By JOHN ZAKOUR
Last week I wrote about keeping sane during March Madness. This time around, I’ll try to make sense of what happened and what will happen. I’ll still likely be wrong.
The most surprising upset of the tournament was also the most immaterial. Mercer over Duke — no one had that in their brackets. At least it definitely wasn’t a mainstream approved upset pick like SF Austin over VCU or UConn over Villanova. The Mercer Bears beat the Duke Blue Devils by, unlike many other upsets, managing to outplay Duke in the big moments and playing smart basketball. Duke had a relatively late lead in the game, but did themselves no favors by jacking up every three they could, as though their lives depended on it. Ever since Duke won it all in 2010, early exits have been the norm for Coack K. I’m sure he’ll get over it, and I’m sure Jabari Parker will find a good home in the NBA. But any Mercer run was mercilessly stomped out by Tennessee, and the tournament goes on.
Is your bracket busted? Well, probably not. Sure, you might not have pegged a few upsets — no one could’ve seen a Stanford Dayton matchup in the sweet sixteen coming — but the framework of your bracket is probably still intact. The only one seed that fell was Wichita State, a team that most people didn’t believe would get past Louisville. The other ones are alive and well. Maybe you were a big believer in Kansas and Andrew Wiggins; well I guess you shouldn’t have been. Their best player, Joel Embiid was sidelined, and the Jayhawks looked rather mortal without their star center and likely Top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Maybe you bought into Villanova, but their resume certainly wasn’t too impressive. Hindsight is always 20/20.
The trendy picks are alive as well. Four seeds and Final Four anointed Michigan State and Louisville are still dancing, even if Rick Pitino’s squad barely survived Manhattan in the first round. Three seed Iowa State, the cool pick, is alive but hampered by third leading scorer Georges Niang’s injury in the team’s first game. And talent loaded San Diego State is still kicking and waiting for Arizona. Unlike some recent years, the bracket pools around the country will really be decided in the later rounds.
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As an aside, I have to side with Charles Barkley, who claims the selection committee intentionally screwed over the Shockers of Wichita State by drawing them with under-seeded Kentucky in the second round. This was done intentionally, as a way of “rewarding” Wichita State for going undefeated and to punish them for doing so in such a weak conference. Now both sides can have their way. Wichita was given a one, and seemingly wasted it, but only because the selection committee booby trapped their path to the Elite Eight.
So now that you’re caught up, let’s offer some revised and still probably equally worthless predictions.
In the Midwest region, I’m tabbing Michigan to come out alive and move on to North Texas. Louisville and Kentucky have to deal with each other, and I think the Wolverines, with their strong backcourt, match up relatively well with either of those two teams. My dark horse to win the region would be the Kentucky Wildcats, who looked like a juggernaut in upending Wichita State. But the problem all year for the Wildcats has been consistency, not talent. Nevertheless, all will be forgiven if they can put together a run this week.
Out West, I’m siding with San Diego State, who barely survived their first round encounter against New Mexico State, but showed what they’re capable of by hammering North Dakota State two days later. The Aztecs are capable of scoring with and shutting down one seed Arizone, and will be a tough out the rest of the way.
If I had my way, the Iowa State Cyclones would be in the Final Four and give Florida a run for their money in Dallas. The most fun team left in the tourney, the Cyclones are sixth in the nation in scoring average and first in assists. But they’re down a starter due to injury, and might not have the man-power to withstand UConn’s guards or a clicking, and finally healthy, Michigan State team. So I’ll sadly side with the Spartans to make the Final Four, while rooting for the Cyclones.
In the South regional, the consensus winner, Florida, is alive and well. The Gators looked shaky against overmatched Albany and dominant in the second half against a Pitt team fresh off a 30-point win. The Gators are going to be tough to beat and still my pick to be the team that comes through the South and wins it all. No one in their region, or in college basketball, can deal with Gators center Patric Young.
If I had to hazard a guess, my national championship game is Florida over Michigan. I feel Florida is the clear favorite in the top half of the bracket, but I could see any number of teams coming through the bottom. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch.