Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Your NCAA Tournament Primer

By Joe Parello

Ok, so the tournament technically starts tonight with a pair of play-in games, but the round of 64 is still a weekend affair. Since I will be in Las Vegas for my bachelor party this weekend, I thought I would share with you some picks and sleepers that are sure to all be false and cause you to lose your bracket group to you buddy's kid sister, and lose me a ton of money.

But that's the beauty of the tournament, right? Nobody knows anything. That being said, here are some teams that I like, and some observations I have made about this year's bracket.

Team Below the 3 Line that Can Make the Final Four: Wisconsin

There are a couple this year, as St. Louis and Oklahoma State are both very solid teams in the Midwest Region, but having to likely beat both Duke and Louisville hurts their chances. In the South Region, Virginia Commonwealth has the tournament pedigree and tons of athleticism, but they would have to get through teams that can match them physically, like Michigan and Kansas, just to get to the Elite 8.

As for the East Bracket, Butler is down a bit this year, and UNLV got a tough draw with potential matchups with Syracuse and Indiana. So, that leaves the West Region, where 5 seed Wisconsin has a chance to face a weak 4 seed in Kansas State, and an untested 1 seed in Gonzaga. After that, it's likely either New Mexico or a Buckeye team they're familiar with.

Surprise Team That Will Make the Final Four: New Mexico

In case you couldn't tell by my last answer, I don't think very highly of the West Region. Gonzaga could be great, but based on their schedule, we really don't know. Ohio State is playing well coming off a Big Ten Tournament win, but if DeShaun Thomas isn't hitting shots, the Buckeyes really struggle to score.

Then, you have that Wisconsin team I just mentioned, but they also struggle to score at times. So, the Lobos, with junior future-NBA point guard Kendall Williams and giant (6'7'') shooting guard Tony Snell, are my Final Four pick from the West.

With road wins over UConn, Cincinnati, Colorado State and Boise State, the Lobos have shown their mettle away from home, and they've won 50-45 slugfests, as well as 90-87 barn burners. They have the athleticism to keep up in a track meet, and the skill and patience to score points in the half court when the game slows down.

Seriously, have I sold you on New Mexico yet? Maybe I'm just trying to sell myself on this pick.

Toughest Region: The Midwest

So, I think it's obvious by now that the West would be my choice for weakest region, but the Midwest is every bit as tough as the West is easy. With the top overall seed in the field, Louisville, a Duke team that has been lights out since Ryan Kelly returned to the lineup, a complete Michigan State team and dangerous St. Louis rounding out the top four seeds, this region is an absolute meat grinder.

But it gets tougher with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State holding the 5 seed, an incredibly talented, though untested, Memphis team at No. 6, and tough Cincinnati and Oregon sitting at the 10 and 12 respectively. More on two of those teams after the jump.

Most Intriguing First Round Game: 5. Oklahoma State vs 12. Oregon

This first round battle in the Midwest is a doozy, pitting the Ducks' balanced scoring and superior rebounding against the Cowboys' backcourt, one of the best in the nation. This tournament is sure to be a showcase for OSU's Smart and teammate Markel Brown, but if the Ducks clog the lane like they did against UCLA in the Pac 12 championship game, this could turn into a night of long jumpshots for those two NBA-bound guards.

Add in the fact that there is ALWAYS a 12 over 5 upset, and this one is too close to call (I took Okie State).

Two Teams I Have No Idea What to Do With: Florida and Miami

I grew up in South Florida, but man do I have no idea where to put the Hurricanes. Shane Larkin and the gang had a magical year, winning the ACC regular season title outright and capturing the tournament championship. Add in Jim Larranaga's experience pushing George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, and you can see why people have the Canes going deep.

But, outside of Larkin, there isn't really a guy on this team that can create his own shot in the half court, and when games slow down in the tournament, that would seem to hamper Miami's up-tempo transition game. I could literally see this team making it to the tittle game, or flaming out in the second round if they aren't hitting shots.

Then there are the Gators who, outside of Indiana, may be the most talented team in the country. When Kenny Boynton is asserting himself, and Patric Young is using his strength down low, it's almost impossible to stop the Gators. Add in Erik Murphy's ability to stretch the floor with his shooting, and this has the feel of a championship team.

But, they just don't show up sometimes. We saw this for the first time against a pretty bad Arkansas team, but more recently in the second half of the SEC title game against a decent Ole Miss squad. The Gators could lose to a talented UCLA team in the second round, or they could ride their talent to a national title. I literally have no idea what they will do.

The Final Four: Louisville, Georgetown, Indiana, New Mexico

I've already explained my Lobos pick, but here is my rationale behind the other three.

Senior Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith have taken ownership of Louisville over the last month plus, and the Cardinals are the hottest major conference team in the country. Duke has been great since Ryan Kelly returned to the lineup against Miami at the beginning of the month, but I just don't know that they have the athletes to run with Louisville.

I actually think the one game that could trip the Cardinals up would come in the Sweet 16 against either Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, or against a great defensive and shooting St. Louis team. Heck, if Michigan State beats Duke, they would be a tough matchup for the Cardinals too.

As I said, the Midwest Region is incredibly tough, but I just think the Cardinals are so hot right now, they can emerge from this brutal bracket.

Up until a tough loss to Syracuse, Georgetown was even hotter than Louisville, and Otto Porter, their fantastic do-it-all combo wing/ forward/ whatever you want to call him, is my pick for national player of the year. Outside of Porter, the Hoyas just play great team defense, so they stop you enough to stay in every game, and guys like Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera pack enough punch to complement Porter.

The South is no cake walk either, but I basically picked Porter over Kansas freshman Ben McLemore in the Elite 8, and I think Georgetown's defense is good enough to throw off a talented, but streaky, Florida team in the Sweet 16.

For Indiana, obviously, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are a handful, but Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford need to get going in for the Hoosiers to get here. I just feel like they're too complete of a team to not rebound from a tough Big Ten Tournament loss, and I hate the fact that the 2 seed in this bracket, Miami, just doesn't have any tournament experience.

Really, I feel like I'm wimping out and making the safe pick, because even after a full season, I still don't know what to make of the Hurricanes.

So, Who Wins it All?: Louisville over Indiana

The Cardinals have won 10 in a row, and are a 5 overtime road game against Notre Dame from winning 14 in a row. They had that three game losing streak in mid to late January, but since then Rick Pintino's group has been phenomenal, particularly on the defensive end, but also in the half court on offense, both things that make for a deep tournament run.

They're also pretty balanced. While Russ Smith leads the team with over 18 points a game, they've got 4 different guys that average double figures. I guess the one thing that could concern you about them is that they're not a great outside shooting team. They have a couple pretty good 3 point shooters, but no real marksmen, so if a team basically says "we're going to crowd the lane and give you open jumpers," they could have an off night. But there's a lot to like about the Cardinals who have deep tournament experience, a great tournament coach and are peaking at the right time.

Now, I think Indiana is the most talented team in the country, but down the stretch I've seen Tom Crean get flat-out out coached by Thad Matta of Ohio State and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin. He doesn't get the most out of his players on the defensive end, other than Oladipo and defensive specialist Will Sheehey, and I hate to say it, but it seems like Zeller has gotten softer on both ends the longer he's been in Bloomington. So, this is a decision based on coaching, and I'll take Rick Pitino to get the job done.