The complete decimation of the Big East Conference has been the dominant story-line; aside from the Butler/Pitt finish, in college basketball for the last few days. Thankfully, we get back to making NEW storylines with the action on the court starting Thursday night.
The Round of 16 is where the contenders and pretenders start to separate. How many times over the last decade have seen the plucky, upstart double-digit seed who thrilled the nation in the opening weekend come thudding back to Earth with a heavy dose of reality on Thursday and Friday? This year, at least ONE such team will enjoy a more pleasant fate; Florida State and Virginia Commonwealth facing off ensure we will have a double-digit seed in the regional finals for the first time since Davidson and Steph Curry back in 2008.
While San Diego State and BYU might be good seeds in the tournament, it’s hard to escape the Cinderella-esque “mid-major” quality both bring to the table. Two schools from the Mountain West take on schools that have won multiple national championships in the last ten years. Could finally be the year a school from a non-BCS conference breaks through and wins the whole thing? We’ll find out a lot more about that possibility after Thursday night…
TODAY’S FREE NCAA TOURNEY PICKS FOR ALL FOUR SWEET SIXTEEN GAMES:
#3 BYU v. #2 Florida -3.5
Can BYU “Jimmer” the Gators? I can’t see any reason why not. Unlike San Diego State and UCLA, who have each beaten BYU, the Gators don’t have much size or length in their backcourt. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Chandler Parsons, who couldn’t guard Fredette with a pistol and a ski mask, Jimmer actually has a size and strength advantage over the Gator guards.
Does Florida have the discipline to continue to force Fredette high off ball screens, and clutch and grab him enough as he weaves through a maze of baseline screens on the rare occasion he is not ball-in-hand thirty feet out? Are Kenny Boynton and the diminutive Erving Walker strong enough to keep Jimmer from scoring literally right through them? I’m not sure the answer to either question is “yes.”
Florida’s discernable advantage is their size and their potential to dominant the glass with their athletic bigs. However, don’t forget that is the exact same advantage that swindled Vegas into making Gonzaga a 1 ½ point favorite over BYU in Round Two. I feel confident BYU can have the exact same success against the Gators Thursday night, and am picking Jimmer to continue his Steph Curry-like dash to the Elite Eight.
FREE PICK: BYU+3.5
#3 Connecticut -1.5 v. #2 San Diego State
UConn won the Maui Invitational, knocking off Kentucky and Michigan State back in November. They steamrolled through five ranked Big East opponents in five days to win the Big East Conference title. They breezed through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in as impressive a fashion as anyone outside of Ohio State.
Despite all that, San Diego State is still a one-point favorite over the Huskies. That’s the first sign that SDSU is a really, really good team. The casual bettor money will pour in on the side of the Huskies and Kemba Walker, but I have to agree with Vegas; there is something special going on in San Diego.
The Aztecs are one of the few teams in the country that has the athletes and team defensive mentality to corral Kemba Walker effectively. DJ Gay is a phenomenal on-ball defender at the point guard position, and will be able to cover Walker without help for stretches of play. That is HUGE, as it allows Billy White and Kawhi Leonard to stay home and control the paint.
One thing that was evident in the middle of the season when UConn was seemingly getting beaten by everyone en route to their ninth place Big East finish was that when Walker gets flustered, rather than sulking, he shoots MORE. Like, a LOT more. He has a lot of Allen Iverson in his game; devastating quickness that can take over a ballgame, along with a volume shooting mentality that can shoot his team right out of it.
I think SDSU corrals and frustrates Kemba enough to let him shoot them out of the tournament.
FREE PICK: San Diego State +1.5 (changed from -1 since article was written)
#5 Arizona v. #1 Duke -9
Kyrie Irving may not quite be ALL the way back, but he was healthy enough to be on the floor at crunch time for the Dukies in their Round Two escape over Michigan. Oh, and he made the game-winning basket on a spectacular driving bank shot too. So there’s that…
Duke is the best perimeter team in the tournament, both offensively and defensively. Assuming Kyrie has utilized the last five days to get his hurt toe some rest, the defensive and offensive creativity a lineup with he, Nolan Smith, Dawkins/Curry, Singler and a Plumlee gives Duke is tremendous. It reminds you quickly of why lots and lots of “us” thought they had a real chance to be the first team to go undefeated since Indiana’s 1975-76 squad.
Arizona knocked off Texas in the game that would have been the buzz of the weekend, if not for the simply you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it Butler/Pitt epic finish. Arizona does bring an interesting wildcard to this matchup in Derrick Williams. Williams is the best interior player left in the tournament, and yes, I’m including Jared Sullinger and Marcus Morris of Kansas.
However, as unbelievable as Williams has been on both ends of the floor (he’s won two games on buzzer beating blocked shots), one of Duke’s strengths is the athleticism and interior defense and rebounding of the Plumlee brothers (not to mention their ten combined fouls to spend).
I think Duke’s backcourt will be the difference, and they will earn the win…BUT, nine is a lot of points to lay in the NCAA Tournament, where anything can, and often does, happen, especially after watching them narrowly escape Michigan on Sunday.
FREE PICK: Arizona +9
#8 Butler v. #4 Wisconsin -4.5
They’re ba-ack… Remember a few months ago when we were talking about Butler needing to win the Horizon League Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tourney? It wasn’t out of line back then, at 8-5 in conference with losses to Valpo, Milwaukee and Green Bay.
Those days seem miles in the rear-view mirror now that Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and company are back in their vintage 2010 Final Four form. Their win over Pitt was the so-far signature moment of the 2011 tourney, and the Bulldogs hope to continue the magic Thursday night against Wisconsin.
It will be a tall task. Literally. A TALL task. Wisconsin is absolutely huge, and they further complicate things for the defense when they spread the floor with a seemingly endless supply of guys over 6’10’’ who can shoot threes with deadly accuracy. John Lueur is an All-Big Ten player, and Nankoville and Bruzowitcz give them two more mountainous sharp-shooters.
Despite the size of Wisconsin and Butler’s Matt Howard, the key match-up to this game is exactly where seemingly every game this March has been won; the point. It doesn’t get much better than Shelvin Mack and Jordan Taylor. Both are very physically strong guards, with equally formidable mental toughness. Both have an uncanny ability to come up big in the biggest moments. And both are incredibly reliable and steady with the ball, rarely turning it over.
In the end, as much as my heart leans Butler, my rational head screams Wisconsin. Wisconsin simply has more scoring options, and to expect Shelvin Mack to duplicate the game he had against Pittsburgh might be asking a little too much.
FREE PICK: Wisconsin -4.5