Call me crazy, but this is the first year I can confidently select Gonzaga as NCAA champs in my bracket. I may be a long-time Zags fan, but I’m not rabid enough to name them national champions every time I put money on the tourney. (I finished last in last year’s office pool anyways!) In fact, I haven’t advanced GU to the Final Four in my pool since 2006–and Adam Morrison would prefer we not speak of that game again.
But this year, I’m not the only one going with Gonzaga all the way. Even Nate Silver, who’s practically half-psychic, has the Zags in his Final Four. (It says here he picked Michigan to win it all in ’92–back when he was 14!) Hey, it’s hard to bet against the number one team in the country, who lost only two games all year–to eventual 6 and 7 seeds Butler and Illinois–and stormed through the WCC tournament, dominating a future 11 seed (via play-in) in the process. They may not be the number one overall seed, but they might have the easiest path to Atlanta, especially if Ohio State doesn’t make it to the Elite Eight for the rematch of a game GU almost stole in last year’s tourney–sans Olynyk, at that!
Of course, the key to Gonzaga’s success runs through the post, where the seven-footer from Kamloops is joined by NBA prospect Elias Harris, with reliable lefty Sam Dower and Shaqtastic freshman Przemek Karnowski coming off the bench, giving them four solid scorers 6’8″ or taller. Teams have had trouble matching up against the Bulldog bigs all season, creating wide-open looks for sharpshooters Kevin Pangos, Drew Barham and Gary Bell Jr. If the Zags get the inside-out game going, they could… go… all… the… way! Even Wally Szczerbiak, with his boyish good lucks and deadly jump shot, has pegged Gonzaga to win it all in his bracket. I’m not about to argue with a guy who scored 90 points in the ’99 Tourney!
Alas, GU kicks off the 2013 edition with a first-round matchup on Thursday afternoon against Southern, a school so small they couldn’t fit another word onto their jerseys. (Southern Where?) The SWAC champs, best known for their football rivalry with Grambling State, posted a 23-9 record on the season, but have just one semi-notable non-conference win, a 53-51 squeaker over a Texas A&M team that finished 11th in the SEC. Playing in a conference in which just two other teams posted an overall winning record (Grambling was 0-28, if you can believe that!), Southern barely eked out a 45-44 win in the SWAC final en route to a 16th seed. Suffice to say, their trip to the NCAAs ends tomorrow. But hey, at least they beat Grambling… Gonzaga 78, Southern 45.
Here’s who else I’m picking in Thursday’s games:
12:15 pm: Michigan State over Valparasio — Remember Bryce Drew? The 6’3″ point guard hit a miraculous three-pointer at the buzzer to score a first-round upset of Ole Miss… back in 1998. Now the head coach at Valpo, the 38-year-old has long since used up all his eligibility–which means there’s no way the 14 seed upsets the ninth-ranked Spartans in their home state.
12:40 pm: Butler over Bucknell – Both of these schools are no stranger to upsets, with Bucknell famously knocking off Kansas in ’05 and scoring a slight upset over Arkansas the following year. But this is just their second tournament appearance since, and in the interim, Butler has been to two NCAA finals. Despite missing the tourney altogether last year, these Bulldogs are battle-tested, beating #1 Gonzaga at the buzzer and former #1 (currently #4) Indiana in OT. Suffice to say, they’ve outlasted much tougher foes than Bucknell–but look out for Davidson in the
second third round!
1:40 pm: Pittsburgh over Wichita State — The winner of this game gets to go up against Gonzaga in the third round. For my money’s worth, that’s the Pitt Panthers, who got dissed with an eight-seed despite a top 20 ranking. I wouldn’t even think of picking Pittsburgh, a school that’s busted my bracket many times in the past with early exits, for an upset over GU–they’ve only one two of their last nine games against teams seeded ninth or higher, and are 0-4 as an eight-seed. But I still say they shock the Shockers, a school that lost to NIT-bound Tennessee and dropped two out of three to tourney-bound Creighton, including the MVC final.
2:10 pm: Saint Louis over New Mexico State — Saint Louis is a four-seed!? How did that happen? Well, it turns out the Billikens boast the best record in the Atlantic 10, a conference that also includes VCU and Butler. Sweeping the season series against both conference foes and knocking off 10th ranked New Mexico has landed St. Loo a top-15 ranking and a date with the other school from the Land of Enchantment. I suppose I’ll put them through–but I suspect they might fall in the next round.
2:45 pm: Saint Mary’s over Memphis — This is my first upset special of the day, and a game I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on–seeing as it’s on CBS. Gonzaga’s arch-rivals came up short against the Zags not once, not twice, but three times this season, though they went 28-3 against everyone else, including an otherwise undefeated run through the West Coast Conference. Plus. they’ll be bringing in some momentum from their play-in win over Middle Tennessee, a game in which Matthew “Mouthguard” Dellavedova, an invisible man throughout the WCC tourney (aside from a buzzer-beater vs USD), went off for 22, 6 and 4. Crikey mate! Some might see Memphis as a tournament dark horse, but Conference USA ain’t what it used to be. Southern Miss, who took the Tigers to double OT in the C-USA final, are a number-one seed… in the NIT. Going 16-0 in a one-bid league isn’t all that impressive IMO. (Plus, I always pick the WCC teams in the first round of the tourney.)
