Oh great, they gave Gonzaga an eight-seed?

For the teams that aren’t just happy to be in the NCAA tournament, there’s nothing worse than being an eight or nine-seed.  And seeing as Gonzaga’s making its sixteenth straight March Madness appearance, just showing up isn’t their idea of a good time.  Especially not after the disappointment of last season, when I picked them to go all the way as the first one-seed in school history.  Ultimately, they lost in the round of 32 to ninth-seeded Wichita State.  But if the Zags are to make it to the second weekend of the tourney this year, the slipper will have to be on the other foot.  Cuz this time, they’d be the team looking to take out a one-seed–if they even survive the second round!

But I wouldn’t bet my billion-dollar bracket on it.  Not even someone who’s been cheering them on in every one of those 16 tourneys would pick this team to go all the way.  Speaking for myself here, I really think Gonzaga’s year was last year…and they blew it.  A deep tournament run with this season’s team would be almost akin to that first Cinderella story back in ’99.  Where’s Casey Calvary when you need him?

OK, so Calvary (Class of ’01) is long gone, but it’s the most recent departures of Mike Hart, Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk that really hurt right now.  I mean, you can’t stop your seniors from graduating–while Olynyk probably wouldn’t be a lottery pick had he waited until this year’s draft–but they went from having four premium post players (and a do-everything swingman) to frequently fielding a four-guard lineup.  Both Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have stepped up admirably, but there is absolutely no one behind them on the bench.  They’ll almost certainly have to abandon the high-low game without Dower next season–their future backup centre is another 7-foot, 300-pounder in the Karnowski mould.

But hey, you don’t necessarily need a big man to win big in March.  I mean, did Wichita State have anyone who was over 6’8″?  Of course, they did have great guards, a suffocating defense and spot-on three-point shooting.  For Gonzaga, well, two outta three (on a good day) ain’t bad, right?  Problem is Gary Bell’s been banged up, Kevin Pangos is playing hurt–and ineffective, at that–and David Stockton, well, he ain’t quite as good as his old man.  Two out of the three can hit the three pretty consistently, although Pangos’ turf toe seems to rob him of much lift on his shot.  But between Bell and Drew Barham, the Zags can still shoot out the lights…on a good night.  But on the flipside, they’re just not gonna press a team into submission.  Sure, they held the likes of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and San Diego under 60 at home, but playing at The Kennel, I’m pretty sure the Zags could hold 1990 Loyola Marymount under 60, as long as they put Bell on Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers in a coma. ;)

Of course, while there are tournament games in Spokane this year, an eight-seed doesn’t often get to play at its home gym.  And while San Diego isn’t too far away–hey, it’s within the WCC!–it’s also a whole lot closer to Arizona.  The Wildcats earned a one-seed after a 30-4 season that had them ranked fourth in the country.  There is some hope in the fact that they lost the Pac-12 championship game to a 26-8 UCLA squad that might have only been an eight-seed were it not for that big win.  (As it stands, they’re the four-seed in the South Region.)

Then again, the Bruins seem to match up well against Arizona, losing by just four to the then-top-ranked team back in January.  In fact, UCLA, 12th in the nation in scoring (81.8 ppg) is the only team to score more than 70 against the fifth-ranked Wildcat D (58.1 points allowed) this season.  Gonzaga, despite a stellar .498 team shooting percentage, averaged a more-modest 76.9 ppg, and that’s against a much-weaker schedule.  The Zags only faced one ranked team in 2012-13, and lost, 60-54, to then-24th-ranked Memphis.  (Coincidentally, the Tigers are also an eight-seed in the tourney.)

But let’s not overlook their first March Madness opponent.  Although they’re seeded ninth, Oklahoma State was actually ranked ninth in the country before losing to Kansas on Jan 18th.  Then they lost seven of their next eight games–six to teams that made the tourney–before righting the ship and winning a rematch with Kansas earlier this month.  Put it this way: the Big 12, which is actually down to 10 teams, is still sending seven schools to March Madness.  Only the top two from the WCC got invited–and BYU’s a 10-seed (at best).  Mind you, I’d certainly trade places with the Cougs and take on an Oregon team that lost to lowly Washington and Oregon State over a Final Four dark horse in OK State.

