Hello, college basketball fans!
Now there are two annual traditions every March in terms of the NCAA Tournament.
First I post my bracket before the tournament as to who I think and/or deserve to make the NCAA Tournament.
My second annual tradition is breaking down the actual bracket and picking who will win. I like to call it "Schmolik Bracket Analysis"!
An annual tradition if mine during Schmolik Bracket Analysis is to begin with the regional my alma mater and beloved Illinois Fighting Illini are in (assuming they are in). This year, that is the Southwest Regional.
The season for Illinois began with high expectations and a big win over North Carolina but Illinois slumped. After not being in the tournament last year, it's great just to be in the tournament. Illinois will try to win its first game since 2006.
They will face a familiar face in UNLV coach Lon Kruger. Younger Illini fans don't remember but Kruger was Illinois's coach before he left for the NBA, failed (just like John Calipari and Rick Pitino) and landed at UNLV. If Illinois wins, they will play another former Illini coach in Bill Self (assuming Kansas doesn't become the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16).
Recently, Illinois hasn't beaten anyone really good (Iowa and Indiana don't count). I would rather play UNLV than some Big East team (we had an 11 out of 68 chance in drawing one so we got lucky!) but I just don't have much faith in them.
Besides, even if Illinois wins, how much of a chance do we have against Kansas anyway? Then again, if I had to play one of the No. 1 seeds in the "third" round, I would want Kansas. Kansas as a No. 1 seed has lost in the "second" round several times, including last season.
Speaking of Kansas, before Self was Illinois's coach he was Tulsa's coach (I really am old!) So it is a homecoming of sorts for Self in the "second and third" round games. Now Self has not fared too well in the state of Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament. The last two times Kansas played in Oklahoma were 2005 (1st round loss to No. 14 seed Bucknell) and last year (2nd round loss to No. 9 Northern Iowa). But those two games were in Oklahoma City, not Tulsa.
Vanderbilt is trying to buck a recent trend. They lost their last two NCAA Tournament games as No. 4 seeds to No. 13's. This year, Vanderbilt plays Atlantic 10 champion Richmond, who I think is underseeded as a No. 12. If you are looking for a 5-12 upset to pick, I think this is a good one.
In the bottom half of the Southwest, we have my favorite nickname in recent memory, the St. Peter's Peacocks! When's the last time there were Peacocks in the NCAA's? They are catching Purdue at a good time with Purdue having lost their last two games but I hope Purdue shows up and defends the Big Ten Conference honor. The last thing I want is Purdue losing their first game (actually the worst would be Ohio State losing their first game!)
This year introduces "play in" games for at large teams. We know the chances of a No. 16 play in game winner beating a No. 1 seed is slim and none. But a No. 11 seed beating a No. 6 is not out of the realm of possibility.
Will the play in game tire out the winner? Does No. 6 seed Georgetown have an advantage or a disadvantage over the other No. 6 seeds? This is another reason I hate the 68 team format. The play in game among No. 16 seeds doesn't really affect the tournament that much but this could disturb the competitive balance in the NCAA's one way or the other.
This season, I don't think either USC or VCU belongs in the Tournament so I hope Georgetown destroys whoever they play and redeem themselves for last year's debacle vs. Ohio. Georgetown's Chris Wright has been cleared to play. The Hoyas certainly didn't play well in his absence. If Georgetown plays like they did earlier this season, Purdue (and the rest of the bottom half of the bracket) are in trouble.
In the NCAA Tournament this year, a lot of eyes will be on the Big East. Were their 11 bids deserved (I think they were regardless of the outcome)? But will all that competition during the regular season and at Madison Square Garden help the schools in the tournament?
Meanwhile, you have Kansas playing in the Big 12 Conference. I think they are overrated. They've only beaten one team that is top four seed in the tournament, a win over a slumping Texas in Kansas City (might as well been in Lawrence). I am picking Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals (they beat Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse this year) to "upset" the Jayhawks.
I'm going all Big East in the regional final. I like a rematch of the semifinal between Notre Dame and Louisville and for Ben Hansbrough to be cutting the nets down. Notre Dame will advance to its first Final Four since 1978.
Regional Final: Notre Dame over Louisville
I think this is the weakest regional of them all. We have by far the weakest No. 2 seed, a Brandon Davies less BYU as a No. 3 seed, and a No. 4 seed Wisconsin that couldn't break 40 against Penn State.
This regional is full of sleepers. We have perennial bracket busters in Gonzaga and Butler along with Utah State and Old Dominion. I don't know if you can call Michigan State a sleeper but we all know Tom Izzo knows how to coach in the NCAA Tournament.
I don't like seeing mid majors meet in the first game. To me it's like when Boise State and TCU met in the Fiesta Bowl. You want to see David vs. Goliath, not David vs. David. I will say that whoever wins between Butler and Old Dominion is going to give Pitt quite a battle in the "third" round.
This is the 13th year in a row Gonzaga made the NCAA Tournament. They are playing St. John's, a team that last made the tournament in 2002. This looks like an upset to me if you can call it an upset. I also like Utah State to win in another 5-12 upset over a Kansas State team that lost three times to Colorado.
The big mystery of the Southeast is BYU. They haven't played too many games without Brandon Davies but they did lose badly to New Mexico at home and lost to a San Diego State team they swept in the regular season.
BYU was dealt a very hard potential second game in Gonzaga. Gonzaga is back in the role of underdog. The No. 11 seed is Gonzaga's lowest since 2001. It's going to be a hard game for BYU to win. If the Cougars and Bulldogs don't meet this year, expect to see them twice next year in the WCC.
I think Gonzaga has a great chance to make the Sweet 16 and a potential Sweet 16 game vs. Florida. The two met in the Sweet 16 in 1999 when a late basket by Gonzaga prompted Gus Johnson to call "The Slipper Still Fits!".
Of course, Florida will have its own problem with a possible second game with Michigan State. Many times the Spartans exceed expectations (last year's Final Four run was as a No. 5 seed). Florida is playing in Tampa. However, Florida played Michigan State in Tampa in 2003 and the Spartans pulled off an upset of the No. 2 (and overseeded) Gators. Of course, since then Florida and Billy Donovan has won two national championships.
If you asked me the two best coaches in college basketball who have never made the Final Four, I would say Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon and Gonzaga's Mark Few. I hope one of them finally makes it there this year.
In a conference with national champion winning coaches Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, and Rick Pitino, Dixon is often overlooked. Yet, in his eight seasons at Pittsburgh Dixon's team has won ten or more Big East games each season. Pitt won two Big East regular season championships and one Big East Tournament in that span. Making the Final Four will hopefully give Dixon the respect he deserves.
Pittsburgh's road to the Final Four looks very winnable although Old Dominion or Butler will give them fits. The Panthers should be favored in every game. If they play like they have all season, they will be heading to Houston.
Final Pick: Pittsburgh over Florida.
I have graduated from three schools, Illinois, Penn State, and Temple. Since I graduated from Temple, this is the first year all three schools made the NCAA Tournament in the same year.
Of course Penn State and Temple play their first game against each other. Well, I know one of my schools is going to win. Penn State's last tournament appearance was 2001. They stunned North Carolina to make the Sweet 16 and lost in the Sweet 16 to Temple.
Fran Dunphy has led Temple to the last three NCAA Tournaments but they lost in the first round each year (including last year's upset at the hands of Cornell). For Penn State, making the NCAA's is a victory already so I want to see Temple and Dunphy finally win one.
The winner of the Pennsylvania clash (from Tucson, Arizona of all places) is expected to play San Diego State in the next round. It's a winnable game for either school and had they played closer to Pennsylvania I probably would pick the upset. It's hard for teams from the East Coast to go out west and win against West Coast teams.
There are a couple of dangerous sleepers teams in this regional.
