Thursday, March 18, 2010

2010 March Madness Picks -- Elite 8 and Beyond

So here we are. March Madness is finally upon us once again. Thursday and Friday this week in particular have always been awesomely fun days for me, although I still as yet have never fulfilled my longtime dream of heading out to one of the big sports books in Vegas to sit and watch all 16 games today and all 16 games tomorrow, followed by all 16 games over the weekend in style (i.e., smoking and drinking for free). And betting on every one. Of course. Maybe someday, but I think one Vegas trip a year is just right for me these days, and that trip is looking more and more like it will be happening in early June. But more on that on another day; it's time to finish my 2010 March Madness picks.

First, I thought I would review some general trends I am trying to follow in making my picks this year. First off, I think it is a long-proven NCAA Tournament maxim that the teams that play the best competition all season long tend to run deepest in the Big Dance, and for that reason I am putting a lot of weight this year on the relative goodness of the big conferences in the country. I find myself weighting it this year more than I almost ever have before, because frankly there seems to be such a vast margin between the quality of teams in the couple of good conferences and the quality of those in all the rest, dramatically different than last year or any other year in recent memory.

Looking quickly among the power conferences, the ACC was just abysmal this year, as I mentioned earlier I am pretty comfortable saying this is the worst the ACC has been since I can ever remember. Duke is decent, but if you've watched them play the really good teams (the very few on their schedule this season), they've gotten abused and have no chance of winning it all. Maryland had a good year, but that's about it really. Virgina 5-11, UNC 5-11, NC State 5-11, BC 6-10, Georgia Tech 7-9, Wake and Clemson 9-7. There isn't a single other good team in the ACC other than Duke, and even though I fully expect a tough Maryland team to win a game or two this year, I am not picking a single ACC team to make a deep run in this year's tournament. This year more than any year I can recall, those ACC teams simply have not had near the gritty, high-powered experience of playing top-ranked teams again and again all season long down to the wire when it feels like everything is on the line. Usually, by the time a #20-ranked Maryland team makes the NCAA Tournament, they've played top-5 Duke twice, and top-five Carolina twice, and top-ten Wake Forest twice, plus whoever else is good that year in the ACC. This year? Maryland's schedule includes losses at neutral sites (just like the NCAA Tournament's games) against non-Tournament bound Cincinnati, plus Wisconsin and Villanova, and then in their first game of the ACC Tournament as well against Georgia Tech in Greensboro. This Maryland team lost a game to William & Mary for crying out loud. At home. And what big wins has Maryland had this year? What even big games has Maryland played in, what big-time experience have those players had this season? Beating a crappy Indiana team on the road back on December 1? Truly, the single solitary true good win on Maryland's entire schedule this year is the one against Duke at the end of the regular season. Otherwise, these ACC teams haven't even been tested, so we have no reason to believe they will succeed against the big boys. I'm not picking any of them to go far.

The Big 12, in stark contrast to the ACC, had a great year in 2009-2010. You've got seven legitimate good teams in the conference -- Oklahoma State (who's had a couple of huge wins this year and who I'm picking to win a few games in March), Texas (who was ranked in the top couple of teams in the nation earlier this season), Missouri, Texas A&M, #3 seeded Baylor (having their best season in ages and their first legitimate shot to reach the Sweet 16 I think in my lifetime), #2 seeded Kansas State (who turned a lot of heads this year with also their best basketball season in a long while), and of course #1 Kansas, who is ranked as the top team in the country heading into today's action. This conference is loaded with talented teams, and as I've discussed above that action feeds on itself because it makes these teams much, much better in the Tournament to have faced 9 or 10 games against tough competition this year already. And you will note, I am picking at least three teams from this conference to reach the Sweet 16 in this year's Tournament.

The Big East, I don't have to get into again. Suffice it to say that each of Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown and Pittsburgh is a legitimate top-15 team in the country, and all but probably Pitt have a realistic shot to reach the Final Four this year. No other conference in America has quite the depth of the Big East, nor quite the strength at the top of the group (though the Big 12 is definitely close on both counts), and another especially impressive facet is the strength in the middle of the conference. Take the ACC for example, and once you get through Duke and Maryland, there is a significant dropoff until the next teams (Virginia Tech and Florida State), and then another big drop until the rest of the dregs. Not in the Big East, where even after the four legitimate Final Four contenders I mentioned above, it's still Pittsburgh (who is better than anyone in the ACC, including Maryland), it's Marquette, it's Louisville, and it's Notre Dame, all of whom have at least 20 total wins and all of whom won at least 10 games in the toughest conference in college basketball. You can only say that about four total teams in the ACC, and they play in a far worse conference to boot. This is why I am expecting a lot of early success for the Big East teams -- even the ones not playing so well down the stretch and who I therefore cannot pick to go to deep in the Tournament -- and why you will see a number of them in my Sweet 16.

The Pac-10 is having its worst year of my lifetime, hands down, no questions asked. Arizona is down, UCLA is down, Stanford's got nothing, USC is nowhere to be found, even the Oregon schools decided to completely take the year off. There are only three schools in the Pac-10 with more than 16 total wins on the season, and only three that finished over .500 overall if you remove Division II schools from the equation. That conference is unthinkable, as is picking any of those teams to reach the Sweet 16 this year for me. The SEC has got a few decent teams, although beyond Kentucky I don't trust most of those other teams to make it very far in March, and there really was not much depth beyond the three quality teams in the conference on the year. I've also heard some people say the Big Ten is having a good year. Well, those people are fools. While the Big Ten has certainly not been the worst major conference in the country in 2009-2010, the fact that so many of the traditionally strong teams are having down years again weighs on the ability of even the better teams in the conference to really make me think they have what it takes to step up when it counts in March. Purdue was looking good, easily the best of the bunch in the Big Ten this year, but the loss of Robbie Hummel has left that team looking like a shell of its former self, and I would not stake anything on picking this team to win even one or two games after I watched how badly Tubby Smith's Minnesota gophers trounced them at the start of the Big Ten Tournament. Beyond Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all had decent years to round out the other quality teams in the conference, but none of them -- even the ultra-experienced Tom Izzo's Michigan State squad that played in the Final Four in 2009 -- have particularly wowed me, and I think a lot of it has to do with the absence on their schedules of big games with the likes of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and even Illinois and Minnesota who each lost at least 13 games during the season. And as discussed above, this is not the kind of team I like to pick to go far in my bracket as a rule.