Then again, as a Gonzaga fan, I am definitely advancing the Zags over the Cowboys in my bracket.  But while I’ll clearly be rooting for them to then take out a top-five team in the third round, I still have visions of Buffalo dancing in my head.  The last time Gonzaga was an eight-seed, they travelled all the way out east to Upstate NY, only to run into top-seeded Syracuse in the second round.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there–watching the 87-65 loss on TV was bad enough without being surrounded by Orange!  That being said…


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Gonzaga might still be the team to beat in the WCC…but just barely!

Suffice to say that Gonzaga isn’t as good as last season.  Losing your entire starting frontcourt is certainly a setback, and it’s pretty hard to improve on being the number-one ranked team heading into the tourney…but let’s not talk about the NCAA’s just yet.

This weekend, the West Coast Conference basketball tourney got underway in Vegas–a tournament I attended last year.  Once again, the Gonzaga men’s team headed in as the one-seed, but whereas last time they were a perfect 16-0 in the conference en route to a 32-3 record, this year’s 26-6 squad has had a few more setbacks…and I’m not just talking those three additional losses.  But yes, they did lose three times on the road in conference play, dropping games at Portland, San Diego and BYU.  And while there isn’t much shame in losing in Utah, to a BYU team that’s possibly heading to March Madness either way, the other two defeats were both unexpected and unsettling.  Hey, it’s worth noting that neither Portland nor San Diego advanced past the WCC quarterfinals…

Then again, Gonzaga almost didn’t make it through, either.  Up against a ninth-seeded, 14-19 Santa Clara squad, the Zags needed a last-second layup to eke out a 77-75 win.  Incidentally, that was the second time in three meetings between the two schools that they went down to the wire; with a Sam Dower three-pointer the difference in a narrow 54-52 escape from Santa Clara back in January.  Even though their coach is, like, 1-16 against ‘em, Santa Clara seems to match up pretty well with Gonzaga–which isn’t something you should be saying about a nine-seed.  At least the Zags should have a much easier matchup with Saint Mary’s tonight, considering that they just beat them by 28 at Saint Mary’s on Saint Mary’s senior night.  If there’s one team in the WCC that’s hurting more than Gonzaga from recent departures, it’s gotta be the Gaels.

That being said, while Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have played well in the post for GU, both of these guys were coming off the bench last year.  And there is absolutely nobody behind them–if one of the bigs gets in foul trouble, Gonzaga usually goes with four guards.  And did I mention Dower’s a senior?  That lack of depth might not hurt them in the WCC, but could come back to bite ‘em in the NCAAs.

Mind you, I dunno if we can take another berth in the Big Dance for granted.  While the ESPN crew on Saturday seemed fairly certain that Gonzaga was getting in, one way or another, this team just hasn’t had those quality non-conference wins they’ve picked up in the past.  Outside of beating BYU in Spokane, the next best win on the Zags’ resume is Arkansas, a fifth-place team in the SEC.  Aaaaand that’s why they’ve spent most of the season outside the Top 25.  It says here that Gonzaga’s strength of schedule is 93rd in the nation–five spots below Saint Mary’s!  Here’s hoping a win tonight might bump them up a bit.

In any case, to book a certain bid back to the Tourney, Gonzaga’s gonna hafta go through the Gaels, then either San Francisco or BYU.  Considering that the Cougars have already eclipsed San Fran twice–albeit by a total of 12 points–it’s looking like it’ll probably be the Cougs.  In which case, the Orleans Arena might actually be somewhat of a neutral site tomorrow, instead of Gonzaga’s home away from home.  Safe to say that either Gonzaga or BYU belongs in the NCAA tourney, but it’s a guaranteed bid for the winner, while the loser will hafta sweat it out…and be stuck with a double-digit seed, at best.  Barring any upsets tonight, I’m gonna say Zags 75, Cougs 71.

(And if it’s Gonzaga that gets upset tonight, you probably won’t be hearing from me tomorrow.)

Well, I should have a reason to go to ONE Raptors game next season…

Soooo, the NBA playoffs started last weekend, but I hafta say, I didn’t really notice.  Was I still mourning Gonzaga’s early exit from the NCAA tourney?  Perhaps a little.  But truth be told, I haven’t been following pro ball as closely as the college game these past few years.  I mean, it’s not like the Toronto Raptors have been giving me much to cheer for.  That said, there’s a good chance I’ll be going to at least one Raptors game next season–although I won’t necessarily be rooting for the home team.

Last Friday, Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk did the expected and declared for the NBA draft.  After becoming the third Zag to be named first-team All American, he’s now the fourth to leave school with eligibility remaining–even though, as a redshirt junior, he already has his undergraduate degree.  Of course, Olynyk also has a special set of skills to go along with his seven-foot frame, and could potentially go down in history as the top Canadian big man of all-time, unseating the likes of Bill Wennington, Todd MacCulloch and Jamaal Magloire in the process–perhaps not such a lofty achievement.  As it stands, many mock drafts have him projected to go between 10th and 14th overall.  And interestingly enough, the Raptors would’ve had the 12th overall pick had they not shipped it to Houston (for Kyle Lowry), who later passed it on to OKC in the James Harden trade.  So if the Raps wanna land the next Canadian superstar, well, they might hafta wait till Kevin Pangos is eligible in 2015. ;)

In fact, there’s a decent possibility that Raptors fans won’t even get to see KO in person more than once a year, as four of the five teams in that 10-14 range play in the Western Conference.  Draftexpress.com, for instance, has Olynyk going 13th overall to Dallas, where he could hone his Dirk Nowitzki-like game behind Dirk Nowitzki himself.  ESPN, meanwhile, has him going to Utah with the 14th pick, a team that’s had some incredible success drafting Gonzaga alumni in the first round.  (FWIW, I’m betting they sign David Stockton as an undrafted free-agent next year.)  And nbadraft.net has him 10th overall to Portland, a team that seems set at center with LaMarcus Aldridge–unless they trade him to Cleveland.  If nothing else, he’d be close to Spokane, as well as Kamloops.  And best-case scenario, he steps into the starting lineup, though I wouldn’t quite bank on that Aldridge trade.

Then again, these mock drafts are never an exact science.  Thus, it’s worth noting that two of Toronto’s Atlantic Division foes, namely Philly and Boston, have top-16 picks, while the pesky Milwaukee team that pwned the Raps all season picks 15th.  Considering that nbadraft.net has all three of them picking players 6-foot-9 or taller, and, let’s say the Blazers prefer Mason Plumlee, we could be seeing a lot more of Olynyk on the East Coast next year.  Cuz let’s face it, the chances of Andrew Bynum going a full season without injury are about as slim as North Philadelphia going a full week without gun violence.  Not that I really wanna see Kelly in a Sixers jersey.  But hey, I hear Boston’s nice this time of year…

The round of 32: Gonzaga’s worst nightmare!

Call it the Calgary curse:  From 1989 to 2004, the Calgary Flames couldn’t win a playoff series.  Of course, they went all the way to the finals in ’04, and won the Cup in ’89–but they hadn’t won a single seven-game series in the interim–and they haven’t won another playoff series since.  (They haven’t made the playoffs in the past three seasons, but don’t even get me started…)  Likewise, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team, which captivated Calgarians (via our US network affiliates in Spokane) during their magical run to the Elite Eight in ’99, has faced a similar roadblock.  After back-to-back Sweet 16s in the two years following their grand entrance on the national stage, they’ve only made it past the first weekend of the tournament twice, in ’06 and ’09.  In fact, March Madness 2013 marks the fourth straight year that Gonzaga has lost in the second round.  Ouch!

Of course, things were supposed to be different this year.  In tourneys past, the Zags found themselves seeded somewhere between 7th and 10th, pitting them against a tough opponent (Syracuse, BYU, Ohio State) in the round of 32.  But after a couple big blowout losses, they turned a corner in 2012, taking the second-seeded Buckeyes down to the wire.  I actually had GU in my Sweet 16 last year, though it was not to be.  But that’s nothing compared to this season, when I actually picked the Zags to go all the way–and I wasn’t the only one, either.

Despite the disappointing finish, Gonzaga still had a magical run this year, capturing the number-one ranking before storming through the WCC tournament in Las ZAGas.  With the addition of Kelly Olynyk to a solid frontcourt, it was starting to seem like they’d found the missing piece to finally lead them to their first Final Four.  But despite his 26 points and nine rebounds, KO only shot 8-22 (.364) from the field, a far cry from his season’s average of 63 per cent.  And when Wichita State started hitting everything from behind the arc late in the second half, the Zags abandoned the inside game altogether–but they just couldn’t match the Shockers’ shocking 50 per cent pace from downtown.

Full credit to Wichita State.  They earned that win.  I could make excuses about Gonzaga missing FGs early and FTs late, or about Gary Bell, the Bulldogs’ best perimeter defender, missing most of the second half with a sprained ankle–but the fact of the matter is that WSU shot their way back into that game, with everyone from power forward Cleanthony Henry to reserve guard Fred Van Fleet making more than they missed from behind the arc.  In fact, if you subtract Malcolm Armstead, their top backcourt scorer’s 1-6 performance, the rest of the team shot 60 per cent from 3.  Now that’s how you shoot yourself into the Sweet 16!

Unfortunately for Gonzaga, if they’re to break on through next season, it might hafta be as a nine-seed.  The Zags will most likely be looking at an entirely new frontcourt next year, with seniors Mike Hart and Elias Harris graduating and redshirt junior Kelly Olynyk–who’s already graduated–projected to be a first-round NBA pick.  (Let’s just say I’ll be monitoring his Twitter feed.)  They might even be forced to employ a three-guard lineup of Stockton, Pangos and Bell for significant stretches.  But hey, a starting five of Pangos, Bell, Barham, Downer and Karnowski could still win the WCC next season, what with St. Mary’s and BYU also losing some key players.  Whether or not they advance past the first weekend, I still expect the Zags’ 15-year tournament streak to be extended in 2014.

Suffice to say my bracket’s been busted and I’m staring at another 25th-place finish in my office pool, but I’m going to continue with my tournament picks, just for the metal health of it. ;)

12:15 pm: Iowa State over Ohio State —  I actually had Notre Dame winning this second-round matchup, but the Cyclones dispatched them so thoroughly that I might as well throw my weight behind ISU.  Ohio State barely survived a second-round scare against an Olynyk-less Gonzaga team last year, and while they haven’t lost to a unranked team all season–neither had Gonzaga until the Thrifty Thirty-Two.  Not to mention that OSU’s the only top-five seed remaining in the Wild Wild West region, and I’d kinda like to see La Salle in the Final Four. ;)

2:45 pm: Indiana over Temple —  While I do think a second number-one will fall today, I don’t expect it to be the Hoosiers, who are one of the top five teams in the country.  Temple barely squeaked past the Wolfpack in the second round, very nearly coughing up a sizable lead.  They can’t afford such a meltdown against Zeller, Oladipo and company–or this one won’t even be close.

5:15 pm: North Carolina over Kansas —  I may have picked KU (over Villanova) in my bracket, but I really think the Jayhawks are vulnerable here.  After barely squeaking past a 16-seed, they now face a formidable foe in the third round–the venerable North Carolina Tarheels.  UNC is 14th in the country in points and rebounds, and third (out of 300+ programs) in assists.  Considering Kansas’s propensity to shit the bed in the tournament, I think the Heels can pull off the upset.  (Hey, I had the Hawks losing to Michigan in the Sweet 16, anyways.)

6:10 pm: Florida over Minnesota –  According to famed stats guru Nate Silver, Florida has the best statistical probability of winning the South region.  Then again, he also gave Gonzaga a narrow edge over OSU in the West.  But nevertheless, the SEC regular-season champs are a pretty strong team.  Any doubts that might have crept in after losing the conference tourney to Ole Miss were quickly dispatched with a dominant performance in the first round.  Meanwhile, the Gophers certainly surprised some with a 20-point win over sixth-seeded UCLA, and they have a knack for knocking off top teams (including Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and top-ranked-at-the-time Indiana), but I don’t think they have the offensive firepower (just one player averages over 11 ppg) to upset Florida.

7:10 pm: Florida Gulf Coast over San Diego State —  A 15-seed in the Sweet 16!?  Hey, it could happen.  Knocking off Georgetown gives FGCU a relatively easy second-round matchup against an SDSU squad that finished fourth in the Mountain West, a conference with no remaining teams in the tourney.  As a matter of fact, the second-round win wasn’t Gulf Coast’s only big upset this season.  They also held Miami to 51 points in a 12-point victory way back in November.  Hey, I’d take Miami or Georgetown over San Diego State any day–and by extension, I like the A-Sun champs in this one.

