Nobody in the tournament has as much talent as Kentucky, but let’s not kid ourselves; it is raw as all get out. If Kentucky is going to get out of this region, then youth had better be served because there are a lot of landmines in this region. DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall are the frontcourt-backcourt go-to guys, arguably the best duo in the country – but they are freshman. The pressure hasn’t caught up with them yet, and Wall is probably one-and-done. There isn’t anything this team can’t do. East Tennessee State represents no problem for the Wildcats, but waiting for them going forward is West Virginia, New Mexico, Temple, Marquette, Clemson, Texas, Wake Forest, or even an experienced and deep Cornell.
The best 8-9 matchup of the tournament: Texas-Wake Forest. Don’t sell Texas short: They spent most of the season in the Top 5 before losing 9 of 16 down the stretch, so clearly there is Top 5 ability here. Wake had their own issues, losing five of six down the stretch. This is a battle of two teams going south at the wrong time, so somebody’s going to be fix their problems if only for one game. I’ll take Texas to win here and give Kentucky all kinds of fits before folding like a cheap tent.
UPSET SPECIAL #3: Despite the seedings this is as even a matchup as they come. Both Temple and Cornell do the exact same things well. They both shoot the ball well, including from 3-point range, and they are among the best in the nation in scoring defense. What does it for me is (1) Cornell returns every starter from last year, and experience and depth do mean a lot at tourney time; and (2) Cornell is one of the best in the nation in turnover ratio (1.55). Plus, Cornell has some size in the paint, so even if their nationally ranked 3-point shooting (10+ 3pg) goes out, the Big Red know how to compensate. This is a much better Owls team than in recent years, but the Ivy League is well represented this time out. Cornell in an upset.
Wisconsin’s trademarks are a stifling defense and an efficient offense; plus they turn over the ball fewer times than any team in the nation. But the Badgers are not the bangers on the boards that they have been in recent years and they are having health issues going into the tourney. Fortunately they were gifted a motivated Wofford team that doesn’t do anything well but wins games with as weak a schedule as they had. Quite frankly I’m looking forward to the Wisconsin-Cornell matchup in the next round, where I think Cornell’s tenacity and experience takes apart an underwhelming Wisconsin side. Somebody has to be this year’s Davidson; I’m going with the Big Red. Cornell gets to the Sweet 16.
UPSET SPECIAL #4: Not a lot of size at Marquette, but they did rebound well from losing a lot of talent from last year’s squad. A good 3-point shooting team that is also good at the free-throw line, two things you want to do well at tourney time. But there is virtually no size inside so they don’t rebound well. A guard-oriented team like the Golden Eagles is tailor-made for Washington, who is also guard-oriented and were ninth in the nation in scoring. Despite the lack of size the Huskies are scrappy as hell and manage to actually hit the boards with some frequency. A down year in the Pac Ten, but this was a matchup I’m sure the schedulers made a mistake on. Washington wins this one.
It must be the record that got New Mexico a 3-seed. A 29-4 record in an unusually tough year in the Mountain West is what got them this high a seed. That said, this is a Steve Alford-led team, so I have no doubt he has them well prepared for the tournament. Montana ranks nationally among the best in shooting but they didn’t play anybody of note and practically backed into the tournament from a weak year in the Big Sky conference. This one is a no-brainer. A surprisingly easy subregion for a mid-major nets the Lobos a trip to the Sweet 16.
The trendy pick in this 7-10 matchup is Missouri. Their frantic, full-pressure defense is hard on teams that haven’t yet seen it. The Tigers led the nation in steals and force over 20 turnovers per game. But there just isn’t any size and the go through long stretches of cold shooting, especially from the perimeter. Clemson forces a lot of turnovers, also, but they are less effective in their halfcourt offensive sets (any team that is plays deliberately, uses the shot clock and takes care of the ball could frustrate them). That said, Clemson plays with a certain nastiness inside that matters at tourney time and can make up for cold offensive stretches. This has the possibility of being a very low-scoring game, but I’ll take Clemson.
Gawd I hate Bob Huggins, but man if he doesn’t have a team this year. How he convinced the best players from New York to come to Morgantown is beyond me. The team that had the toughest schedule in the country finished 27-6 and won the Big East for the first time ever. The Mountaineers aren’t a team; they are a force of nature. Not much they don’t do well but the one thing they do especially badly is shoot free throws and that matters. I like what Todd Bozeman has done at Morgan State, turning that team into a consistent league winner and getting them to score in bunches, but this game is a no-brainer. West Virginia beats up Morgan State, bangs it out against Clemson to reach the Sweet 16, and then easily dispatches New Mexico to set up a showdown with Kentucky in the regional final.