I was on fire. As dismal as my bracket had become whittling the field down from 64 to 16 teams, once the field was down to the Sweet Sixteen, I was seeing things much more clearly. This wouldn't save my bracket, because brackets are like kids -- once you crank one out, it's yours for better or worse, flaws and all. But I could at least make the best of the situation and try and make a few bucks by rooting for someone else's kid. In other words, it's okay to wager on Sweet Sixteen games that fly in the face of your bracket picks.
Thursday night was about caution. One play, Kentucky to roll up Cornell by more than 9. It got there. Friday was about confidence. I knew Baylor would pound St. Mary's and send Omar Samhan off of NBA mock draft boards, and I liked Tennessee to upset Ohio State. Winner, winner. Followed that with Michigan State over Northern Iowa and it was a banner night.
So Saturday morning I decided to ride the wave.... five-teamer with all four Elite Eight games and the Lakers on Saturday night. (Sorry, Rockets, you're just a stock to sell short now. Good effort this season, though.) Long story short, I was on the right side of all three Saturday plays. My Sunday plays were Tennessee -2 and Baylor moneyline. Well, you know how that went. Victimized first by a bunch of orange headbands and then by officiating in the Baylor-Duke game which was easily the most suspect officiating on television yesterday of any sporting event, including Wrestlemania on pay-per-view and roller derby on ESPN Classic.
So now this season of destruction for bracketologists everywhere has reached its final stop, Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, and as much danger as there was of all of these upsets giving us a steaming pile of double-digit-seeded turds for a Final Four, we actually wind up with a decent dance card, so let's go ahead and assess this year's Final Four and see how glued to the television we should/will be this weekend:
SATURDAY, APRIL 3
Midwest 5 MICHIGAN STATE vs West 5 BUTLER, 5:05 p.m. (Line: Butler by 1)
East 2 WEST VIRGINIA vs South 1 DUKE, 7:45 p.m. (Line: Duke by 2.5)
There are four different conferences represented in the Final Four -- Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and the Horizon League. I always like having the top three conferences from the entire year and one dark horse represented. As cross sections of the actual regular season go, this combination of conference affiliation is fairly appropriate. (Baylor beating Duke would have given us the consensus top three conferences from the regular season in the Final Four, but the ACC replacing the Big 12 is fine, especially since the ACC's best beat the best the Big 12 had at season's end.) One downside, the way the teams are set up to play, it's very similar to 2004 in San Antonio where you had what felt like two undercard teams (Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech) in one semifinal and two heavyweights in the other (Duke and UConn). You even have a one-seed Duke against a two-seed Big East team (WVU) again. My point is that you feel like the final is actually the late game on Saturday night, not the Monday game. This is exactly what happened in 2004. Trust me, I was there.
You have the obvious one of the "Cinderella" Butler Bulldogs (a Cinderella that is actually favored in their semifinal game) playing five miles from their campus which, oh by the way, houses the gym in which they filmed Hoosiers, which happens to be Butler's home gym. All we need is Shooter stumbling out onto the floor during the semifinals after Gordon Hayward gets intentionally fouled and it'll all be good.
Other storylines --
-- Tom Izzo bringing his team to the Final Four for the sixth time, although this year the Spartans have played only one team that is seeded higher than them (Maryland in the second round), so they've gotten some quirky breaks.
-- Michigan State doing it without their leader Kalin Lucas
-- Coach K and Duke back in the Final Four for the first time since 2004
-- Bob Huggins back in the Final Four -- can he become the first coach to win a title in the same day he collected over five grand in vig for Paulie Walnuts (nice sweats, Hug)?
-- Will one Plumlee turn heel on the other setting up a ladder match at Summer Slam? GRADE: B-
THE MARQUEE PLAYERS & NBA DRAFT EFFECTS
Butler: Their top player is forward Gordon Hayward, who may actually have a decision to make now about his future. He's a junior who hasn't really been on this year's draft radar (He's forecasted as a late first-rounder in 2011), but this tournament may change that. A huge Final Four may make him assess if it can get any better for him going forward. It probably can't.
Michigan State: Spartans have some talent but none of it is considered elite NBA talent, just your classic, really good, Izzo-led college team.
Duke: Led by the three S's (Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith). Smith probably has the best athletic package of the three, Singler because of his length and long-range shooting probably has the best NBA future (although not a great one), and Scheyer...well, he'll be the best player in whatever law league he winds up in. Dude can shoot it, all kidding aside.
West Virginia: Huggins has two guys who are forecasted as mid first-rounders (Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks) who can move into the lottery with big Final Fours. We've seen WVU players improve stock in the post season as recently as Joe Alexander in 2008, but I don't know if that's a good thing.
So maybe four or five players total that can move the needle on their NBA futures. Not bad, but Hayward's the only real compelling one.
You have two of the marquee March coaches (Tom Izzo and Coach K) playing on opposite sides of the bracket (and thus giving us potential for a classic coaching matchup on Monday), a somewhat rogue, sweatsuit-wearing vagabond (Huggins) who will be a great soundbite waiting to happen, and finally a young up-and-comer (Brad Stevens of Butler) who prompted my son to scream "Look at that little kid climbing the ladder!" when Stevens went to cut down the nets after the win over Kansas State.
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You have a highly acclaimed academic school along with three Midwest (or in the case of WVU, "Midwest-ish") schools that are barely into spring yet, so the chick watching will be minimal, and yet what's there should at least be good comedic fodder. Wear your sunglasses, could be some very white skin there. The wild card in the people watching is West Virginia; let's face it, there's a good chance you could see dueling jug bands in the bar district if the Mountaineers make the Finals. And I've always wanted to see dueling jug bands.
MOST COMPELLING FINALS MATCHUPS
1. Duke vs Butler (NCAA Goliath versus the hometown mid-major...who would the refs favor?)
2. Duke vs Michigan State (Izzo vs Coach K...who would kill the refs first?)
3. West Virginia vs Butler (Huggins vs the city of Indy...who would be favored?)
4. Michigan State vs West Virginia (Izzo vs Huggins, if game goes to OT just have two coaches fight at midcourt.)
OVERALL FINAL FOUR GRADE: B
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.