CRAWFORD | Sixty-four thoughts on March Madness, Part I
ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) -- Sixty-four thoughts on March Madness, 2014. (Yeah, I know, there are 68 teams. I can't quite embrace the first-four concept):
1. I sat down to fill out my bracket for the WDRB website, and as the last to do so, took a look at the brackets of my colleagues. All of them had Louisville in the NCAA championship game for a second straight season. It could happen. Or, perhaps, they are all invertebrate homers. But I don't think so. Nobody is playing better. As I watched the TV shows, I soon learned that U of L is a darling not only of many computer models of the tournament, but of the wise guys in Las Vegas. So there's that. Still, I have this nagging notion that people are forgetting the bloodbath that the Wichita State game was last season. Somebody needs to show Wichita some respect. Maybe that someone will be me. I put Wichita State through on the bracket I filled out for the first look on WDRB. But when push comes to shove, I don't know if I really believe someone is going to beat Rick Pitino in the Sweet 16, where he has never lost. I hate filling out brackets. Still working on that one.
2. As I type this, a dispatch comes through from the Wynn sports book saying U of L would be favored against every team in the field.
3. The four seed for U of L, as referenced by just about everyone, was an injustice. I had the Cards as a three seed. I would not have made the Cards a No. 2 seed over Michigan, Wisconsin or Kansas. But over Villanova? Maybe.
4. It seems the credibility of the old Big East Conference stayed with the name. The aforementioned Villanova has a lot going for it. But I can't get on board. In fact, I'm so off board that I think UConn and Shabazz Napier may derail the Wildcats in the first weekend.
5. Speaking of Wildcats, after the University of Kentucky stops smarting from its No. 8 seed, it should realize that it got a manageable opening-round draw. UK should roll Kansas State, which is a tough team, but one that will have its own problems with UK's size.
6. Whether UK will be able to handle unbeaten Wichita State is another story. It will have this going for it: UK will be the best team Wichita State has seen this season, and unlike any team the Shockers have seen the past two seasons, most likely. But Wichita State is everything that has given UK problems this season. It plays lock-down defense that simply does not allow drives into the paint. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith couldn't get good looks in the lane against Wichita State last season. I don't see how the Harrison twins are going to do it this year. You have to be able to make threes. UK can, but on that stage, it's going to be difficult. If Wichita State gets past Kentucky, I think it is cemented to make a little run. But if I'm Kentucky, I like my position from this standpoint -- you're the first big-name to get the Shockers. Maybe there's some, well, shock value to that. Maybe you can jump on them early and get them thinking. But I doubt it.
7. This UK-U of L collision course in the tournament is old. First, UK deserved the No. 6 seed that UMass got over in the other half of the bracket, and Tennessee deserved the eight seed that UK got.
8. If the committee wanted a good intra-state rivalry storyline, it could easily have placed Kansas as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest and put Michigan in the South opposite Florida. Wichita State and Kansas don't play. It would be the Kansas version of the Dream Game, if it happened.
9. I like Baylor over Creighton and Oregon over Wisconsin. You probably shouldn't listen to me.
10. Originally, I liked Cincinnati over Michigan State, but I just couldn't talk myself into Mick Cronin beating Tom Izzo in a game that big.
11. Duke lost to Virginia in the ACC title game, but I think the Blue Devils are sitting on a run. Jabari Parker keeps coming on.
12. Something about the way Florida finished the SEC championship game makes me doubt the Gators a little. They flat blew two front ends of a bonus with a one-point lead. UK was poised to win that game. Would everyone be as high on Florida if UK had gotten a shot up and beaten the Gators? I don't think so. It could be they were tired after three games in three days. Certainly, nobody plays its best in a conference tournament championship game. They're always a little ragged. I would agree that they are the team in the field that most resembles Louisville last season. But they could well face a team that plays their style in VCU early on, and in either Kansas or Syracuse would face their athletic match with players just as dynamic. Florida is experienced and hard-nosed. I just get the feeling that it may have peaked.
13. I do believe in Virginia. They defend. They have an outstanding coach. And they've just pummeled teams -- and good ones. I have them getting through because I see upsets in their bracket. If those don't happen, I could be wrong.
14. I have Providence over North Carolina in a 6-11 upset. It'd be a perfect North Carolina thing to do. Also, a stat: Providence is the best free-throw shooting team in the NCAA field at 78.1 percent. North Carolina is the worst at 62.5 percent. I also have Tennessee getting through over UMass. I told you. Do. Not. Listen.
15. Does it seem strange to you that we're not all talking about a potential UK-U of L rematch more than we are? It could happen. It's not at all outside the realm of possibility. And right up the road in Indianapolis. What if you had UK, U of L, Duke and Michigan all in Lucas Oil Stadium? The past two national champions, last year's national finalist, and Duke. How extraordinary would that be? I remember writing the same words about a possible UK-U of L Final Four matchup two years ago. We can all hope.
