Even though I called it a much closer game than it ended up between Gonzaga and West Virginia last nite, I kinda got the feeling that the Zags were a much better team than the Mountaineers when I was researching the opposition–I just didn’t have the guts to predict such a blowout. I mean, how does a 13-loss team that goes 9-9 in conference play and loses its first conference tournament game even make it to the NCAAs–much less as a 10 seed–and get rewarded with de facto home court advantage? The argument that the Mountaineers clearly didn’t belong was only emphasized by their terrible performance, and now they’re one-and-done. Good riddance.
I gotta say, I loved how Reggie Miller spent most of the second half of the OSU-Loyola game praising Pangos, Sacre, and the Bulldogs in general. With a big statement win like that in the opening round, Gonzaga has opened a few eyes on the national stage–and they really needed a strong performance knowing that Ohio State would likely be next in their bracket. As someone who picked Gonzaga over OSU in mine, the West Virginia win was just what the doctor ordered. I know it won’t be easy, but I stand by my conviction that the Zags will git ‘r done tomorrow.
As a whole, my bracket is still in pretty good shape. Although my 12-for-16 Thursday showing puts me near the back of the pack in the office pool (when there aren’t any major upsets, people who just pick the favourites tend to flourish), I had seven of my eight eligible Sweet 16 teams advance to the second round. The one exception was UNLV, a squad I had going all the way to the Elite Eight. No, I did not take a Hot Tub Time Machine back to 1992. I just figured that Baylor wasn’t a very strong three-seed, and Duke was beatable as a two–but as it turns out, UNLV wasn’t a strong six seed either. The Pac-12 champs from Colorado have now won their first tournament game since 1995. I’m sure there’ll be a bender in Boulder all weekend until they get bounced by Baylor in the second round. That was the ugliest NCAA win I’ve seen since Gonzaga beat BYU in Spokane in conference play. (Now, the Zags’ win over the Mormons in the WCC tournament, on the other hand, was pretty impressive…)
With a couple of upsets on the docket, I’m hoping to climb back into contention in my office pool today. Here’s who I like in Friday’s first-round action:
12:15 pm: Cincinnati over Texas - Texas looks a lot like another West Virgina to me. 20-13 on the season, 9-9 in conference play. The Bearcats, who went deep in the Big East tourney, should beat ‘em with ease.
12:40 pm: San Diego State over North Carolina State – Y’know, I’ve always had a soft spot for NC State. Maybe it’s because they were the first true Cinderella team back in ’83, a label that’s since been applied to Gonzaga, among others. But this year, the Wolfpack needed a strong showing in the ACC tournament just to sneak into the field of 64. Their opponents, San Diego State, are the 23rd-ranked team in the nation. Alas, when it comes to the Wolfpack, the slipper stopped fitting a long time ago.
1:40 pm: Alabama over Creighton - So far, I’m 0-2 in these 8-9 games, so I’m gonna play it safe and go with the big-conference school here–as opposed to taking Southern Miss over Kansas State, which didn’t quite pan out.
2:10 pm: Florida over Virgina - This looks like a pretty even matchup on paper, unlike that 7-10 game they played yesterday. But Florida’s a school that’s gone deep in the tournament before, albeit not with this roster. And it’s hard not to like a team that pushed Kentucky to the brink in the SEC semi-finals. Virgina, on the other hand, lost to NC State in their conference tournament…
2:45 pm: Florida State over St. Bonaventure - FSU beat Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games to win the ACC. The A-10 tourney champs shouldn’t pose much of a problem for the team I have meeting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 in my bracket.
3:10 pm: Belmont over Georgetown - Now here’s where I see an upset in a 3-14 game. Belmont has been to four tournaments in the last six years, almost beating Duke as a 15 seed in ’08. For that matter, they nearly knocked off the (then) sixth-ranked Blue Devils back in November–at Cameron Indoor Stadium, no less! Did I mention there are only three teams in the country that score more than the Bruins’ 81.5 points per game? On the other hand, the Hoyas’ recent history shows they’re ripe for an upset, bowing out in the first round of the past two tourneys–and by a wide margin, at that. The University of Ohio almost hit 100 when they beat Georgetown as a 14-seed in 2010. Belmont might wanna find that game film–if they haven’t already seen it.