7:40 pm: Ole Miss over La Salle —  Now I said I’d like to see La Salle in the Final Four, but that doesn’t mean I’m picking them to get there.  However, the winner of this 12 vs 13 matchup will at least advance to the Sweet 16, where the Wichita State Zag-Shockers await.  The A-10 also-rans (fifth in their conference) had one heckuva first half against Kansas State, scoring 44 points, but instead of keeping up their 88-point pace, they managed just 19 in the second half to narrowly pull off the upset.  On the other hand, the Rebels came on strong in the second, outscoring Wisconsin by 14 to win by 11.  The SEC tournament champs are in the top 20 nationwide in both points and rebounds, and were pretty much the only second-round upset pick that actually came through to me.  In theory, they’re the favourites here, but I still like ‘em in the third.  Ole Miss-Wichita State oughtta be a real barn-burner!

8:40 pm: Miami over Illinois —  That Illinois-Colorado second-round matchup was a real ugly game.  The Illni’s streaky three-point shooters went ice-cold in the second half, and were it not for an equally inept Colorado performance (both teams shot less than 35 per cent from the floor), the seven-seed would’ve been run out of the building.  Enter the Hurricanes, who laid a 29-point lickin’ on Pacific in Round Two.  I’ve got the Canes in my championship game, so bye-bye Illini!

9:40 pm: Duke over Creighton —  This game could certainly be closer than you think.  (Then again, I thought Cincinnati would be here.)  The Missouri Valley champs, soon to join the Big East, earned a hard-fought win over the Bearcats on Friday, but this is still a mid-major program that lost to Boise State, Wichita State and Saint Mary’s–not to mention Illinois State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa.  And while Duke is almost as bad as Kansas when it comes to losing early-round games in which they’re heavily favoured, I still think they’ll survive this one–only to lose to MSU in the Sweet 16.

It’s time to shock the Shockers into submission… Zag up!

Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four just got a lot easier yesterday.  After they defeat Wichita State, GU will face either a 12 or a 13-seed in the Sweet 16.  And yes, I am saying they will beat State.  At least they better–the Zags are the only team left in my West bracket!

Granted, I didn’t see every second of the Shockers’ first-round win over Pittsburgh, since there were two other great games going on at the time.  But although the MVC runners-up cruised to victory, I saw a stretch in the second half that assured me of a Gonzaga win in the third round.

See, the Pitt Panthers have a seven-foot freshman centre from New Zealand by the name of Steven Adams.  The kid made the Big East All-Rookie Team, but is hardly a focal point of the Pitt offense, averaging almost as many rebounds (6.3) as points (7.2) per game.  But he nearly doubled his season average in the second-round loss, going for 13 points and 11 boards on 5-of-7 shooting.  Most of his scoring came in the second half, when his team, already down by quite a few points, decided to get him the ball.  On three successive possessions, he drove to the basket and picked up the hoop and the harm.  The Shockers couldn’t seem to stop him–and then I changed the channel to Memphis-St. Marys.

Now, Zags fans, who does the seven-foot, 250-pound international player remind you of?  Oh I dunno, a certain 2013 lottery pick, perhaps?  Of course, Kelly Olynyk has had similar stretches throughout the season where he took over a game and either kept or got the Zags back in it–including the start of the second half against Southern.  I just don’t see any way the Shockers can stop themselves from getting KO’ed.  They do have a seven-foot Nigerian centre, Ehimen Orukpe, but he only averages 15 minutes per game, in which his point total (2.8) barely eclipses the number of fouls he commits (2.1).  Methinks he’ll get banished to the bench in no time after a couple quick whistles guarding the best Canadian big man since Bill Wennington (which isn’t really saying much).

Not that Orukpe sees much more court time than Officer Krupke, anyways.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  Wichita State is a three-guard team that most commonly employs a frontcourt of Carl Hall, who looks smaller on TV than his listed 6’8″, and Cleanthony Early, also listed at 6’8″–and a mere 215 pounds.  The Gonzaga bigs’ll eat ‘em for breakfast like a pound of Canadian Bacon!  And since the Shockers’ O runs through their not-quite-as-bigs, the Zags can assign Gary Bell to Malcolm Armstead, the lone backcourt scoring threat.  Will Bell playing lockdown D and the Shockers’ posts in foul trouble, they shouldn’t match their 69-point season average.  Gonzaga 78, Wichita State 62.