One of them is the Golden Grizzlies of Oakland. Oakland has played seven NCAA Tournament teams this year (including a win over Tennessee in Knoxville) and will not be intimidated by the Longhorns. Should Texas win, they could meet Arizona in a great "third" round matchup. Arizona and Memphis will pit two coaches making their first NCAA appearance for perennial NCAA elite programs.
Don’t forget about Bucknell. The Bison stunned Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament (and won a game in 2006 as well). They face a talented but likely exhausted Connecticut Huskies team (they won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament).
Should UConn advance as expected, their next opponent could very well be Big East rival Cincinnati. It seems weird to see two teams from the same conference meeting this early in the tournament but it's hard to spread out 11 conference opponents. I personally think conference foes shouldn't meet until the Sweet 16 and not be allowed to meet in the opening weekend.
At the top half is a Duke. Duke will open in Charlotte, NC. If they advance as expected, they will make a rare trip to the West Coast. Assuming Duke beats Hampton (no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1), Michigan or Tennessee would be a road block in the Blue Devils' way. Michigan is on a roll now and Tennessee is slumping but I would not count Bruce Pearl out this time of year. If it is Duke vs. Michigan, that will be a rematch of the 1992 NCAA Championship (the Fab Five vs. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill).
In the Sweet 16, normally UConn vs. San Diego State is an easy call. But I'm wondering if the Huskies are tired or have peaked and of course a west coast trip to face a nearby school (the game would be in Anaheim) is never good (although UConn has made the Final Four out of the West Regional three times).
I would like to see a Duke/Connecticut regional final. I do not like Duke that much and UConn is Duke's biggest nemesis in the NCAA Tournament. But I have a feeling San Diego State will advance and will lose to Duke in the final. I told you about Duke vs. Michigan in 1992. That team was coached by current San Diego State's head coach Steve Fisher.
Final Pick: Duke over San Diego State.
If before the bracket was announced I said I was picking Ohio State, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Kentucky to make the Final Four, you would think they were good picks.
Well, I can't pick those four. They are all in the East Regional, making it my pick for the toughest regional this year. Only one (possibly none) of them will be in the Final Four. I like all four of these programs so I should be happy with whoever advances unless we have some lower seed make it.
Back in the NCAA's is 2006 Final Four surprise team George Mason. They play a completely struggling Villanova team that lost its last five games including an embarrassing loss to Big East doormat South Florida in the Garden.
Last year, Kentucky and West Virginia met in the East Regional final for the right to advance to the Final Four. This year, they would potentially meet in the opening weekend for a chance to make the Sweet 16. We find in this pod the other play in game for at large teams between Clemson and UAB. The winner will have to fly to Tampa to play its second game.
We could have another third round game between Big East foes if Syracuse wins and Marquette beats Xavier. Don’t count out the Musketeers though as they have made the Sweet 16 the last three years running. Xavier will have their hands full with likely opponent Syracuse to make it four years in a row.
Also playing in Charlotte with Duke will be North Carolina. I’m sure both teams’ fans will come out to cheer against their rivals as well as cheer for their own team this weekend.
If the top four seeds hold, there will be some great games next weekend in Newark between North Carolina and Syracuse and between Ohio State and Kentucky.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see the higher seeded team win every game (best chance of an “upset” would be Xavier over Syracuse).
Final Pick: Ohio State over North Carolina.
So my Final Four picks are Ohio State, Duke, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh. I almost never pick all four No. 1 seeds so Kansas is my pick to get upset. The regional Ohio State has is loaded so it wouldn't surprise me if they lost either.
I think I heard Charles Barkley say on CBS that early round games in the NCAA's are won by players and later round games are won by coaches. Two of these coaches (Mike Brey and Jamie Dixon) will make their first appearance in the Final Four if my picks are all correct. Thad Matta coached Ohio State to the Final Four in 2007.
But if coaching decides it, there is only one choice to win the championship. In the first semifinal, I like Pittsburgh to gain revenge over Notre Dame. You can't always count on freshmen in the tournament, so I'll take Duke. Unfortunately for those who don't like Duke, I think it will be a repeat.
Championship Pick: Duke over Pittsburgh