, such as in 2000, when my Jayhawks, seeded a lowly eight, faced off against top-seeded Duke in the second round. I firmly believed we would win it all then, and I’ve penciled KU into the box in the center of my bracket every year since.
Why KU will win: This year is one of the few in which I’m in the majority. Kansas seems to be the consensus favorite to take down the field in this year’s bracket, and that is why they’re my pick to win it all. All biases aside, the Jayhawks simply have the players in their eight-man rotation to play any style of basketball. If a team goes small, head coach Bill Self has a few options: play Xavier Henry at the four and go small as well, or he can pound it inside to Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins for easy baskets all night long. If KU takes on a big team like Syracuse, Self has five players – Aldrich, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey – over 6’8″ and capable of banging in the paint.
The Jayhawks are complete all across the board, and they’ve proven their merit in running through the toughest conference in the nation at a salty 15-1. Self’s squad is battle tested, having played a grueling schedule this season. The Jayhawks are 12-2 against teams playing in the NCAA tournament, including five of those wins on the road. This regular season slate will have them prepared for the next three weekends, and Sherron Collins has grown accustomed to winning. Entering the tournament, Collins has 129 career wins, and a trip to the Final Four would put him in a tie for the most wins by one player in NCAA history. Still, Collins won’t be satisfied unless he’s snipping the last part of the nylon from the buckets in Indianapolis, and I think it’s a safe bet that he’ll do just that.
This is one of the toughest two regions in the tournament, along with the East. However, before I considered any matchups, I went ahead and scribbled the Jayhawks into Indy. Kansas has everything a champion needs: veteran leadership (Collins and Aldrich were in the rotation when the 2008 team took the title), dead-eye shooting (Tyrel Reed and Xavier Henry can knock it down from anywhere), an intimidating post presence (Aldrich is the best shot blocker in the land) and an experienced coach whose been there before (Bill Self’s KU teams have been one seeds in three of the last four years)
There were a few tough choices I had to make. If you recall, I made Northern Iowa one of my sleepers in Issue 12 of the Harbinger. However, they are matched up with UNLV, who is coached by one of the best sideline generals in the nation in Lon Kruger.
UNLV’s second round matchup with the Jayhawks is intriguing simply because the Rebels gave the Jayhawks a decent fight two years ago in the same round. As a superstitious guy, I like the idea of KU playing a team this year that they had to beat on the way to their title in 2008. I just think the Jayhawks’ pressure defense would overwhelm the Rebels, who haven’t faced a team that can play with similar defensive intensity.
Michigan State against Maryland is another tough call, simply because it was tough to choose against a playmaker like Greivis Vasquez. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is too good of a coach to let his guys falter that early in the tournament, and instead, the Spartans will bow out to the Jayhawks in a rematch of last year’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. This isn’t the only possibility for a revenge game for the Jayhawks in this region. In fact, the last three teams to beat KU are in the Midwest Region, as Michigan State, Tennessee and Oklahoma State each have the chance to face off with the top-seeded Jayhawks in St. Louis.
I nearly picked Tennessee to take down Georgetown in the second round. The Volunteers have already shown the nation that they can beat anyone when they come ready to play, with wins over the two top teams in the tournament, Kansas and Kentucky. However, the Volunteers appear to be fading of late, as Kentucky got revenge by 29 points in the SEC tournament. Tennessee kicked star Tyler Smith off the team just before their victory over Kansas, and their shortened rotation could be leading to late-March fatigue.
This region is packed with NBA caliber talent. Kansas boasts lottery picks in center Cole Aldrich and wing Xavier Henry, Monroe was the top ranked recruit in his class two seasons ago and Oklahoma State forward James Anderson was named the top player in the Big 12 this season. However, none of these players have the pro scouts drooling like Ohio State forward Evan Turner. Turner is the leading candidate for national player of the year, and he’s the reason I have the Buckeyes advancing to the Elite Eight before faltering to a Kansas squad that has plenty of experience against star players. Over the years, Self has devised strategies to shut down lottery picks like Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant, and he’ll find a way to shut down Turner as well. Aldrich and senior guard Sherron Collins have said that they came back for this season to win the title, and there isn’t a team in this region capable of deterring them from that goal before the Final Four.
Despite an extremely intriguing potential match-up in the Elite Eight between second-seeded Kansas State and top-seeded Syracuse, this portion of the bracket figures to be one of the least interesting. Even some of the best teams have question marks, as two of the top four seeds faltered down the stretch. Syracuse went from the top-ranked team in the nation to a squad that has now lost its last two games and it enters the tournament as the number four overall one seed. Vanderbilt, a three seed, comes into the madness having lost two of its last three to teams that did not make the Big Dance.
With many of the top teams peppered with uncertainty, it is the Kansas State Wildcats that have surged ahead as my team to beat. We have known all along about their stellar guard play in senior Denis Clemente and junior Jake Pullen. However, it is the emergence of their undersized post players that has made head coach Frank Martin’s squad one of the favorites in this region. Wildcats forward Jamar Samuels is the key for a team that is unfamiliar as the favorite. Samuels’ 27 points were the key in the Wildcats’ victory over a solid Oklahoma State team in the quarterfinals of the Big 12. He must find ways to stay in the game and out of foul trouble, because the Wildcats are winless in games when Samuels fouls out.
Other than the Wildcats, the only other upset I foresee in this region is UTEP over Butler. The Miners head into the tournament having won 11 of their last 12, including an impressive win on the road against a solid Memphis squad. The inside-outside combination of guard Randy Culpepper and forward Derrick Caracter will prove to be too much for the Bulldogs.