The other thing I should mention is that I also tend to like to pick teams who have not only played a lot of big games against strong teams and won a lot of those games, but also teams that have won some big games away from home. Big home wins are big, huge even in determining seeding and odds of success in the NCAA Tournament. But you show me a team that has traveled away from its familiar court, the cozy locker room and its thousands of adoring fans to take on a top-10 team in unfamiliar, often hostile, territory, and come away a winner, and I'll show you a team that's going place in March.

So, with all of the above in mind, let's take a look at my Elite 8 teams. In the Midwest, I have Kansas against Georgetown in what should be a matchup of two hot teams playing well and bringing a ton of talent to the court. Unfortunately, having watched many of the Hoyas' (and the Jayhawks') games this season, one thing I can say with certainty in my mind is that Kansas has been the model of consistency, while Georgetown has been among the most inconsistent teams among the nationally-ranked squads in the country. I can see exactly how this game is gonna go in my mind already -- Kansas jumps out to a sizable lead, something in the 16-4 range to start the game, and then by the time Georgetown gets off its heels, it just won't quite be able to come back and make up for the slow early start. Although it's clearly not where my heart is, I like Kansas to win the Midwest regional and advance to their billionth Final Four as a school.

In the East is probably the Elite 8 game that I am looking forward to the most heading into the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky vs. West Virginia. I have a ton of respect for Bob Huggins as I mentioned the other day here in the blog and I think his West Virginia squad is probably the most underrated, under-appreciated team in the nation. They always always always come to play for their coach, and they play sick defense and never give up. Unfortunately for them, after a nice run in March I just don't think they will quite have the firepower to stop John Wall and the Kentucky offense. Although John Callipari has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt to be one of the biggest scumbags involved in the game today, he's a scumbag who can Coach. I just don't see anything stopping Kentucky from plowing their way through the East and also appearing in the 2010 Final Four.

I have Syracuse matching up with Kansas State in the West regional Elite 8 game, and if you've read here during this season then you know I think the Cuse is destined for great things. I have a lot of respect for K-State and what they've accomplished this year in a very tough Big 12 Conference. But I'm not sure anyone in the country can stick with Syracuse's prowess on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and K-State is not the Kansas school that I think might have the best shot to do so, if you know what I mean. I feel confident that Syracuse will emerge from the West to stake its claim against the winner of Georgetown-Kansas on that half of the NCAA Tournament Bracket.

And lastly, the South, where the Tournament organizers decided to blow Coach K again by giving him easily the least difficult path to the Final Four, but where as I discussed yesterday I still don't think he's going to get there. Despite having the fewest truly good teams in the bracket, I think this is by far the most difficult bracket to pick, and I think mostly anybody doing a bracket this year is either picking Duke or picking a total crapshoot. In my case, I've decided to have Duke losing to Louisville, and Louisville eventually going on to lose to Villanova to make it two more Big East teams in the Final Four for the second straight year. Truthfully though, I am not confident about Louisville as they were so up and down this year, and I am not confident about Villanova either after the way they ended the season. I don't like Duke, and I just can't bring myself to pick Baylor to make their first Final Four in 850 generations. And lord knows I'm not picking Purdue at #4 to win anything this postseason. It's tough when you just don't trust any of the top four or five seeds in a bracket -- in the end I am picking Nova over Louisville but it could be almost any team in the bracket playing for the right to get spanked by Kentucky in the Final Four.

So my pre-Tournament Final Four includes Kansas playing Syracuse, and Kentucky playing Villanova. I think Kansas-Syracuse should be a game for the ages, but in the end if forced to choose right now without seeing how each team is playing in the tournament, I would go with Kansas, and on the other side of the bracket I have to pick Kentucky, despite their youth and the fact that its a Callipari team so you know less than 10% of the students will actually graduate or even probably ever go to class. I just don't like the way Nova ended the season enough to pick them to beat a team like Kentucky on this big stage. And when the season-long anticipation of Kansas vs Kentucky finally happens in early April, I'm going with the talent of Kentucky to complete a Carmelo-Anthony-with-Syracuse type of single-season run to a title in John Callipari's first year with the Wildcats.

Here's hoping we see some nice upsets and fun action in these first couple of rounds over the next few days.

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Blogger APOSEC72 said...

I was really worried about being cursed, until I got to the last paragraph - thankfully I picked Syracuse so I feel a bit better about my picks :)

9:27 PM  
Blogger Bayne_S said...

Georgia Tech has a ridiculously talented front court.

After 30 games I don't expect the guards to suddenly know how to inbound the ball, cross half court and make a decent entry pass but if they have learned these skills in last 3 days watch out for Georgia Tech!!!!!

11:41 PM  
Blogger Schaubs said...

I wish you would have posted this earlier...

I hope you used the Costanza method again like I did and picked Kentucky.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Bayne_S said...

I'm going with the talent of Kentucky to complete a Carmelo-Anthony-with-Syracuse type of single-season run to a future vacated title in John Callipari's first year with the Wildcats.


4:20 AM  

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