"If Kansas is the best team in the country, college basketball is going to suck this season." -- @SeanCablinasian on Twitter
That was a post I had on Twitter, dated and time stamped 10:29 PM on November 17. Kansas was the top-ranked team in the country at the time, and they were plodding their way through a hideous 57-55 win over what turned out to be a very average Memphis team in some nondescript preseason tournament. Here we are about four months and a few thousand games later, and in a way, we're back where we started -- Kansas is a clear-cut number one and everything after that is pretty balanced and, frankly, pretty messy.
Go back and look at the rankings from the first week of the season and in addition to Kansas, you'll see two of the other number-one seeds in this year's tournament getting healthy respect (Kentucky and Duke, both in the top eight), the other number one (Syracuse) almost totally off the radar, and the other teams that are in the team picture as national-title contenders sort of hanging around (Villanova, West Virginia, Ohio State).
What the pundits (and frankly all of us non-pundits) didn't see was the NIT becoming a de facto "Basketball Program Legends Tour" with North Carolina and Connecticut headlining, although just watching both (especially UNC) made those who wager on the games very thankful that it took Vegas so long to catch up with them. Thank you, Coach Williams and Coach Calhoun!
And that brings me to my March Madness "Warning Label" -- a lot of you are getting ready to fill out brackets without having watched a lick of college basketball all year, or perhaps you've been dialed in on only the Big XII and have not taken the time to watch Gonzaga or St. Mary's in the WCC. You wouldn't know Omar Samhan from Omar Little. (Point of clarification -- Samhan is the somewhat flabby, but surprisingly athletic big man for 10th-seeded St. Mary's; Little is the somewhat psychotic, surprisingly gay drug dealer killer from The Wire.)
Because you haven't taken in much college hoops this season, either from indifference or having a life, you will rely on the opinions of those whom you perceive to be in the know so that you can fill out a somewhat educated bracket and sound reasonably intelligent in defending your requisite upset picks, mostly because you don't want to be the guy using the same methodology as your company's receptionist in filling out your bracket. Those assumed "hoops connaisseurs" will include people you hear on sports talk radio.
Here is my warning to you -- ninety five percent of the people in my industry are just like you when it comes to college basketball; they've watched virtually ZERO college hoops all year. Yet they will still try and pass themselves off as experts in the field, when in fact they are experts at two things -- staying employed and looking like a finalist in a Peter Griffin lookalike contest.
So how do you sniff out a March Madness Phony? Well, quite simply, you ask questions. You grill the so-called sports expert like he is interviewing to be the nanny for your children and you're leaving the country for six months, because it's just that important. As questions go, there are really two important ones --
1.) Is your name Rich Lord?
If the answer is yes, hang up and go ask your company's receptionist if you can copy her bracket. Your chances of success just doubled.
2.) Do you wager on college basketball during the season?
Why is this important? Well, I'll let Gordon Gekko explain....
One of the five most transcendent, era-appropriate soliloquies of all time, and frankly it gets me a tad too fired up for the upcoming Wall Street sequel. The key phrase in the speech? "Greed clarifies." It does. Other than the people who follow college basketball exclusively for a living (Mike DeCourcy, Andy Katz, Jay Bilas, etc.), the people in the sports talk/page/blog world who will have the most extensive experiential, CLEAR mental data on these 65 teams will be those who have wagered on those teams regularly throughout the season.
Is it degenerate? Maybe. But if you're trying to win your March Madness bracket pool, you won't judge. You'll merely sit back, heed my words and know that they are marinated in the blood of hundreds of dead eight-team parlays, backdoor covers, and f-bomb-laced tirades at Jon Scheyer.
Indeed, greed clarifies. Let's be friends for these next three weeks, shall we? Good.
Now, with that in mind, let's start with Kansas. They're the number-one overall seed, and the darling of this year's tournament. Literally every talking head on ESPN's Bracketology panel picked them to win the whole thing (except for Dick Vitale who managed to get off a "Kentucky" pick literally in the last second before the selection show ended last night, which if anything is further evidence Kansas will win). Kansas is the favorite for good reason -- they have a coach who has a recent championship skin on the wall, an experienced/difference-making point guard, an athletic seven-footer who blocks shots, and a bench that goes eight deep and can play multiple styles.
