It’s officially spring which means the start of the Big One. Yes, of course, the baseball season, but I’m thinking here about the other big one: the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Let’s just lay some ground rules for this article: it’s not about the problems with collegiate sports, like the exploitation of student athletes, or inflated coach salaries paid with public dollars, or the rampant illegal gambling associated with the brackets. That’s another article, another story.
For this article, can we agree to just focus on the fun of the tourney?
For those who are uninitiated, the NCAA college basketball tournament is a three week rush of excitement, Cinderella stories and kids living out their dreams.
The bracket is simple: four regions, single elimination, if you win six straight games, you are crowned national champions. Teams are seeded in each region from 1 – 16 (without getting into the relatively new “First Four”) based on various factors used by the selection committee which is made up of Athletic Directors from various conferences. Here’s how that works: when a committee member’s conference is discussed they must excuse themselves from the room so the seeding remains as impartial as possible.
The committee looks at things like overall and conference record, strength of schedule, quality wins and all sorts of advanced metrics. What you get at the end are 4 number 1 seeds, 4 number 2 seeds, and so on down to the number 16 seeds.
What I love the most about the tournament is that the players are not just kids from the perennial powerhouses like Syracuse, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. Players from the likes of Coastal Carolina, Wofford and Weber State get to shine on the big stage, too. Every few years you have one of those schools make an impossible run—like last year’s then ninth-seeded Wichita State’s getting into the Final Four. (This year they’re a number 1 seed.)
Last year’s tourney also featured the high flying Florida Gulf Coast University—they made it all the way to the Elite 8 as a 15 seed! I highly recommend a YouTube search for Florida Gulf Coast highlights from last year. In 1985, Villanova won the tournament as an 8 seed, the lowest seed to ever win. It is also notable that the tournament only became a 64 team format in 1985.
Okay, now it’s time to prepare your bracket—the grid used to predict who will win during each elimination match. Be cautious about defaulting to all of the favorites: the only time all four number 1 seeds made the Final Four was in 2008, when Kansas won. Here’s another thing you will hear: historically the first round matches have favored specific seeds and more upsets have favored other seeds. For example, in the first round the number 1 seeds have never lost. NEVER, EVER LOST. So that’s a no-brainer, but don’t expect every 1 seed to go far: in 2010 the number 1 seed Kansas lost to number 9 Northern Iowa in the second round. One upset that is always expected is a 12 seed taking down a 5, it almost always happens at least since the expansion in 1985.
I’ll keep my personal rooting interests private, let’s get into some predictions which I am sure will come true…but probably won’t. That’s the nature of the tourney.
I expect Florida, the number 1 overall seed to do well, but I don’t think they will win. The Gators do have experience at the helm with Billy Donovan who won back to back championships with Florida in ’06 – ’07, but those teams featured three players taken in the top 10 of the next NBA draft. A powerhouse of a team, this year’s squad features the NCAA’s third best defense in giving up points per game, but their offense is nothing to write home about. Additionally, they played in a mostly weak conference–besides Florida, only Kentucky and Memphis made the tournament.
A team I have my eyes on is Oklahoma State, who could go as far as the Elite Eight. If you don’t know the name Marcus Smart, then you should keep your eyes open during this tournament. As a sophomore, Smart averaged 17.8 points per game, plus, for a shooting guard, he pulls down good rebound numbers and nice assists as well as playing tough and disruptive defense. Smart is most well-known for an altercation earlier this season against Texas Tech during which Smart shoved a fan who allegedly made racist remarks. Smart was suspended for three games as a result. Now none of us will ever know who said what that day in Lubbock, but I can guarantee this kid–who can shoot well, play physical and good defense–will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. In this tournament, one great, determined player can carry you a long way.
Wichita State went 34-0 this season and earned themselves a 1 seed as well, but they play in the Missouri Valley Conference, a mid-major conference not typically known for producing successful teams. So, they didn’t play against the toughest competition all year. I expect them to win the first game but round two they will play probably Kentucky who has talent up the wazoo including freshman sensation Julius Randle. I expect Kentucky to win and to go further than their seed predicts they should – don’t let the 8 next to their name scare you from putting them at least in the Sweet 16. I do expect that Kentucky will run into some trouble though when they play defending National Champion Louisville.
Louisville plays in the former Big East, which now goes by the name the American Athletic Conference– significantly weaker than it used to be due to “realignment.” That being said, Louisville was 8th in the nation in points per game and was 15th in the nation in points per game given up. Louisville also has two things most teams don’t have: Rick Pitino, a veteran coach who is a two time national champion with seven Final Four appearances; and, Russ Smith, the six-foot-nothing guard who has been tearing up the competition lately. These two won last year and, in Smith’s senior season, you can guarantee he is determined to repeat.
Okay, here’s where I go out on a limb…with my Final Four picks.
MY FINAL FOUR
Michigan State –coach Tom Izzo is leading a team that is finally 100% healthy—and they had a pre-season number 2 ranking nationwide.
Syracuse – who should have a relatively easy road to the Final Four with what, I expect, will be an early exit for Florida in their bracket against a surprisingly tough and good defensive Pitt Panthers. ‘Cuse, started off 25-0 before hitting a skid, but with Jim Boeheim leading the Orange, I expect the time off between an early ACC tournament exit and the start of the NCAA tourney will serve them well.
Creighton – if one great player can carry you, then the probable Wooden Award (player of the year) winner Doug McDermott should be able to take his Blue Jays to the Final Four.
Louisville – as stated before, great coach, great star and great offense / defensive ranks should catapult them.
I think in the Championship, Louisville will repeat over a more physical Michigan State team. Most of the predictions are wrong, but if I am 100% right then Warren Buffet will owe me a billion dollars! And, of course, most of my winnings would be donated to NCPR.
(Editor’s note: Jon and Radio Bob are going in on a bracket together and plan to win Mr. Buffet’s money–and set up an endowment for NCPR. Just in case they don’t win, remember to support your local public media folks here at NCPR. Thanks!)