This year's tournament is wide open, but in the end Carolina will be dancing.
By Sean Bartel
Remember last year, when everything was pollyana and predictable -- all four No. 1 seeds, the top four teams in the pre-season poll, ending up in the Final Four? The world was wonderful. We all had chocolate sodas and a bet full of pillows. We ended where we started. It was Camelot, beauty, easy to predict, and made anyone that picked a bland semifinals look like a genius.
Ty Lawson's health is key to North Carolina's chances.
Consider this year's irregularities:
-- Who'd think Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie's greatest arch-nemesis would not be LSU, Tennessee or Florida, but an ESPN sideline reporter named Jeanine Edwards? (we still get the giggles YouTubing him over her jack assery during the Ole Miss halftime)
-- Who'd guess simple phone calls a year and a half ago would start a domino effect that would drop Indiana from tournament perennial to a squad barely able to compete with Atlantic Sun teams? (BTW, the last time IU and UK missed the tournament in the same year? 1979, the same season Larry Bird and Indiana State lost a memorable final to Magic Johnson and Michigan State)
-- Anyone remember a season where injuries changed the landscape this significantly? Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, UConn's Jermaine Dyson, and North Carolina's Ty Lawson are the big names, but certainly not the only ones.
All said, when healthy, no one should beat North Carolina. Question is whether Lawson is completely healthy. If not, that opens the tournament up to everyone else.
And so, here goes our best bets and things to watch (Note: Despite their prominence, Kentucky did not make the tournament, so we will not talk about them ... OK, maybe a few pot shots: Did you hear UK coach Billy Gillispie is Catholic? He gave up coaching for Lent. Ay yo!)...
The favorite… Pittsburgh. I'll admit - I have a giant man crush on Sam Young (no, not a love crush - Sam's not the best-looking guy out there). He's an amazing shooter, probably the best in the tournament. He's got awesome hops. And he used to do gymnastics.
Seriously. He did! I ain't lyin'!
Levance Fields has an ungodly assist-to-turnover ratio. DeJuan Blair absolutely picked apart UConn's Hasheem Thabeet in Storrs. If he stays out of foul trouble, it's tough to see the Panthers getting beat in this regional.
The sleeper … OK, it's tough to say the No. 2 seed is a sleeper, but everyone loves to hate the Dookies. Loves to hate them. LOVES to hate them (OK, three loves are plenty).
Thing is the Blue Devils played great after benching point guard Greg Paulus, winning eight of their last nine and the ACC tourney title. Yes, it seems like they flame out early every year - the Devils haven't made the Elite Eight since '04 - but at some point that streak will end, and I think it will be this year.
The big upset … Portland State over Xavier, first round.
I've watched the Muskies all year long, and while they have some spectacular wins early in the season (Virginia Tech, Missouri, Memphis, and at LSU in January) they were putrid on the road down the stretch, and when down don't have a scoring stopper to wake them up. Remember, PSU upset Gonzaga earlier this year. Teams with good guards give XU trouble, and guess what Portland State has?
Billy Gillispie’s soul. No, not really. But if they did, Lexingtonians would be huge fans.
Xavier is overseeded at four, and while the Vikings are probably right at 13, they should be good enough to win this one.
The apocalypse cometh … Tennessee. More importantly, Bruce Pearl and the Dayton bars. Whether they lose to Oklahoma State or Pittsburgh, expect to hear this in downtown D-town.
"Coach Pearl would like you to keep the bar open another hour."
"We can't - boss won't let us."
"Well, OK. But only because you look good in orange."
Mark my words.
Already a winner ... Minnesota. More importantly, Tubby Smith - in his second year in Minneapolis, Orlando is back in the tournament. And guess who isn't? Hmm, let me check ... I believe ... that school he used to coach.
OK, you win: Georgia also isn't in. But neither is Kentucky. And don't listen to the revisionist history coming out of Lexington - the Wildcat fans DESPERATELY wanted him out. Be careful what you wish for, Big Blue.
Impress your friends … East Tennessee State has a daunting task, facing 1-seed Pittsburgh in round one. But guess what? This is the second time ETSU has been the last seed in a region, and in 1989 they came close than any team before to pulling off the big upset, losing 72-71 to Oklahoma. A win against Pitt? More historic than any in sports history - no 16 seed has ever won a game.
But the winner is … Pittsburgh, beating Duke in the regional finals.
The favorite … It's simple: Ty Lawson is healthy and running the point well? No one will beat North Carolina. If he's still hurt (and it sounds like he might not play in round one), suddenly everyone, from Oklahoma to Gonzaga, comes into play.
Personally, I think Roy Williams is playing us, and I rarely bet against him in the tournament. But if he's down a point guard, the Sooners look better and better.
The sleeper … Gonzaga. Yes, they don't play in the best league, but the Bulldogs seemed to have used their blowout home loss to Memphis and turned it into their motivation to beat the heck out of everyone. Namely St. Mary's. Anyone watch the WCC finals? Patty Mills might have been flat, but the Zags beat the Gaels like, well, they were Indiana.
Sorry coach Crean - you know you're my boy. Well, not literally, but you get the idea.
The big upset … Arizona State over Syracuse, second round. Yes, the 'Cuse looked awesome in the Big East tournament. Anyone else really trust them? Haven't we seen this script before - Syracuse plays itself up in the Big East tourney, gets a high seed, then dies off early? 2006? 2005?
Ok, truth be told I think Jim Boeheim is just a big whiner. But I don't trust them any further than I can throw them. And with my bad back, I shouldn't throw anyone (two dollars if you get that reference). Now, if I was throwing Billy Gillispie …
The apocalypse cometh … Clemson, first round to Michigan. How many years will the Tigers start awesome, fade quickly down the stretch before we say enough? Ok, I'm saying it - enough. There. I said it. I know you're jealous.
Already a winner ... LSU. You're in the SEC and you actually had a team good enough to make the big dance. Congrats. Now take your first-round loss to Butler and go home.
Impress your friends … Stephen F. Austin is not only making its first tourney appearance (out of the Southland conference), but, according to Wikipedia, Stephen F. Austin, the man, is
"known as the "Father of Texas", led the second and ultimately successful colonization of the region by settlers from the United States. The capital of Texas, Austin in Travis County, Austin County, Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Austin College in Sherman, as well as a number of K-12 schools are named in his honor".
I have a number of K-12 schools named after me, but none of the rest. Well done, senor Austin!
But the winner is … North Carolina over Oklahoma. I have faith in the Lawson ankle. And, yes, I know, chalk so far. It gets better.
The favorite … Two-fold: Memphis and UConn. Can the Huskies survive the loss of Jermaine Dyson? They've looked ordinary since his injury. What about Memphis? Are they as good as this 206-game win streak? Or are they the pre-conference team that lost to Georgetown and Syracuse.
I'll take Memphis as the favorite for now, but it gets dicey.
The sleeper … Purdue. If Robbie Hummel is fully healthy, the Boilers can beat any team in the draw.
Sigh. I just said it. Thousands of my dollars are in the Indiana University coffers and I'm picking Purdue. You are free to kick me in the nads, Bloomingtonians.
The big upset … Purdue over UConn, sweet 16. I saw Hasheem Thabeet play against Louisville. He was utterly dominating. I saw him play against Pittsburgh. He was ordinary. And that's the problem - when he's on, he's like no player defensively since Patrick Ewing.
But Purdue has a ton of weapons, and doesn't necessarily need to involve the paint area to change the game. Besides, the Dyson injury just makes me uncomfortable with the Huskies. Not as uncomfortable as watching Billy Gillispie talk to Jeanine Edwards, but you get the idea.
The apocalypse cometh … Marquette. OK, maybe not so overdramatic - they aren't going far without Dominic James. But my crystal ball (which is actually made of plastic. Hey! Come on! The economy sucks!) says they're gone in round one.
Already a winner ... Cornell. C'mon -- you guys are going to make six times my salary. Just making the tournament? Gravy baby, gravy.
Impress your friends … Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobsen is coaching his first NCAA tourney as the head man (he made it in ’06 as an assistant) but he once coached as an assistant at North Dakota State. Not noteworthy? Maybe not, except he played (and coached) at North Dakota, NDSU’s vaunted rival. Think of it this way: Would a Duke player coach at North Carolina? Or how weird was it when Rick Pitino came back to coach Louisville just four years after coaching Kentucky.
No, UK fans, you can’t have him back. You chose your poison. Deal with it.
But the winner is … I love the Missouri fast-paced style. Mike Anderson runs a feast or famine offense, but in this bracket I think it can work. Key will be the Sweet 16 game with Memphis, which should be fast but very exciting.
The favorite … Louisville. No team has the raw talent the Cards have, although the team does have flaws - point guard Edgar Sosa can be a loose cannon both with his temper and his shooting (or speaking. I interviewed Edgar a few years ago, and he started speaking Spanish halfway through. I had to remind him only a fraction of the audience got the Espagnol thing). He's not the classic ball distributor you think of at the one spot, but the team is more likely to lose if Earl Clark struggles.
The sleeper … Don't automatically think Siena is done because its playing Ohio State in Dayton. Remember a year ago when the Saints beat the heck outta Vanderbilt in the tourney first round? This year's team is similar, coach Fran McCaffrey is steal leading them, and honestly, OSU isn't that fantastic. Look for the Saints to give UofL trouble in the second round.
The big upset …I don't have the guts to pick the Saints over the Cards, but Cleveland State has the goods to beat Wake Forest. Yes, Wake's got some spectacular talent, but they've played over their heads all year long. Cleveland State played a brilliant game to win at Butler and take the Horizon League title, but the Vikings won 25 games for a reason. Keep the game in the 60s or low 70s? It's Cleveland State's.
The apocalypse cometh … Kentucky fans, when they realize Morehead State is playing Louisville while UK has to stay home. Say, did you hear the one about Billy Gillispie at the Chinese restaurant ...
Already a winner ... Morehead State. First tournament appearance in a quarter century. Who cares if Louisville beats you by 50?
Impress your friends … North Dakota State is not only making its first NCAA tournament appearance, but the first in the history of North OR South Dakota. The reason? Well, until this year, neither state had a Division I team (South Dakota State and NDSU both played in division one the last few years, but were not eligible for the NCAA tournament until now). The Bison will actually have a large cheering contingent in Minneapolis - Fargo is 3 1/2 hours from the Twin Cities, but so many Fargoans already make the drive on a regular basis.
But the winner is … Louisville. I see a ton of inconsistencies with the Cards - sometimes too many turnovers from Earl Clark; the inconsistent play of Samardo Samuels; Edgar Sosa's impetuousness; but in the end. Terrance Williams will be the difference. Take the Cards over Kansas in the regional finals.
So, onto the Final Four. North Carolina and Pittsburgh are the two best teams in the country, and while DeJuan Blair will likely outplay Tyler Hansbrough, I'll take the total package (and hopefully a healthy Ty Lawson) with the 'heels. In the other, Louisville is too disciplined for Missouri. Feast or famine? The latter for the Tigers.
In the finals, UofL has no answer for Tyler Hansbrough, and while UNC might not have one for Terrence Williams, the overall edge goes to Roy Williams' boys. He brings home his second title.
But no worries, coach Pitino: Things could be wore. You could have Billy Gillispie's agent.
Check out Sean Bartel's website.