It was business as usual during the first week of the NCAA Tournament. No memorable buzzer beaters, but plenty of upsets and interesting storylines to go around.
Of course, there are the Cinderella stories, but the Nevadas of the world aren’t going anywhere. The Cinderellas only play this weekend so that announcers can say things like, “The clock has struck midnight.” There are some more probable headlines for the higher seeds.
The ACC has a legitimate chance to put three teams — Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest — in the Final Four. Syracuse is suddenly back on everyone’s radar, with the defending champs route to the Final Four open after Stanford’s early exit. A season after the departure of Roy Williams, Kansas might not have to play a team seeded higher than No. 9 to reach its third consecutive Final Four. Could we see a rematch of last year’s title game? Syracuse could even play Texas in the Final Four again. Do I think any of this will actually happen? Well, no. Not really. It sounds good though.
So, some actual predictions, as well as thoughts about the first two rounds:
Connecticut vs. Vanderbilt: Vandy should be completely overmatched in this game against a UConn team that should be the outright favorite to win the Tourney. So, I’d like to use this space for a commentary on clock management. Watching Vandy’s improbable comeback win over North Carolina State, I realized that if I were a college coach, I would never have my team hold for the last shot except in a tie game. N.C. State had twenty seconds and never got within 25 feet of the hoop. I loved what Vandy did by catching the Wolfpack off guard for a back door lay-up by not running down the clock. Teams seem to have the worst possessions at the end of games. Instead of starting too late, just run the offense. Most game-winners come off of put-backs anyway.
Syracuse vs. Alabama
Each of these teams has played a pair of nail-biters already. I’ll take Syracuse’s experience over a program that has never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen.
Connecticut vs. Syracuse: Everyone will be talking about Syracuse’s 67-56 win over UConn March 7. Obviously, Emeka Okafor wasn’t healthy for that game. His recovery should send the champs packing.
Duke vs. Illinois: Illinois dominated Cincinnati and has won fourteen of fifteen games. The Illini definitely have a chance to upset Duke in the Sweet Sixteen, just like No. 5 Indiana in 2002. But, J.J. Redick has his shooting touch back, and Shelden Williams probably has too much size for Illinois if he can stay out of foul trouble.
Texas vs. Xavier: Xavier is the hottest team in the country right now. Texas will probably put Royal Ivey on Lionel Chalmers to try to slow him down, but Xavier just has too many shooters that are hot.
Duke vs. Xavier: I think Duke’s defense stifles Xavier and brings the Musketeers back to earth. Duke will meet UConn in San Antonio for a rematch of the 1999 title game.
East Rutherford Region
St. Joseph’s vs. Wake Forest: All year, I’ve said that if St. Joe’s runs into a solid No. 4 or No. 5 seed from a top conference in the Sweet Sixteen, they’re done. I’m not changing my mind now. Honestly, Wake Forest will be the best team that St. Joe’s has played all year. If St. Joe’s actually wins, they’ll again be playing the best team they’ve played all year. I don’t think you can get very far with this kind of scheduling. That’s what bothers me so much about all the people who expected Gonzaga to reach San Antonio.
Oklahoma State vs. Pittsburgh: Pitt got a raw deal in the second round, forced to play essentially a road game in Milwaukee against No. 6 Wisconsin. I don’t understand why the Selection Committee keeps giving the lower seeds advantages like this. Last year, No. 5 Notre Dame beat No. 4 Illinois in Indianapolis. Worse, No. 3 Syracuse knocked off-top seeded Oklahoma in Albany in the East Regional Final. Oh, then there’s this game. Each of these teams could have been No. 1 seeds at some point in this season. I’ll go with the backcourt of John Lucas and Tony Allen over Pittsburgh’s defense.
Oklahoma State vs. Wake Forest: This game has been the hardest one for me to pick, both in my bracket and now. With my luck, one or both of these teams will lose on Friday and make this a moot point. The Cowboys’ backcourt might be a little too much for Wake freshman Chris Paul to handle. Oklahoma State will prevail as Wake alum Billy Packer cries in the arms of Jim Nantz.
St. Louis Region
Kansas vs. University of Alabama-Birmingham: The word is out on “40 Minutes of Hell,” and Kansas should have had time to prepare for UAB’s frenetic pace. Kansas likes to slow the game down. If they don’t, the Jayhawks won’t be able to keep up with the Blazers, especially if the Jayhawks are sloppy with the ball as they were in the first round, committing 25 turnovers. However, Kansas has enough experience to make this a half-court game and send the Blazers home.
Georgia Tech vs. Nevada: Georgia Tech is the best team left in this region. In my original bracket, I almost picked them to beat Kentucky to reach the Final Four. Now, with the Wildcats gone, the Yellow Jackets should be my pick. The problem is that they are playing poorly, barely edging Northern Iowa and Boston College in the first two rounds. With an open route to San Antonio, I think Tech will get it together.
Georgia Tech vs. Kansas: Georgia Tech is an up-tempo team, while Kansas likes to slow it down. Kansas has reached consecutive Final Fours, but most of the principles and the coach from those teams are gone. Five minutes ago, I picked Kansas, but I like the ACC and I’m going with Tech.
Final Four: Connecticut, Duke, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech