The NCAA starts to narrow its field from 64 down to one today, and the Thursday and Friday action are two of the best days of the year for a sports fan. Here are my parting thoughts just before the action begins.
This is one of the harder regions to figure because I think there are three national title-caliber teams here in Florida, Kansas and Syracuse. … Kansas may be the country’s most talented squad if Joel Embiid is healthy, but therein lies the rub. KU has said that it hopes to get Embiid back for next weekend, but that its star center won’t play this weekend. Kansas will get by Eastern Kentucky, but a New Mexico team that a lot of people like as an upset pick looks in the second round if the Lobos can get by Stanford (which I think it will). I am not buying New Mexico in an upset; I don’t think the Mountain West, outside of New Mexico and San Diego State is very good, and you’d have to go back 40 years to find the last time that the Lobos won more than one game in the NCAAs. But here’s the issue: while I haven’t tracked it, it seems to me that four times out of five, forecasts are optimistic and players return from injuries, at best, on time and usually later than their target dates. I distinctly remember Embiid writing in pain on the floor, holding his back in that March 1 game with Oklahoma State, and even if Embiid comes back, how healthy will he be? There are just too many “ifs” here for a team that’s lost three of five games since Embiid got hurt. … Syracuse also limped to the finish, but they’ll also be with a healthier Jerami Grant. Remember, the ‘Cuse plays that tough 2-3 matchup zone which teams in its league might be ready to play, but teams in the Big Dance don’t have as much time to prepare. That’s why I like the Orange to rebound and get to the Elite Eight. Western Michigan could post a minor upset threat in the first round, but don’t bet on it. … I have reservations about Florida, but I have the Gators in my Final Four for three reasons: cohesiveness, experience and Billy Donovan’s coaching. My concern is that UF doesn’t have that top-end talent that some others in the tournament have — and by that, I mean impact NBA players — but not many have what the Gators have going for them. … By seeding, Pitt over Colorado (no Spencer Dinwiddie) is my only first-round upset.
Like everyone else, I like Michigan State to advance to the title game as it finally has all the pieces back, plus — and you’ll see this as a common thread running through my picks — a future Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo. I’m concerned about how cohesive this group will be as it didn’t play together much, but I trust Izzo to deal with that. … I’ve not been on the VIllanova bandwagon for a while, and I see Connecticut upsetting the Wildcats in the second game. I just don’t like how ‘Nova played against some of the nation’s best. … A hot Iowa State team that has definite star power could pose a threat to MSU in the regional final, but I’d like to see ISU play a little better defense before I make the leap. … I may be sleeping on Virginia, but it’s hard to jump on a team to go that far that’s had no history of doing it lately. … Watch for Harvard to beat Cincinnati in the first game, and I had Providence over North Carolina because the Friars can shoot foul shots and the Tar Heels can’t, but when the off-court news hit that two PC players are being hit with a sexual assault investigation, that sounds to me like the kind of distraction that can be disruptive and I changed my pick.
This looks like the easiest draw for a team to get to Arlington. That’s one reason I like Arizona to cut down the nets once it gets there. The other reasons are these: the Wildcats have NBA-type talent in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, a steady, smart point guard in T.J. McConnell and the top defense in the land. The only real reservation is that the ‘Cats are playing without injured 3-point specialist Brandon Ashley, and there are legitimate questions as to whether that will be the death blow to UA. … I have UA knocking off Creighton, which might be the most fun team in America to watch. When Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge are shooting lights out, as they do most of the time, the Blue Jays can beat anyone even in spite of their poor defense. … Wisconsin should have been a 1-seed, but the Badgers are also not great defensively and in a battle of strength-on-strength, I think Creighton knocks them off in the Sweet 16. … I would be surprised if Oklahoma State didn’t beat Gonzaga without much of a problem. The Bulldogs are one of the most over-seeded teams in the field. … Oklahoma is a popular pick to get upset by North Dakota State in its first game. The Bison can shoot with the best of them, but I think people forget how good a coach Lon Kruger is. I’m calling for OU to pull a mild upset of San Diego State and get to the Sweet 16. … Nebraska has one of the better up-and-coming coaches in Tim Miles, and that’s why I’ve reluctantly picked the Cornhuskers to upset Baylor and win their first NCAA Tournament game ever. Of course, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bears proved me wrong and won a couple of games, many have them as a Final Four sleeper.
Poor Wichita State. It definitely deserved a 1-seed and it got it, but it also got the toughest region in the field. Michigan, Duke and Louisville all had legitimate arguments as No. 2 seeds. I like the defending national champs to advance out of this region because of defense, the coaching of Rick Pitino and the fact that it now seems to have adjusted to early-season personnel losses. In fact, I have grave reservations picking the Cardinals to lose to Arizona in the Final Four, which is what I did, but I did it because I think the Wildcats’ schedule prepared them better for that stage of the game. … Duke and Michigan could be one of the games of the tournament in the Sweet 16. I don’t like the winner to advance further than that because both were so inconsistent defensively. … Watch for Tennessee to beat Massachusetts; how in the world the Minutemen got a 6-seed instead of the 8 or 9 it deserved is beyond me. … North Caroilna State, led by one of the nation’s best players in T.J. Warren, will also knock off a St. Louis team that just can’t score and got beat by several marginal opponents down the stretch. … A lot of people have Kentucky as a sleeper, which I understand, but I don’t agree. The ‘Cats played in a weak SEC and had no marquee wins outside of Louisville early in the season. I just don’t buy that they have the point guard play, the shooters or the basketball I.Q. to get far, and I think Kansas State disposes of UK in the first game before giving Wichita a run for its money in the weekend game.