That last part is the key for me -- at some point along the way, even the really good teams will get a challenge because their opponent imposes a certain style on them. If a team is comfortable playing multiple styles (slow-down, speed-up, physical, versus zone, versus man-to-man, etc.), that is huge to me.
Juxtapose Kansas to the number-two overall seed Kentucky, and you can see why people (including me) like Kansas so much more than the Wildcats. Aside from being incredibly young (only nine teams in Division 1 basketball are younger on average than Kentucky), Kentucky has had trouble adapting when their opponents have thrown a zone defense at them this season, or when they've tried to shorten the game by minimizing overall possessions. Look at Kentucky's bracket, they're staring at a virtual guarantee of an ugly, messy Sweet 16 game against Temple, Cornell, or Wisconsin, and then they likely only get out of the bracket by going through one of two Big East teams (Marquette, or more likely West Virginia). Just a brutal pull for a number two overall seed.
With that in mind, in order of overall bracket strength, I would rate the four regions as follows:
So yes, the top two seeds overall somehow managed to get put into the two strongest regions top to bottom, with the most next-level talent, and the two best and hottest number-two seeds (Ohio State, West Virginia). Not sure what the committee was thinking. And if you think I'm off-base on the talent level being highest in the East and Midwest, just know that the breakdown of 2010 NBA mock draft first rounders (courtesy of www.nbadraft.net) goes like this --
EAST -- 8
MIDWEST -- 7
WEST -- 2
SOUTH -- 1
Even if you take out the first-rounders actually ON those number-one seeds to gauge how truly difficult their respective paths are, it looks like this --
EAST -- 5
MIDWEST -- 5
WEST -- 1
SOUTH -- 1
Just really illogical stuff affecting the most important aspects of the tournament, which are rewarding year-long greatness and overall bracket integrity.
Now, before I give out my "Live" team at each seed ("Live" coming from the gambling term "live dog" which describes an underdog who has some hop in their step and has a good chance of paying off), a few words on the teams who feel as though they got snubbed. As best I can tell, experts seem to be complaining the hardest about Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, and Illinois not getting in. My take on each:
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- This one is the hardest to swallow because you do feel for kids who were literally a tenth of a second away from winning their conference tournament and now are playing an NIT game against Jackson State. That said, box out. Or even better, don't put yourself in a position where you have to run the table to get in. Don't lose to Tennessee at home by 16 in your final regular-season game.
VIRGINIA TECH -- The Hokies had a 10-6 record in the ACC this season, which most years would be an automatic ticket. There's only one problem -- the ACC is an average conference. Add that to Tech's out-of-conference schedule possibly including a couple YMCA league teams, and you get the rest. If you want to get in, Hokies, don't lose to Boston College by 20 in late February, and for the love of God don't lose to 4-12 in conference Miami....TWICE. Good luck against Quinnipiac.
ILLINOIS -- Bruce Weber's team did knock off some quality tournament teams during the season (including Clemson out of conference). That said, if you want in, don't lose 14 games. Don't lose five of six down the stretch of the regular season. Close out against Ohio State, if not in regulation, the in one of the two overtimes you allowed to be played against them. And for the love of all that is sacred, Weber, stop raiding Bruce Pearl's wardrobe!
Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, onto my "live" teams at each seed level:
MOST LIVE 16 SEED -- The fact of the matter is that in 25 years of a 64-team field, the number-one seeds are 100-0. A 16-seed has never beaten a top seed. So to identify one here is merely saying that we think this team has a fraction of one percent chance of pulling off the upset, which statistically would be giving them infinitely too much credit. Literally. So that said, I'll go with the Vermont Catamounts, who take on Syracuse in Round One. If those two teams colliding in the same sentence sounds familiar it's because in 2005 a 13-seeded, Taylor Coppenrath-led Vermont team upset Syracuse in the first round. So there is history. Plus, Jim Boeheim is prominently involved, which always helps. FACT: None of Boeheim's three Final Four teams was a number-one seed. Even the Carmelo Anthony version that won the title was a three-seed that caught fire. Make no mistake, this is not a prediction of Vermont beating Syracuse, but let's just say that Vermont has the best chance of all the 16 seeds to not lose by 30. If nothing else, hopefully Marqus Blakely gives us another one of these...