4:10 pm: North Carolina over Vermont - Although a 16 nearly beat a 1 last nite, I have North Carolina over Syracuse in my Final Four. Their first-round opponent, Vermont, had to win a play-in game to get here. This one won’t be so close…
4:40 pm: Missouri over Norfolk State - Mizzou is another team I have going deep in the tourney. Norfolk State only has one impressive game on its resume, a two-point home loss to Marquette. (The Eagles trounced ‘em on the road earlier in the season.) Do I have any reason to believe they can hang with the third-ranked team in the country? Nope, none whatsover.
6:50 pm: Memphis over Saint Louis – This is one 8-9 matchup I can’t afford to lose, since I see Memphis as a dark horse in this tournament. Sure, they lost to some ranked teams early in the season, but in the past month they’ve won every game but one in Conference USA play by at least 18 points. Saint Louis didn’t have a single ranked team on its schedule–and they lost to LMU, Rhode Island and UMass. I expect Memphis to win this by 20+, and to give MSU a run for their money in the next round, too.
7:15 pm: Duke over Lehigh – I do think Duke will lose sooner than most people have in their brackets, but it won’t be against Lehigh, that’s for sure.
7:20 pm: Michigan over Ohio - The Bobcats may have put the MAC on the map by beating Georgetown two years ago, but this year’s edition scores only 70.7 points per game and played nobody worth mentioning this season, aside from a November loss to Louisville. The Big 10 regular season co-champs won’t be threatened here.
7:27 pm: St. Mary’s over Purdue – Of the six Big 10 teams in the tournament, the Boilermakers are the only one seeded higher than fourth, yet most people are moving them into the second round over the WCC champs. Not so fast, says someone who’s seen St. Mary’s play no less than six times this year. Sure, their non-conference schedule left a little to be desired–losses to Baylor and Murray State notwithstanding–but this is a team that, like Gonzaga, can beat you many different ways: Brad Waldow in the post, Rob Jones working the inside-outside game, Clint Steindl beyond the arc and WCC POY Matthew “Mouthguard” Dellavedova with a variety of circus shots and drive-and-dishes. As a matter of fact, the Gaels beat Gonzaga twice, stealing both the regular-season and WCC tournament crown in the process, and we all saw what the Zags did to their 10-seed. Purdue hasn’t seen this kind of non-conference foe since they lost to Butler in December–and for that matter, they went 1-7 against the ranked teams in the Big 10. Says here that St. Mary’s pulls a Penn State and whups ‘em by 20.
9:20 pm: Michigan State over LIU Brooklyn – LIU Brooklyn knocking off the Big Ten champs? Puuuuhleeeze!
9:45 pm: Xavier over Notre Dame - Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, the seven has beaten the 10-seed 63 per cent of the time. I have all the other sevens advancing in my bracket, so the law of averages says Xavier wins this game. Statistics aside, Xavier is an experienced veteran team that can do some damage–and not just with their fists. Just ask Big East runners-up Cincinnati, who beat the Irish by 15 in Big East play after all those suspensions were served. I wouldn’t bet my shirt on this game, but I’ll still take the upset.
9:50 pm: Temple over South Florida – USF needed a play-in game just to get here, and we saw what happened to the other play-in teams yesterday. They lost. Big time. Smilin’ Hank Burris’ alma matter wins this one.
9:57 pm: Kansas over Detroit - Michigan and Michigan State get the top choice of in-state talent, while the table scraps go to the Titans. In fact, Detroit only has 10 players on its basketball team. That might not be so bad in the Horizon League, but against one of the nation’s top schools, their chances of survival are about as slim as Kid Rock’s would be if he grew up on 8 Mile. (Everybody in the D knows he’s from the suburbs, yo!)