Tis the season of Cinderellas and bracket busters, success stories and crying men. Oh, and the Big Ten choking.
The NCAA Tournament provides the best three weekends in sports, bar none. Anyone that says otherwise is a football fan. And we don’t need those types around here.
Of course, there’s nothing more fun than pretending to be way smarter than you actually are. Pick that big upset or get three Final Four teams right, and you’ll feel like a genius bragging to your friends. Win the office pool and it’s easier to forget how awful the economy is doing right now.
So I present to you the bracketalysis (post-Selection Sunday bracketology) of a man who loves pretending to be smarter than he is. Region by region, starting with the…
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Connecticut, No. 2 Memphis, No. 5 Purdue
This bracket comes down to UConn and Memphis. They’re the two best teams here, both great defensively with experienced coaches and talented front and back courts. As far as I’m concerned, Memphis deserved a No. 1 seed. I love what they’ve done since moving freshman Tyreke Evans to point guard, as their offense plays at a frenetic pace and their defense continues to be a cold steel clamp. Connecticut just has the look of a legitimate contender, especially after last year’s meltdown against San Diego in the first round. Purdue is a team that, with forward Robbie Hummel in the lineup and healthy, is on an elite level. Hummel’s looking strong and Purdue appears the most likely candidate to knock out UConn or Memphis.
The Pretenders: No. 3 Missouri, No. 6 Marquette
I’m impressed with what Missouri has done. Don’t get me wrong, the Big 12 Championship was both shocking and applause-worthy. But last time I checked, guard play is essential in the NCAA Tournament. And the Tigers fall short on that, though they are fun to watch. For proof of guard play’s importance, just ask Marquette, a team that might have been a Final Four contender had point guard Dominic James not broke his foot. It’s a shame their great batch of senior guards can’t go out healthy and on top.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 11 Utah State
In the same bracket as the Texas A&M Aggies, the Utah State Aggies are in a very favorable position. They are the kings of efficiency, shooting a remarkable 49.8 percent, best in the field. In addition, the Aggies join Memphis as one of two teams with 30 wins already. Factor in that they are playing closer to home than any team they are likely to be matched up against, and you’ve got a sleeper Final Four pick. It’s a stretch, but not a horrendous one.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 13 Mississippi State
Center Jarvis Varnado is a freak of nature, averaging 4.7 blocks per game. And he and the Bulldogs are coming off an SEC Championship and playing the best basketball of their season. They crashed the Big Dance, but don’t be surprised if they topple an inexperienced Washington squad in the first round and maybe make things difficult for Purdue in the second.
The Best Player: Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut
Why is Hasheem Thabeet the hands-down best player in this region? Because he can block your shot with HIS hands down. The 7-foot-3, 265-pound giant was named Big East Player of the Year and is a strong candidate for the national awards. He’s an incredible rebounder and defender who can get hot on offense as well. You don’t want to run into him, metaphorically or literally.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Jerome Randle, No. 7 California
East Coast bias getting you down? You should know who Randle is, but many fans outside of the left coast don’t seem to. The scrappy Chicago native provides the Golden Bears with a deadly shooter who can create off the dribble for himself and others. His efficiency is unbelievable, as well, shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 46.8 percent from behind the arc.
The Best Coach: Gary Williams, No. 10 Maryland
The Terrapins coach has been railed on all season by media for his poor recruting. But all the while, he has a team of scrappy underachievers making a surprising run into the Big Dance. He’s one of two coaches in the region, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun being the other, with an NCAA Championship ring.
