No. 9 Wake Forrest Demon Deacons (19-10, ACC)
No. 8 Texas Longhorns (24-9, Big 12)
9:45 P.M. EST
New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, LA
A few months ago when Texas was firing on all cylinders, they were the No. 1 team in all the land. They opened the season 17-0. They had national title aspirations. And the talent to fulfill them. But at some point, the wheels came off Rick Barnes' wagon. Conference opponents pulled down the 'horns. Big 12 teams put the clamps on senior center Dexter Pittman, who had been dominant during the team's hot start, and his teammates couldn't make them pay. Seemingly shellshocked by being back in competitive games, the Longhorns scuffled to 7-9 mark after their hot start.
Just like Texas, Dino Gaudio's Wake Forrest squad hasn't been playing well lately. The Demon Deacons were mauled by lowly Miami last week in the ACC Tournament. They have been painted with same underachiever brush as Texas. But, I don't see these teams as being two sides of a coin. Barnes is a proven coach and his team was a title contender at some point. They've got upperclassmen that are established and freshman wit NBA talent. If one of those frosh can step up and help out Pittman then Texas could go far. Then Texas could beat Kentucky. I can't say the same about Wake.
And when faced with a choice between lesser evils when filling out your bracket you should always go with the team that you think might be able to stick around longer.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: Texas
SI's Seth Davis: Texas
President Obama: Texas
No. 11 San Diego State Aztecs (25-8, MWC)
No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers (25-8, SEC)
9:55 P.M. EST
Dunkin Donuts Center, Providence, RI
Having beaten Kentucky and Kansas this season, Bruce Pearl's Volunteers boast arguably the two best wins of the season. But they also seem to have mailed in several other games on the schedule, losing to Vandy by 19 and Georgia by 15. I'd like to think that Pearl and his players will approach this game more like a tilt with Kentucky than like a non-conference game against USC (which they lost by 22 in December).
The Aztecs just won the Mountain West Conference Tournament by knocking off New Mexico and UNLV. They're long and rebound the ball, ranking 14th in the nation in rebounding margin. With senior big man Wayne Chism standing just 6-9, the Vols don't rebound well, ranking 169th.
No matter how much I like Pearl coming back to the Northeast (he's a BC grad), the Aztecs rebounding edge makes this a pick 'em for me. I'll advance both teams in various brackets.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: SDSU
SI's Seth Davis: SDSU
President Obama: Tennessee
WWOD?: Tennessee (I'll be rooting for Tennessee with my heart but not my wallet).
No. 16 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (22-10, Patriot)
No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (32-2, Big 12)
9:55 P.M. EST
Ford Center, Oklahoma City, OK
Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk!
EVERYONE: Kansas (but not to cover 25.5)
No. 14 Montana Grizzies (22-9, Big Sky)
No. 3 New Mexico Lobos (29-4, Mountain West)
10:35 P.M. EST
HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA
One of the most covered players of the past week was Montana's Anthony Johnson. The senior guard transferred from a nearby juco a few years back and has blossomed into a superstar. He dropped 42 on Weber State in the Final of the Big Sky Conference Tournament to punch his team's ticket to San Jose. 21 of those points came consecutively. To end the game. Which was a 66-65 win.
And if Johnson's scoring talent wasn't noteworthy enough, his backstory has drama to spare. The Tacoma, Washington native was out of school and out of the game not that long ago. His girlfriend dragged him back to both and eventually transferred with him to Montana from junior college as a package deal. She plays for the Lady Grizzlies.
As nice as it is that Johnson has totally turned his life around in just a few years time, I think the heartwarming aspect of his journey and the shocking way that his club reached the tournament (because they weren't getting an invite if they lose to Weber State) has raised their profile to an unjustified degree. Add that to the fact that the favorite they're playing hails from Albuquerque and not Tobacco Road and you've got a lot of people thinking upset.
I am not one of those people. The Lobos play their home game in a building called The Pitt. They have better than an .800 winning percentage at home because this venue is one of the toughest around. When you walk in the doors you are at the level of the "highest" seats in the building. You will only walk down to your seats. The playing surface is sunk well below street level and the nearly 15,000 fans hover over and around court. The ceiling lays flat just above the top row of seats. The place is like an aquarium. Filled with noise. Any team that plays half their games in that building is ready for the atmosphere of the tournament.
Chad Millman is ESPN.com's gambling guru. You'd know this if you ponied up for an Insider account. Or if you googled "ESPN Insider password" until you found one. Which you can. Trust me. But I digress, Millman appears on Bill Simmons' podcast all the time and his very existence at the Worldwide Leader shows how much sway the Sports Fellas as over there. A fixture of Millman's work is a mysterious person known as Teddy Covers. We're told that he's the best handicapper in Vegas. Here's what Mr. Covers had to say about the game:
New Mexico is really good; it deserves to be a 3-seed. Montana is a "live" dog, though. It has size and good D and a superstar in Anthony Johnson. It has the makings of a 'dog that can hang around. If I'm betting that one, I like the 'dog, but I'm taking New Mexico to advance.
Ditto. I think New Mexico is here to stay and that they'll hit their stride once/if they're playing against Goliaths from BCS Conferences. This one will be tight but I don't think Johnson will come close to duplicating his efforts. I'm thinking about last year when Dionte Christmas of Temple came into the tourney hyped for a huge performance but couldn't keep alive the magic from the conference tournament.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi: New Mexico
SI's Seth Davis: New Mexico
President Obama: New Mexico
WWOD?: New Mexico