MOST LIVE 15 SEED -- A 15-seed has reached the second round of the tournament four times since the expansion to 64 teams, so we're still talking about something that has very little chance of happening. While going opposite of two-seed Villanova (2-5 down the stretch) and taking Robert Morris as a live 15 play is tempting, I'll go with Morgan State and ousted/disgraced/former Cal coach Todd Bozeman. They've got a senior who can fill it up in Reggie Holmes and a double-double machine in Kevin Thompson. Plus, of the four 15 seeds to win a game, the last two are from the MEAC (Coppin State in 1997, Hampton in 2001), so there's that.
MOST LIVE 14 SEED -- Now we're getting into some terrain where things can happen, especially in a year like this where so many teams have flaws. Fun 14-seed fact -- the deepest a 14-seed has made it is to the Sweet Sixteen, and it's happened twice (Cleveland State in 1986 -- Mouse McFadden!! -- and Chattanooga in 1997). While it's tempting to take Sam Houston here, if for no other reason than to curry favor with co-eds within 75 miles of where I live, the pick is Montana. With these teen-seeded teams, my rule is find the one with the player who can put a team on his back and carry them to a win (because seeded this low, just winning a game makes you "live"). Montana has that player in Anthony Johnson, an amazing story who was a package deal with his wife Shaunte on the women's team. In the Big Sky championshiop game, Johnson went for 42 points, 34 in the second half and the team's final 21. That's not someone you feel like messing with if you're a three-seed. Plus, Montana's coach is named Wayne Tinkle, and without Austin Peay in this year's field, we need a good urination chant -- "LET'S GO TINKLE!!" has potential.
MOST LIVE 13 SEED -- Again, with the Coogs sitting at 13 in the Midwest, it's hard not to pick them (and as 4 vs 13 matchups go, I do think the Coogs got dealt a decent hand; I still think they'll lose, but whatever...). However, with a wounded Purdue team (no Robbie Hummel, and a Big Ten tourney swan song that included an ELEVEN-point first half) sitting at the four seed, I'll go with a Siena Saints squad that has a recent successful NCAA tourney resume (a win in each of the last two tournaments) and an experienced backcourt (led by point guard Ronald Moore). Red flag -- every time they stepped out of conference this season against name teams, they lost. But they're the safest of the 13's this year.
MOST LIVE 12 SEED -- So I didn't take the Coogs as my live-13 seed, but I'm taking the team they beat in the C-USA title game as my live-12 seed. Well, yeah. Now, we're getting into the "anything can happen" seeds in the bracket. Last year three of the four 12 seeds won their first-round games. I'm not wild about picking against Tom Izzo losing in the first round to 12-seeded New Mexico State, I don't like Cornell in the student vs teacher matchup against Temple, and I don't like Utah State, period. That leaves me with UTEP over Butler, and you know what? That's fine. Give me Derrick Caracter and Randy Culpepper, and a soft draw where the Sweet 16 is a real possibility opposite the softest of all the one seeds (Syracuse), and yeah, UTEP can make some noise.
MOST LIVE 11 SEED -- The six-seed is the strongest of the middle (4-10) seeds, so it would stand to reason that it's going to be tough to find a true "live" 11-seed. Even the shakiest of the six-seeds (Tennessee) is the only team to beat two of the number-one seeds in this field. That said, I'll take Mountain West champion San Diego State and their momentum as the best chance for an 11-seed to beat a six-seed. That's as good as it'll get for this batch of 11's.
MOST LIVE 10 SEED -- It's a weird batch of 10-seeds. You have Florida making it back to the tournament for the first time since 2007, somewhat surprisingly. You have Georgia Tech, who looked about as idiotic and careless as a team could look while still making the ACC title game (further evidence that the ACC was way subpar this year), and you have Missouri, who is coming in losing three of four (and the one win was Iowa State in overtime). This leaves us with WCC tourney champ St. Mary's. They shoot three's really well (fourth in the nation) and have an underrated big man in Omar Samhan. Another team riding a little momentum on the heels of a conference tourney run. I'll ride with them.
MOST LIVE 9 SEED -- Now we're getting into the "8/9 Death Spot" teams where the question as to who is "most live" comes down to "Can they knock off the number-one seed in their region in Round Two?" Inherently, you almost have to go opposite Duke and Syracuse with these 8/9 picks. So for the nine-seed, I'll go with Louisville as having a great shot to knock off Duke. All the reasons you'd think -- recent Final Four trip, Rick Pitino, Samardo Samuels underneath, athleticism that will give Duke fits, and a win to close out the regular season against then number-one Syracuse. Louisville-Duke will be a GREAT second-round game.