The Final Pick: Connecticut
Since shooting guard Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury, the Huskies are just 4-3. Well, they’ve got enough talent and a good enough coach in Jim Calhoun to put the pieces back together. And A.J. Price is the type of player who leads his team to a Final Four.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Louisville, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Wake
Only one team wanted a top seed this year, Louisville. The
Cardinals have won 20 of their last 22 games and have the kind of balanced offense
and nasty defense that can definitely translate to a championship. And, as with
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, you can NEVER count out Rick Pitino. The Spartans have
depth, but Izzo is really enough no matter how you look at it. And Wake Forest
has the talent to play with anyone. Three Demon Deacons could be drafted in the
first round, and if Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu are playing
The Pretenders: No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 Boston College
"Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" can take a break this year. It’s not that Kansas
is bad, it’s just that the talent level isn’t there to really compete for another
national championship. Don’t be surprised if West Virginia knocks them off in
the second round. As far as Boston College, the Eagles did a nice job overacheiving
this season. But Al Skinner is a rather iffy in-game coach and a potential second-round
matchup with Michigan State looks like it would be too much, should they even
get that far.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 10 Southern California
The Pac-10 Champion Trojans have enough talent and are playing well enough lately
that they could reasonably win the region and head to the Final Four. You heard
me. It’s not likely, but freshman DeMar DeRozan has been the best first-year player
in the country through the last month of the season, and Taj Gibson, Dwight Lewis
and Daniel Hackett all look so much more comfortable playing without O.J. Mayo.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 14 North Dakota State
Not only do I not like Kansas much this year, but they’ll have to play the Bison
in Minneapolis. Needless to say, Minneapolis is a lot closer to North Dakota than
Kansas. And point guard Ben Woodside and forward Brett Winkelman lead a team that
can really shoot the 3-pointer, which has always been the equalizer in early round
powerhouse vs. mid-major battles. No. 13 Cleveland State deserves a mention here,
as well, especially with Wake Forest’s up-and-down tendencies.
The Best Player: Jordan Hill, No. 12 Arizona
The best NBA prospect in the region, as well, Hill has scored more than 20 points
in each of his last four games, averaging 11.25 rebounds per game in the same
span. He’s athletic, rebounds as well as anyone in the country and is really coming
on hard. Still, you may only get to see him for one round, as the Wildcats as
a team have sturggled mightily of late, just barely squeaking into perhaps the
last spot in the bracket.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Jeremy Chappell, No. 15 Robert Morris
Chappell is one of two players in the NCAA Tournament field, Maryland’s Greivis
Vasquez being the other, to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists. Chappell
shoots 40.7 percent from 3-point range and has essentially carried his team to
a 24-10 record and NEC title.
The Best Coach: Tock Pitizzo, Louisville State
You can’t pick between two of the best in the business. Pitino and Izzo seem on
a collision course in this bracket, which brings us to…
The Final Pick: Michigan State
Louisville is the better team. But Michigan State is the more consistent team.
It’s easier for me to imagine Louisville tripping up because of an off night from
Terrence Williams or Earl Clark. Michigan State relies on its depth and balance
even more than the balanced Cardinals. And I just love Tom Izzo. It’s my bias.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 2 Duke, No. 6 UCLA
The Panthers and Blue Devils are two of the most reliable teams
in the country. Pittsburgh’s loss to Providence is the only loss for either team
to a non-NCAA Tournament team. Duke, though, has struggled against the elite.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has two wins against Connecticut and several other
high-caliber victories. Either team could win it all, neither seems likely to
be eliminated in the first weekend, though some argue Texas has a shot against
Duke in Round 2. My feeling on UCLA is straight out the gut. Ben Howland has led
three-straight teams to the Final Four. There is too much experience here to look
past the Bruins.
The Pretenders: No. 3 Villanova
I’m not buying it. This team has lost to Georgetown, been blown out by Louisville
and squeaked by Marquette and DePaul in their last six games. Scottie Reynolds
has spent his three years in college so far being one of the nation’s streakiest
players, and after a 1-of-6 shooting performance against Louisville, I’m going
to say he’s on the wrong side of peaking, to say the least.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 9 Tennessee
The Tournament Committee should be ashamed of itself for its treatment of the
SEC. Tennessee deserves better than a No. 9 seed. I’ll tell you right now, if
they can get past Pittsburgh in the second round, they might end up heading to
the Final Four as the first No. 9 seed ever to reach it.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth
This flies in the face of my stance with UCLA as a Final Four contender, but I
truly believe VCU to be the best sleeper-team in the country. They could definitely
end up in the Sweet Sixteen, although I’m not going to be picking them.
The Best Player: Gerald Henderson, Duke
I was going to lose sleep over this, choosing between Henderson, Pitt’s DeJuan
Blair, Florida State’s Toney Douglas and VCU’s Eric Maynor. I decided, though,
to go with the most talented of the four. Henderson is an absolute monster. He’s
smooth yet explosive, with a killer midrange jumper. He plays defense and leads
by example. He’s not the guy you’ll remember from Duke; he’s the guy that will
beat you silently.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: James Anderson, No. 8 Oklahoma State
In my efforts to hold down mid-majors as much as the Tournament Committee has
this year, I decided against picking Kevin Tiggs from East Tennessee State in
favor of Anderson. No player from a top-8 seed gets less credit than the Cowboy
swingman, who has every desirable tool for a solid NBA shooting guard. He’s had
four 30-point games this year and shone brightest against some of the Big 12’s
best teams. Inconsistent, yes. But often brilliant.
The Best Coach: Ben Howland, UCLA
Howland installs a system that wins. He teaches defense on a level untouched by
most. Granted, it seems faulty to not list Mike Krzyzewski here, but Howland’s
made three straight Final Fours. Coach K hasn’t made one since 2004.
The Final Pick: Pittsburgh
I had the Panthers No. 2 preseason, and they haven’t disappointed. Point guard
Levance Fields should be back to full strength, and the Panthers have the look
of a balanced Championship-type team.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Syracuse,
No. 4 Gonzaga
Yeah, I could truly see any of the top four seeds in this bracket
making the Final Four. The only reason for skepticism is health. If North Carolina
has a healthy Ty Lawson, who missed the ACC Tournament with a toe injury, they
may be the best team in the country. If Oklahoma star Blake Griffin is in full
form, they can beat anyone. If Syracuse has recovered from a REALLY LONG Big East
Tournament, including a six-overtime win against Connecticut, they’re capable
of running with anyone. Gonzaga, well, they’ve been underrated all year.
The Pretenders: No. 5 Illinois
Look, if you lose a game in which you score 33 points against an NIT team, you’re
not a five-seed. I’m not buying it. Illinois has overacheived all year, but they
are not a No. 5 seed or a threat to win anything more than their first-round game.
The Regional Sleeper: None
Between the top four seeds and No. 6 Arizona State, I just don’t see anyone coming
up by surprise and taking this region. Maybe Michigan can do it with a mastermind
like John Beilein pulling the strings, but I doubt it.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 8 LSU
The Tigers got no respect, along with the entire SEC. But they finished 26-7 and
have enough weapons and play enough defense to challenge North Carolina, should
Ty Lawson not be fully recovered from his afforementioned toe injury. I don’t
see them getting past a healthy UNC or an of the other top teams in this bracket,
but it’s worth looking into. Also, No. 12 Western Kentucky, No. 11 Temple and
No. 10 Michigan could all turn some heads.
The Best Player: Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
The easiest pick in any category in any region. If you don’t know about him, I’m
surprised you’re on a site like NBADraft.net.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Artsiom Parakhouski, Radford
Did you watch the Big South Championship? If you did, you remember the bigman
from Belarus. Parakhouski had 26 points and 18 rebounds in the high-paced final.
He’s a strong post player who transferred from a junior college in Idaho and now
will get the challenge of facing Tyler Hansbrough in Round 1.
The Best Coach: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Boeheim. I consider him one of the top
five coaches in the country. And in terms of in-game adjustment, he’s as good
as they get. It’s a tough group here, led by Boeheim, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Michigan’s
The Final Pick: North Carolina
Even if Lawson has to stay out of the first round of games, the Tar Heels are
talented enough to get through to the second weekend. And by then, the junior
point guard should be ready to go. And if that happens, the Tar Heels will be
ready to go. North Carolina should win the entire thing, based on talent alone.
Note: I will be back after the regionals are concluded to offer more analysis, you can see my final four picks in the full bracket piece and staff picks article (soon to come).