3:10 pm: Davidson over Marquette – Yes, you read that correctly. I’m taking the 14th-seeded Wildcats over the 15th-ranked Golden Eagles. With all the upsets in last year’s tourney (that I didn’t see coming), I’d almost be remiss not to pick at least one 14 seed to advance past the first round–and I like the Southern Conference champs, who went 17-1 in league play. Sure, they dropped a handful of non-conference games, including tilts against Gonzaga and Duke, but this team can really score, averaging almost 74 points per game. The more methodical Marquette offense (69 ppg) has proven to come up short on occasion, most notably in a shocking 49-47 loss to Green Bay. No, not the Packers–the University of Green Bay Phoenix, which finished 18-16 overall and just lost in the first round of the CIT. (Isn’t that a test, or something?) Should they fall tomorrow, this would only be the second-biggest upset the Eagles have faced this season.
4:40 pm: Oklahoma State over Oregon — The Pac-12 has been pretty whack on the hardwood of late, and thus its tournament champs, who won more games overall than anyone else in the conference, are only deemed worthy of a 12-seed. OSU bowed out early in the Big 12 tourney, but with wins over Kansas and Kansas State, along with one-point losses to Gonzaga and the Jayhawks (the latter in double OT), the Cowboys have clearly competed against much more talented teams than the Whack-12 has to offer. I’ve got ‘em riding all the way to the Sweet 16 in my bracket.
6:50 pm: Louisville over North Carolina A&T — Win the Big East tourney and you get a sweetheart date for the Big Dance. The second-ranked Cardinals scored the A&T Aggies, a team that didn’t even post a winning record in the MEAC. Yeah, meek is an appropriate moniker for a squad that finished 290th overall in points, 293rd in assists and 317th in field goal percentage. I didn’t even know Div I had that many schools! Don’t be surprised if TBS switches to a taping of Heidi at halftime or something…
7:15 pm: Michigan over South Dakota State – Though their second-round Big 10 tourney loss dropped the Wolverines to the bottom of the Top 10 (their conference has three schools ranked ahead of them!), I would not sleep on this team. The fact that they ended up in a region with Kansas and Georgetown, two notorious early-exiters, can only help their cause. Not gonna lie, I’ve got the Maize and Blue in my Final Four. This first round matchup against a Horizon League school with just one previous tournament appearance? Piece of cake!
7:20 pm: Belmont over Arizona – Ah, another Whack-12 team in the tournament. Considered by many to be the best of the bunch–and even ranked in the Top 10 for a few weeks–Arizona nevertheless lost seven conference games, dropping contests to the likes of Cal, Colorado and lowly USC. Belmont, which has a recent history of giving top teams all they can handle in the tourney (most notably losing 71-70 to Duke in ’08), blazed through the Ohio Valley Conference with their high-powered offense (77.2 ppg) posting the fourth-best shooting percentage in the entire country. These kids shot nearly 50 per cent from the floor (.494) as a team. My gut instinct tells me it’s typically the high-scoring teams that pull off tournament upsets, which is largely why I like Davidson–and also why I like Belmont to win its first NCAA tournament game in school history.
7:27 pm: UNLV over California – Wait, how did Cal even make it to the tourney? The Bears, a cut below the top three teams in the Whack-12 with a 20-11 overall record, tied for second in regular-season conference play–but lost to lowly Utah in the second round of the Whack-12 tourney. And yet, they ended up with the same seed as Oregon, the 26-8 tournament champs. Yeah, the Bears don’t belong here, and they shouldn’t last long against a UNLV team lead by Canadian freshman sensation Anthony Bennett. This might be the first time in a dog’s age that a 12 doesn’t beat a five–thanks in large part to the Whack-12.
9:20 pm: Colorado St. over Missouri – These 8-9 games are always a crapshoot–and often inconsequential, as the winner generally falls to the one-seed in the next round. Missouri is second in the country in rebounding, which is pretty impressive–but losses to the likes of Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M? Not so much. And hey, the Tigers only averaged one more board a game than the Rams, who finished fourth in that stat category. Not that anyone keeps track of these things, but when was the last time two top-five rebounding teams tipped off against each other? There should be some epic box-outs in this one! For what it’s worth (the winner loses to Louisville on Saturday), I’m taking the Rams team that finished second in the rugged Mountain West, but it might depend on who vacuums more Spalding.
9:45 pm: Virginia Commonwealth over Akron – And here’s why I don’t think a 12 will beat a five this year. VCU, a true Cinderella story two years ago, is the higher seed in this matchup. They’re up against an Akron team from a one-bid league that’s never won a tournament game (in just three appearances). I don’t see the 12-seed prevailing in this one, either.
9:50 pm: New Mexico over Harvard – The 10th-ranked Lobos share the Salt Lake City regional site with Gonzaga, a locale much closer to New Mexico than it is to Hahvahd Yahd. With no impressive non-conference wins on their schedule–unless you count Cal, a team that really shouldn’t be here (see 7:27 pm), the Crimson don’t move me much. And despite five players on the roster at 6’8″ or taller, Harvard was a pitiful 334th in rebounding, with fewer than 30 per game. I take it those towering freshmen don’t see much playing time…
9:57 pm: Syracuse over Montana — The Montana Grizzlies are another one of those small conference schools that’s typically one-and-done. The Grizz are just 2-10 in tournament play–and one of those wins was in 1975. Since then, they’ve won just once in the NCAAs, a narrow upset of Nevada in ’06, while posting some awfully ugly losses. For instance, the Big Sky champs lost by 24 to typically low-scoring Wisconsin in last year’s Big Dance. The only thing impressive about their 19-1 conference record is that the Big Sky plays 20 conference games. Quick, name me another Big Sky school. If you said Weber State, congrats. If you said anything else, you must live in the Pacific Northwest–and might not be turning this game off at halftime to go to sleep. Me, I’ve got the ‘Cuse in my Elite Eight, so nothing less than a 30-point win will suffice–though I probably won’t stay up to see if they beat the spread.