Like I said, my West bracket is all but busted, with only Gonzaga staying alive.  But in every other region, I had three of my four Sweet 16 teams advance to the third round.  With the exception of New Mexico’s early exit, my Elite Eight is otherwise intact.  So I can still salvage this bracket–if all my Final Four teams advance.  Here’s who else I like today:

12:15 pm: Michigan over VCU —  This could be a tough test for the Wolverines, as Virginia Commonwealth posted one of the biggest blowouts of the second round–in a 5-12 matchup, no less!  But suffice to say the Maize-and-Blue are a significant step up in competition from the Akron Zips, who looked like more of a 16-seed than Southern (or Western Kentucky, for that matter).  When facing top-quality competition, the Rams haven’t fared as well, losing to Duke, Missouri and Saint Louis–all at their own gym, no less!  Sure, Michigan might have stumbled down the stretch, but this is still a Top-10 team that averaged almost as many points per game (75.2) as its high-flying opponent (78.0).  I like the more battled-tested team in this one–all the way to the Final Four, in fact.  Hey, Georgetown’s already gone and Kansas barely squeaked past a 16-seed.  The winner of this game could certainly win the South…

2:45 pm: Michigan State over Memphis —  Did I mention that both the Wolverines and the Spartans are playing at The Palace at Auburn Hills, in nearby suburban Detroit?  The de-facto homecourt advantage helped both Great Lakes State schools to relatively comfortable second-round wins.  On the other hand, Memphis was a rare missed Mouthguard Dellavadova buzzer-beater away from going home, proving my theory that the C-USA champs are overrated.  Their tournament run ends today.

5:15 pm: Louisville over Colorado State –  Some say the Midwest bracket was unkind to the one-seed, but I still think the Big East champs will easily dispose of the second-placed team in the Mountain West.  Boy, would that bust a lotta brackets if Louisville lost, though!  (Me, I’ve got ‘em in my Final Four…)

6:10 pm: Arizona over Harvard —  I must admit, I had neither of these schools advancing in my bracket, as I’d picked Belmont, not Harvard, to pull the second-round upset.  That said, I don’t think Harvard’s small-ball can match up with the length and athleticism of an Arizona program that has a seven-footer at centre and a pair of 6’7″ swingmen who can score in double-figures.  Did I mention that the Crimson are ranked 334th in the country in rebounding?  If the treys aren’t falling, they won’t get too many second chances.  Alas, with the bottom half of my West bracket busted, I could easily see Arizona meeting Gonzaga in the Elite Eight…

7:10 pm: Saint Louis over Oregon —  I actually had picked Oklahoma State in this matchup, but the Ducks easily disposed of them on Thursday.  Likewise, the Billikens made quick work of a New Mexico State squad that plays three Canadians, holding their opponent to a mere 44 points.  I can’t say I’m too familiar with either team, but seeing as Saint Loo kept VCU in check not once, but twice in conference play, they must have a pretty stifling D.  So I’m gonna go with one of the most bizarre names in team sports.  If there was a bracket for most-intimidating moniker, the Billikens would never make it past the first round.  Mind you, neither would the Oregon Ducks. :P

7:45 pm: Butler over Marquette —  I actually had Davidson in my Sweet 16, and were it not for a bone-headed press-break play, they’d be facing Butler tonight instead of Marquette.  The Eagles’ narrow escape did nothing to inspire my confidence in them going forward, so I like Butler in its familiar underdog role here.

9:40 Syracuse over California —  Like I said the other day, Big Sky champs Montana were chumps, the best of the bunch in a very weak basketball conference.  But still, holding them to 34 points is pretty impressive, as was the Orange’s 47-point margin of victory, eclipsing even VCU.  Does such a one-sided slaughter really prepare the team to play a very live underdog in Cal?  Maybe not, but after facing Pitt, Georgetown and Louisville in back-to-back-to-back days during the Big East tournament, I wouldn’t doubt Syracuse’s level of readiness.  And while their victory over UNLV was impressive, I still consider Cal to be one of the weakest at-large teams in the field.  The Cuse might not win by 47 tonight, but 17 points?  I could see that.

Well that was a little too close for comfort…

A 9-7 record on day one of the tournament does not a championship bracket make.  I just narrowly missed on a couple of my upset picks yesterday, namely Saint Mary’s and Davidson, while Harvard busted the bottom half of my West bracket.  See, I knew a 14 would beat a 3 this year, I just didn’t know which one.