16. Nate Silver of ESPN also picks U of L to win it all. I'm a big Nate Silver believer. He was on the same NCAA mock bracket session that I sat in on a few years back. He correctly called every state in the last presidential election. But basketball isn't politics.
17. Again, when everybody starts to think one way, I feel uneasy with it. Of course, everybody said Louisville was going to win it last year, and look how that worked out.
18. I'm tired of the phrase "the eye test."
19. I'm also tired of the phrase "body of work."
20. You know who has a body of work? Russ Smith. I know Doug McDermott of Creighton is going to be the national player of the year. I know he's scored all those points. Smith has scored a lot of points, too. And dished out a lot of steals. You know the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden that McDermott's team lost last weekend, Smith has won that [stuff] like a hundred times. He's going after a third straight Final Four. He's scored 196 points in the NCAA Tournament. He has the numbers -- and some hardware.
21. Here's an interesting little Kentucky-Louisville tidbit. In U of L's media notes, John Calipari is credited with 29 NCAA Tournament wins, with an asterisk denoting "records adjusted for vacated games." UK's media notes list "On-court records" and credits Calipari with an NCAA Tournament record of 38-13.
22. UK has only two player who has played in an NCAA Tournament game. Jarod Polson and Jon Hood. (Thanks to Twitter follower Austin Miller who reminded me about Hood playing against Wake forest in 2010!)
23. If UK and U of L meet, it would be the sixth time they've squared off in the NCAA Tournament. Only two matchups then would have happened more often: San Francisco vs. UCLA (seven times) and UK vs. Marquette (10 times.) Four other tourney matchups have happened six times (Kansas-North Carolina, UK-Ohio State, UK-Utah and North Carolina-Villanova).
24. With its 40th NCAA appearance, U of L joins a rather exclusive club. Only Kentucky (52), North Carolina (44), UCLA (43) and Kansas (42) have as many as 40. (UK's and UCLA's totals have been adjusted to reflect vacated appearances).
25. I'd like to see the NCAA move its Division II model to Division I. That is, I'd like the Elite Eight to meet at a single site and play the championship down from there. Why? Because I think the Elite Eight is an accomplishment, and it would seem more special if you moved them all to one major event, put more of a spotlight on those eight schools, instead of the four that get through. Won't happen, I know. But I like the idea.
26. Everybody's asking about "my bracket." Confession: I don't care much for the whole bracket filling out thing. For several years, I didn't do it. But you have to do it, right? I mean, to be an American and all that. The problem I have with it is this whole predictive expectation of the news. Nobody wants to know what happened. They want to know what's going to happen. But I don't know what's going to happen. The beauty of it is that we don't know. The beauty of this tournament, and what makes it special, isn't the bracket. It's Tim Henderson coming out of nowhere to make two big threes to change a game. Or Spike Albrecht coming out of nowhere to score 16 points in the first half of the championship game. There are stories all over this tournament. Sometimes they get lost in the bracket. So I'm thrilled when the tournament starts, and we can turn to them.
27. Good example on the tournament's first night: Chris Mack of Xavier. His family survived a crash with a drunk driver. He got up at his tournament press conference and talked all about the game, but then he said this, "To put it into perspective, seven days ago I got a knock on my door from a neighbor who said my wife was in an auto accident. It was an eighth of a mile from my house. I got to the scene. The car went to the other side of the double-yellow, hit my wife head-on. A drunk driver blew a .25 with my kids in the car. I'm as excited as it gets to be in the NCAA Tournament. And ... uh -- whew -- that was really, really hard." Xavier lost to N.C. State last night. But Mack, he'll be all right.
28. And N.C. State could play Louisville. If it gets past Saint Louis. If you're Louisville, that would be fine. N.C. State boasts the ACC player of the year, but Saint Louis has five senior starters and plays a deliberate style that can be frustrating for teams like the Cardinals, though they are more comfortable with that after years in the Big East.
29. A billion dollar bracket? Well, if there were a billion dollars on the line, and you could have any coach in the Sweet Sixteen who would you take?
30. I'd take Rick Pitino. Two years ago, he had a four seed go up against Michigan State as a 1 seed in the Sweet Sixteen. Won by 13. He's 11-0 in the Sweet 16, with an average winning margin of around 20 points. So, I guess, if you're going to put a billion on the line, cancel my pick of Wichita State in the Sweet 16. He may or may not get back to the Final Four, but I don't think he's losing that game.
31. Louisville, by the way, has been the betting favorite in every game this season. A lot of that, of course, is a function of schedule. Still, its average favored margin is 14.6 points, and it has covered 19 times in spite of that.
32. I'm not hearing much talk about Kentucky. Which is a great thing for Kentucky. The youngest team in the field has advanced to the title game in each of the past two years. Have you heard Kentucky is young?
MORE TO COME IN PART 2, LATER TODAY . . .
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