MOST LIVE 8 SEED -- While I'm riding the Big East at number nine, I'm riding against them with the live-eight seed. Making my second WCC pick, I'll go with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. It seems every year, people get on that bandwagon only to be disappointed. A lot of people expected Gonzaga to backslide this season with Austin Daye (one of the most overrated players in recent college hoops history) leaving for the NBA, and Josh Heytveldt and Jeremy Pargo graduating, but this iteration of the Zags has been fun to watch, led by Matt Bouldin, a classic "don't judge the book by its cover" slasher, and freshman Elias Harris. Looking at the Round Two matchup with the 'Cuse, that 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim likes to play does have a penchant for giving up second-chance points, and Gonzaga has some athletic bigs in Harris and Robert Sacre. Also, Gonzaga won't be afraid of Syracuse's athleticism, and we have no idea how Arinze Onuaku's leg injury is. And as mentioned in the "live-16 seed," Jim Boeheim is involved. So we got that going for us, which is nice.
MOST LIVE 7 SEED -- BYU is tempting here because of the underratedness of the Mountain West conference and the skills of Jimmer Fredette, but I love Oklahoma State as a seven seed, especially opposite Georgia Tech. A lot of people want to see Evan Turner vs Derrick Favors in the second round. I'll take James Anderson (by the way, also a future high NBA pick) and the uncomfortably boyish looks of Keiton Page. Also, gotta love OSU coach Travis Ford and the potential for him to pick and roll the Georgia Tech bigs to death. That's going to be a fun first round game.
MOST LIVE 6 SEED -- I said this in the 11-seed paragraph, the six hole is filled with value in this bracket. Put it this way, Tennessee is the shakiest six-seed and they beat Kansas and Kentucky this season. Notre Dame is the enigmatic six-seed, completely changing its playing style from wide-open to slow and ugly in a matter of seven games. Oh, and they closed with four straight wins....including wins over Georgetown, Marquette and Pitt... oh and without their first-team All-American forward Luke Harangody. All real normal, right? Xavier is certainly a dangerous six-seed with a backcourt of Jordan Crawford (yeah, the dude who dunked near LeBron) and Terrell Holloway. But I'll go with Marquette as being the best six-seed with a chance to make a deep run in the tournament. They've got sound guard play in Maurice Acker and David Cubillan, and a scorer who can carry them in Lazar Hayward. If they get to the Sweet Sixteen, it will likely be fellow Big Easter West Virginia waiting for them. The winner of that game gives Kentucky all they can handle in the Regional Final.
MOST LIVE 5 SEED -- Finally, I'll go with one of the schools within 100 miles of Houston and take the Texas A&M Aggies as my live five-seed. Mark Turgeon's done a fantastic job this season, adapting on the fly after the gruesome injury to Derrick Roland. A&M hasn't lost to even a mediocre team really all season, so the chances of seeing them fall prey to a 5-vs-12 upset are low. They've acquitted themselves pretty well outside of conference (wins over Clemson and Minnesota; tight losses to New Mexico and West Virginia), and they're in a pretty soft pod with Hummel-less Purdue. The Aggies have a great chance to gig some fools.
MOST LIVE 4 SEED -- The four-seed is a tricky one. I'm not wild about Wisconsin away from Madison, Purdue is ripe to be knocked out in the first round, and I'm still struggling over whether to make Murray State over Vandy an upset play. By process of elimination I'll take Maryland, who played pretty well at the end of the year and has one of a handful of players who can put a decent team on their back in Greivis Vasquez. They're the only four seed I have making it to the Sweet Sixteen, where they'll be fed to Kansas. Not a good year for four seeds, in my opinion.
MOST LIVE 3 SEED -- Struggled with this one between Georgetown and Baylor, ultimately going back to one of my core tenets -- when in doubt take the best backcourt. Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn not only have the two best names in the entire field (Wayne Tinkle is a head coach, and therefore ineligible), but they are playing the best basketball of maybe any backcourt in the country right now. Add newcomer Ekpe Udoh to the mix and Scott Drew's fast-paced style finally has an inside presence on the back end, and gives them a chance to win against virtually any style of opponent (Notre Dame and it's newfangled slow-down in Round 2, Villanova and its up-tempo guard play in the Sweet Sixteen, Duke and its flopping white boys in the regional finals).