Even without the tournament experience that is generally a rule of thumb for a deep run, the Wildcats will have no trouble in their first three games. Only a pair of juniors, Pullen and forward Dominique Sutton, have played meaningful minutes in the NCAA tournament, but Samuels and Clemente have shown time and time again that they are tough enough to battle with and beat any opponent not named Kansas. I expect the hot shooting of Pullen and Clemente to be the perfect solution to the dreaded 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has made famous at Syracuse. The Wildcats will shoot over the zone and into their first Final Four since 1964.
The high seeds should be on full tilt upset alert, as I think the East Region is one of the two toughest on the bracket, along with the Midwest. Top to bottom, intriguing match-ups await, to the delight of the millions of fans watching at home.
The first round face-off between Cornell and Temple immediately caught my eye. Both teams were in or near the top 25 polls for much of the season despite hailing from mid-major conferences. Despite looking like a ten-year-old, Temple wing Juan Fernandez plays like a man for the Owls, and he was a big part of the Owls’ Atlantic 10 tournament championship run that included a victory over another tournament squad in Richmond. However, this game was one of my upset picks for the tournament, as I have seen both of these teams take on Kansas. The Jayhawks blew out Temple in Philadelphia by a score of 84-52. Cornell, on the other hand, nearly halted the Kansas Jayhawks’ then-51 game home winning streak back on January 6. Since that narrow six point defeat, the Big Red have rattled off 15 wins in their last 16 games. Cornell also has the key to an upset in their back pocket, as head coach Steve Donahue’s ball club boasts six players that shoot 40 percent or better from behind the three-point arc. This dead-eye shooting is why I have this Ivy League squad advancing past Temple and Wisconsin to the second weekend of the tournament before falling to top-seeded Kentucky.
A local team can be found in this region in the 10th-seeded Missouri Tigers. Though they will not have a magical run to the Elite Eight like last season, I would still not be surprised to see the Tigers pull off an upset in the first round. Head coach Mike Anderson preaches his “40 Minutes of Hell” defense, and they have drawn the perfect match-up to put it to use. Clemson averages 15 turnovers per game, which is far too many, especially when matched up with a team that makes its living on maddening defense. Missouri leads the nation in steals per game, and that’s why I think they’ll take this Tiger tangle.
The early round upsets in this region will have no bearing on the overall outcome in the East. Top-seeded Kentucky will still take on second-seeded West Virginia in the Elite Eight, and the Wildcats are still my favorite to advance to the Final Four. West Virginia has one of the more clutch players in the nation in Da’Sean Butler, who hit two game-winners for the Mountaineers in the Big East tournament. Unfortunately for Bob Huggins’ team, their clash with Kentucky won’t be close enough for West Virginia to be able to call on their icy-veined star. Kentucky has the most talented point guard in the nation in freshman guard John Wall, and a coach in John Calipari that has already been to Final Fours with two different schools – even if two of them have since been vacated. The true key in this regional final will be the Mountaineers’ inability to match the physical interior presence of the Wildcats, whose three post primary post players (Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton) are all taller than any player on West Virginia’s frontline.
Last season, the Wildcats ended their season at Notre Dame in the NIT. With a new head coach and an entirely different team, Kentucky hopes to end this season in Indiana as well, and I think they will be able to march on to the state’s capital for the national semifinal.
Finally, we move to what many experts have labeled the easiest region on the bracket. Duke was gifted a two seed that has lost five of its last seven (Villanova) and a four seed that got pasted by 27 in its conference tournament and is without its best player (Purdue), and the Blue Devils have the added benefit of playing its first-round game against the play-in game winner that will be a bit weary. However, as the braniacs at Duke could tell us, there is one fundamental necessity in business and life: location. The South regional is located in Houston, and head coach Mike Kryzyzewski’s bunch could take on a pair of Big 12 teams – Texas A&M and Baylor – in their home state of Texas. This home court advantage could be enough for one of these teams to take down the top seed.
The only first round upset I’ve got is one that can be predicted from a mile away. Purdue, the four seed in the South, has absolutely zero chance of making any noise in this tournament. Boilermaker star Robbie Hummel tore his right ACL, and I’m not sure his 16 points per game can be replaced. Purdue also enters the tournament on the heels of an embarrassing loss to Minnesota in the Big 10 tournament. Siena, on the other hand, has had an impressive year and is rolling of late. All of the Saints six losses came on the road, and four of them were to teams in this year’s bracket. Despite hailing from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Siena is not your typical Cinderella squad. They’ve notched wins in the last two NCAA tournaments, including one last season over another Big 10 team in Ohio State. Head coach Fran McCaffery has a veteran squad, and its four top scorers have all played in multiple tournament victories. I expect their third win to come over a reeling Purdue squad in the first round.
The one major sleeper I have in my entire bracket is the Baylor Bears. They are a tough, well-coached team that plays defense like madmen and can shoot from all over the court. I love the potential Sweet 16 match-up with Villanova, because the teams seem to be mirror images of each other. Villanova brings a plethora of guards led by Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, and Baylor matches with all-Big 12 second team guard Lacedarius Dunn and third team selection Tweety Carter. The only difference between the teams is the inside presence that Baylor head coach Scott Drew has been able to bring to Waco. Center Ekpe Udoh is fifth in the nation with an incredible four blocks per game, and forward Quincy Acy is a springy athlete that is the perfect complement to Udoh and his 6’11” frame.
This interior presence of the Bears is why they’ll also be able to knock out the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight. Carter, Dunn and A.J. Walton will be able to match the three-point shooting of Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer, and Coach K’s team does not have a talented enough frontline to defeat the Bears. Udoh can neutralize Duke center Brian Zoubek, and Baylor’s guards are too athetic for Scheyer and guard Nolan Smith to contain. I expect the Houston crowd to favor the homestate Bears, who will storm to Indianapolis and set up a Final Four with three Big 12 teams.