Of course, my entire bracket would’ve been toilet paper had Gonzaga gone down to Southern.  Sure, they played in a crappy conference, but they sure seemed stronger than your typical 16-seed to me (case in point: NC A&T).  That said, while the SWAC champs kept the game close with their outside shooting, the better team won yesterday.  Kelly Olynyk took over early in the second half, as the Jaguars didn’t have anyone who could stop the seven-footer from getting to the rim.  And late in the game, Kevin Pangos shone with some deft passes and big baskets–including the two free-throws that sealed the deal.  Captain Canuck (hey, Steve Nash hasn’t played for the national team since 2004!) tends to play his best ball in big games, though he has a bad habit of stinking up the gym the next night.  Then again, he’s still only a sophomore…  And even if Pangos stumbles, there’s always room for Olynyk.  Seeing as their second-round opponent’s best big man is generously listed at 6’8″ (they have a seven-footer, but he only plays 15 minutes a game), methinks KO will TKO the Shockers in Round 3.

As for my bracket, well, if I’m going to ride Gonzaga all the way to the office-pool crown, I’m gonna hafta hit a few more of these picks today:

12:15 pm: Duke over Albany –  Sure, the Dookies have lost to a 15 before.  Even before they fell to Lehigh last year, they made waves by barely squeaking past Belmont in ’08.  Of course, sandwiched between those two games are a national title and a pair of Sweet 16 appearances.  Aside from sporting one of the least-intimidating names in the tourney (Great Danes?  Really?), Albany only averages 64.4 points per game.  To upset the Devils, you’re gonna hafta put up 70+.  Sorry Fido.

12:40 pm: Ole Miss over Wisconsin —  Hey, we already had two 12-seeds advance yesterday, so why not a third?  Truth be told, Ole Miss was the lone 12-5 upset I had in my bracket, but I’m sticking with the SEC’s second-best team and their 78 ppg (seventh in the country) over a much less explosive (66.2) Wisconsin squad.

1:40 pm: Temple over N.C. State —  I went 1-1 in these 8-9 toss-ups yesterday, and it’s safe to say I don’t have the winner of this one advancing past Indiana in my bracket.  But I’m taking the Owls, a team that beast Syracuse and VCU and showed they could hang with Kansas and Butler.  The Wolfpack upset Duke in January, but some ugly losses to lesser ACC foes have me leaning the other way in this total crapshoot.

2:10 pm: Miami over Pacific —  Hey, the Tigers might be joining the WCC next season, but there’s no way I’d pick them over a Miami team that’s been ranked as high as number two.  In fact, I’ve got the Canes in my Final Four, and considering that this Pacific team lost by 18 to Gonzaga and 28 at Saint Mary’s, I’d expect nothing less than a blowout here.

2:45 pm: Cincinnati over Creighton — The 7-10 matchup can always be intriguing, and the committee has saved all four of them for today’s schedule.  These are the games that could make or break a bracket–especially since the winner of one of said contests has occasionally gone on to upset the two-seed in the next round.  Well,  I don’t see Cincy knocking off Duke, but despite being right in the middle of the Big East pack (9-9 in conference play), they’ve still beaten Pitt and Marquette, the latter of whom was considered a three-seed by the selection committee.  On the other hand, Creighton is a big fish in a small pond.  The #22 Blue Jays haven’t played a ranked opponent all year in the two-bid Missouri Valley Conference, and my most vivid memory of their team was them was getting whooped by Saint Mary’s (a game that wasn’t as close as its final score indicated).  Again, I’m not saying they couldn’t win this game–hell, they’re the best field-goal shooting team in America–but I’m still hoping I can hit on this upset pick.

3:10 pm: Kansas State over La Salle — Man, I’m glad this game is on Tru TV, so there’s no chance of Bill Raftery, La Salle’s most famous alum (and CBS’s most annoying commentator) describing it.  The Explorers (apparently, that’s what the team is called) won a play-in game over Boise State to be here, and have beaten Butler and VCU in A-10 play despite their gawd-awful rebounding numbers (31.7 per game, 292nd in the country).  K-State might not own the glass in this one (35.3 rpg), but the second-best team in the Big 12 should have no trouble otherwise stuffing the stat sheet.

4:10 pm: Indiana over James Madison — A cursory glance shows that James Madison, which finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association before winning the conference tournament, is not another Southern.  Their 21-14 record against a non-tournament-caliber field (aside from a season-opening 30-point loss to UCLA) warranted them winning a play-in game to get here.  How the top-ranked team in the country ended up with the toughest 1-16 matchup is beyond me, but I digress.  I don’t have Indiana in my Final Four, or even my Elite Eight, but I do have them beating James Madison in the second round.