MOST LIVE 2 SEED -- I was frankly more than a little surprised that West Virginia didn't catch a number-one seed after winning the Big East tournament and spending virtually the entire season in the top 10. Then after seeing Mississippi State get left out, Minnesota (after a 29-point shellacking from Ohio State) getting an 11-seed, and Syracuse getting a one-seed (after a one-and-done in the Big East), you realize how little the selection committee factors in the conference tournaments. I have thoughts for another time and place on that topic, but as far as Bob Huggins' team goes, they have NBA talent on the roster, success in and out of conference, momentum, and a closer in Da'Sean Butler. They will be on of my Final Four teams.
MOST LIVE 1 SEED -- It's Kansas, almost by process of elimination as much as it is their own strengths and weaknesses. Kentucky is still too up-and-down (for a one seed, that is), too susceptible to being schemed into someone else's tempo, too reliant on John Wall to make big plays (although DeMarcus Cousins has proven to be the real deal, even managing to steer clear of ripping another player's arm out of its socket), and too likely to have John Calipari call timeout and allow their opponent to draw up a play at the end of a close game. Syracuse has the Onuaku injury to deal with and the curse of "Boeheim as a favorite." Duke can be contained and is coming out of an ACC that doesn't get them ready for winning six games in this field. So we're left with Kansas, a really good team; that said, if they do win, against champs of the last decade, they would probably only be hypothetically favored against 2002 Maryland, maybe 2006 Florida, and that's it.
So it brings me back to my original Tweet -- "If Kansas is the best team in the country, college basketball is going to suck this season."
Did college basketball suck this season? That'll be decided in the next three weeks, because much like transcendent players are only remembered for how they do on the big stage, a college hoops season is largely remembered for how great the tournament was. This one is very balanced, but it needs someone to seize the moment. Kansas is the team who can do it, John Wall is probably the player who can do it, the Big East is the conference that has best prepared its constituents to do it, and you go from there.
So here's how I think it will go (subject to change if anything newsworthy happens between now and Thursday, like DeMarcus Cousins kills a motorist with his bare hands, or Rick Pitino gets caught in an Italian restaurant again):
FIRST ROUND WINNERS
MIDWEST -- 1 Kansas, 9 Northern Iowa, 5 Michigan State, 4 Maryland, 6 Tennessee, 3 Georgetown, 7 Oklahoma State, 2 Ohio State
WEST -- 1 Syracuse, 8 Gonzaga, 12 UTEP, 4 Vanderbilt, 6 Xavier, 3 Pitt, 7 BYU, 2 Kansas State
EAST -- 1 Kentucky, 8 Texas, 5 Temple, 4 Wisconsin, 6 Marquette, 3 New Mexico, 7 Clemson, 2 West Virginia
SOUTH -- 1 Duke, 9 Louisville, 5 A&M, 13 Siena, 6 Notre Dame, 3 Baylor, 10 St. Mary's, 2 Villanova
SECOND ROUND WINNERS
MIDWEST -- 1 Kansas, 4 Maryland, 3 Georgetown, 2 Ohio State
WEST -- 8 Gonzaga, 12 UTEP, 6 Xavier, 2 Kansas State
EAST -- 1 Kentucky, 5 Temple, 6 Marquette, 2 West Virginia
SOUTH -- 9 Louisville, 5 A&M, 3 Baylor, 2 Villanova
SWEET SIXTEEN WINNERS
MIDWEST -- 1 Kansas, 3 Georgetown WEST - 8 Gonzaga, 2 Kansas State
EAST -- 1 Kentucky, 2 West Virginia
SOUTH -- 5 A&M, 2 Villanova
ELITE EIGHT WINNERS -- 1 Kansas, 2 Kansas St, 2 West Virginia, 2 Villanova
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FINAL FOUR -- Kansas over Kansas State, West Virginia over Villanova
FINALS -- West Virginia 65, Kansas 61.
Yeah, everyone is picking Kansas. Not me. It's the Big East's year, and I'll take their most complete, best coached team. who knows? Maybe we'll see Bob Huggins smile...
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.