Wow, I’m sure we ALL picked this, right? Obviously the highlight of the festivities was the shocking Kansas loss to Northern Iowa, but wild finishes and runs by Saint Mary’s, Cornell and Washington are also noteworthy. So, a tour through the Regions, starting with the Thursday games:
EAST (Syracuse, New York)
Kentucky v Cornell: In a lot of ways, these might have been the two best teams the first weekend (I know, I know, the list is not exhaustive) – I mean Kentucky provided the shock and awe, while Cornell provided the best performance:opponent ratio. Obviously Kentucky has the pedigree with lottery caliber John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe. But Cornell shoots the ball over 40% from deep (Kentucky decidedly does not), can minimize mistakes with some aplomb and has a lot of experience winning. Kentucky is the pick – but Cornell is legit.
Washington v West Virginia – the most athletic matchup. Quincy Pondexter vs Devin Ebanks … just a ton of run and jump power. However, UW lacks the sheer defensiveness toughness WVU does. UW looked inspired in their wins over Marquette and New Mexico, but WVU is another level.
If this leads where I think – West Virginia might have enough defensive power to force the kids of Kentucky to make jump shots – which is not a strength. WVU is the pick – might as well put it out there.
WEST REGION (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Syracuse v Butler – Syracuse looked great in their dominant wins in Buffalo. This is not quite so close – but Butler lacks the athleticism to really scare Syracuse and their uber active zone.
Xavier v Kansas State – Xavier, forever underrated and a mainstay in good tournament performance (and thus coaches leaving) is themselves. Versatile, unspectacular etc. K-State’s athletes though are tough to work against, especially their guard play. Really, their only sin is not being able to beat Kansas. Xavier != Kansas.
Syracuse-Kansas State could be a classic, but Syracuse has felt elite all season, and now that Wesley Johnson is healthy again … they might really be as elite as they look.
MIDWEST REGION (Saint Louis, Missouri)
Michigan State v Northern Iowa
Two teams, two wins, ten combined points. Northern Iowa is 30-4. Against any sort of schedule, that deserves a hat-tip. Everyone knows Faroukmanesh and with Michigan State nursing numerous injuries, Northern Iowa’s strong self identity could come in to play. Lucas needs to play here – otherwise, Izzo’s record has to be ignored – coaches don’t play … UNI is the pick.
Ohio State v Tennessee
This is a great study in contrast. Ohio State is not deep and deliberate, Tennessee is run and gun, and even with their shorter bench, they are deeper than Ohio State. But depth in a tournament is overrated – all the TV timeouts, just manage fouls. Evan Turner is the best player in the entire tournament (from a college player perspective), and he showed it against Georgia Tech. Buckeyes are the pick.
Ohio State makes the final four in this scenario though Northern Iowa is plenty capable
SOUTH REGION (Houston, Texas):
Duke v Purdue
Duke has run through some opponents with great ease, though neither were any good. Purdue beat a couple of good teams narrowly. Purdue can’t score, Duke can. Purdue defends very well, Duke defends quite well. Enough comparative statements, Duke wins.
Baylor v Saint Mary’s
Saint Mary’s is another quasi-cinderella as a 10-seed. Richmond is not athletic, and Saint Mary’s handled them. Villanova is athletic but not big, and Saint Mary’s handled them. Baylor though – with Udoh has the size to go with crazy athleticism. Baylor is all over the map – but I gamble.
A Duke-Baylor matchup is Duke’s worst nightmare – crazy athletes who can score. This Duke team is deeper and more talented than last years. That said, the image of Villanova athleticizing the Devils off the floor is too much to ignore. Baylor is the pick.