4:40 pm: Illinois over Colorado —  Okay, I’ll admit that I might have underestimated the Pac-12, which went 3-0 yesterday with a pair of 12 seeds advancing.  But in this 7-10 matchup, I’m going with one of the two teams that actually beat both Gonzaga and Indiana this year.  Illinois’ senior leader Brandon Paul brings the noise to the tune of 16.6 points per game, and he nailed some big buckets (35 points, to be precise) in handing the Zags a rare home loss back in December.  As for the fifth-ranked team in the Pac-12, well, they should bring a loud, raucous, drunken cheering section to Austin, if nothing else.  These Buffs hog the ball like their seniors hog the beer bong at a tailgate–averaging a mere 10 assists per game.  Hey, pass that thing over here, will ya?

6:50 pm: Georgetown over Florida Gulf Coast —  With all the 7-10 matchups today, you’d think the committee could’ve drawn up a better prime-time schedule.  Instead we get two 2 vs 15s and a 3-14 whose 3-seed, Florida, are being placed in several brackets’ Final Four.  North Carolina-Villanova should be entertaining, if largely irrelevant–but I think I might skip this slate altogether.  (Hey, sometimes you need to take a break from drinking in front of the TV to go out and drink with other people!)  But speaking of Florida, I’ve got them beating Georgetown in the Sweet 16.  I trust that both teams will make it there without too much trouble…

7:15 pm: Ohio State over Iona —  Another 2-15 matchup that probably won’t even be close.  Some people like OSU to win the West, me I’ve got ‘em losing to Notre Dame in the third round.  Iona is actually the second-highest-scoring team in the country (80.2 ppg), but it would certainly shock the world if they were to win this one.  Their only tournament-caliber opponents were both part of the First Four–and La Salle actually beat these Gaels.

7:20 pm: Villanova over North Carolina —  The only toss-up of the early-evening slate sees the winner earn the right to lose to Kansas.  Nova isn’t fielding its strongest team, but to finish eighth in a conference where the top six teams are all ranked in the Top 25–and to post a winning record (10-8) in the process–is a reasonably impressive achievement.  In fact, the Wildcats’ resume includes wins over Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown, who could all advance to the Sweet 16.  UNC’s only win over a ranked team was against UNLV–and the Rebs lost in the first round.  Even if I’m taking the nine-seed, I don’t really see this as an upset.

7:27 pm: Florida over Northwestern State —  Northwestern State?  Really?  The Southland Conference (home of such powerhouse programs as Stephen F. Austin and Oral Roberts) champs only played one tournament team all season–and lost to Oklahoma–yet they’re a 14-seed?  Pretty sure Gonzaga could beat ‘em by more than six points, just sayin’.  Then again, so should Florida…

9:20 pm: San Diego State over Oklahoma — Speaking of the Sooners, Gonzaga beat ‘em by 25 back in November.  Their most impressive win was a home victory over Kansas, but they lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 quarterfinals.  Boomer Sooner’s mediocrity in the Big 12 is matched only by the Aztecs meh record in the Mountain West, which actually sent five teams to the tourney this year–three of whom have already gone home.  I admit, this is a total toss-up for me, but the OU squad that lost to Gonzaga in the Old Spice Classic couldn’t possibly have beaten Southern on its best day.  I don’t think they’ll beat SDSU today, either.

9:45 pm: Notre Dame over Iowa State – Now this 7-10 matchup is hardly a toss-up in my books.  The 23rd-ranked Irish have beaten Cincy, Villanova, Louisville, Pitt and Marquette in Big East play.  The Cyclones’ biggest feat might be that they took Kansas to overtime twice–but lost both times.  I’m not hating on the Big 12 or anything, but its fourth-ranked team also dropped games to Iowa and Texas Tech.  They’d never make it in the Big East–or even the Catholic 7. ;)

9:50 pm: Kansas over Western Kentucky —  Don’t get me wrong, as sure as the grass is green, the sky is blue and the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Kansas will be upset in the NCAA tournament.  I just don’t see it happening until the Sweet 16.  (Go Wolverines!)

9:57 pm: UCLA over Minnesota —  OK, so I was hating on the Pac-12 yesterday, but UCLA’s the only school from said conference that could actually steal recruits from Gonzaga.  (Whether or not they can keep them in school for more than one year might be a different story.)  They’re also the only Pac-12 team I had advancing past the second round–but good luck against Florida on Sunday.

It’s that time of year again… (Gonzaga all the way!)

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. ;)