Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pencils Down, Brackets to the Front of the Pool

No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers
20-11, 11-7 Big East

No. 12 Clemson Tigers
22-11, 9-7 ACC

East Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
12:15 p.m. EST

To kick things off, we've got two stout but flawed teams from power conferences going at it. Both play solid defense, allowing less than 65 points per game. Clemson is coming off a win over UAB on Tuesday night in Dayton while West Virginia last played on March 9, when they squandered a sizeable first-half lead to Marquette in the Big East Tournament. After Clemson's play-in win they had to fly to Florida. They didn't hit their hotel until nearly sun-up on Wednesday and are tipping off just after noontime on Thursday. If scrappy WVU guard Joe Mazzula - who got some national ink last season for playing well with a shoulder injury in the tournament - can get the Mountaineers off to a fast start then I think the physical toll of playing in the so-called "First Four" will start to show on Clemson. And even if Clemson comes in with the momentum after winning its first NCAA game in 14 years, I'd give WVU the edge down the stretch for having played in the better conference during the regular season. Moreover, Clemson's 3-7 road record doesn't give me much confidence that they're going to reel off another neutral site win under these circumstances.

Worth Mentioning: Yup, it's the 5/12 matchup that has historically produced so many upsets. I tend to think that the archetypal 5/12 matchup features an under-seeded mid-major and an over-seeded team from a power conference. That is not the case here, with an ACC and a Big East school. Nevertheless, in a bracket pool that rewards upsets it might be worth considering picking all the 12 seeds.

Point Spread: WVU -2
Over/Under: 123.5

President Obama: WVU
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Clemson
SI's Luke Winn: Clemson
Dan Shanoff: WVU
Conan O'Brien: WVU
Nate Silver/538: WVU (55%)
WWOD?: West Virginia

No. 8 Butler Bulldogs
23-9, 13-5 Horizon
No. 9 Old Dominion Monarchs
27-6, 14-4 CAA

Southeast Region
Verizon Center
Washington, D.C.
12:40 p.m. EST

Last year's Final Final darlings, Butler, came within inches of winning a national championship in 2010. I don't think that they're going to get that close this year. In fact, I will probably wager that they don't last through the weekend. With Gordon Hayward, the rangy player with the damn-near unlimited range who heaved that near-miss against Duke in the final, plying his trade before the sympathetic fans of Utah at the next level, Butler depends too much on oft-foul-troubled Matt Howard. If the fiery Howard gets into foul trouble, which seems likely against a physical and veteran Old Dominion group that rebounds relentlessly, then the Bulldogs are neutered.

Many of those aforementioned ODU rebounds come at the offensive end. This is one of my go-to stats for March. I dig offensive rebounds, and ODU was tied for second in the nation with 15.5 per game. The team's total of 511 on the season led the nation. I also tend to favor mid-major teams stacked with upper classmen. Again, ODU comes through. The Monarchs start three seniors and two juniors, with another senior playing big minutes off the bench. In their CAA conference title game win over Virginia Commonwealth (who dispatched USC last night with ease), ODU only had two minutes played by a sophomore, without a freshman touching the floor.

Worth Mentioning: Both teams are hot, having each won 9 games on the trot so I expect a tight game and would only be surprised if one team managed to rout the other.

Point Spread: ODU -2
Over/Under: 122.5

President Obama: Butler
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: ODU
SI's Seth Davis: ODU
Slam Magazine: ODU
USA Today's Tim Gardner: ODU
David Letterman: Butler

No. 4 Louisville Cardinals
25-9, 12-6 Big East
No. 11 Morehead State Eagles
24-9, 13-5 OVC

Southwest Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
1:40 p.m. EST

The first non rec league basketball team that I saw play a lot in person was Rick Pitino's running and pressing Knickerbockers of the late 1980s. It was back before the white suits, back when Patrick Ewing was a spry seven-foot dynamo and Mark Jackson was a savvy and surly youngster wearing a gold chain on the fast break. It was a fun team to root for (even if that style killed Ewing's knees), and I've rooted for Pitino's college teams ever since. They run, they press and they try to win the game aggressively. WWOD? approves.

But, I'm not picking rooting for Pitino's Cards in their opening game. I'm going with the nation's leading rebounder Kenneth Faried of Morehead State. This wild-haired and loose-limbed leaper pulls down 14.5 boards per game and 5.7 of those come on the offensive glass. Thanks to a rough-and-tumble upbringing and a mother with failing kidneys, Faried has been the subject of human interest stories by every credentialed college columnist. Aside from being a heckuva story, he's a preternaturally gifted athlete with a motor that won't stop. Projected a a Dennis Rodman-type at the NBA level, I would love it if the Knicks were able to draft this perpetual motion rebounding machine late in the first round come June.

Worth Mentioning: Louisville has only two players who averaged more than 5 rebounds per game this season and neither of them grab better than 6.1 per contest. Faried could and should run amok on the glass. He averages more offensive boards per game than all but one of L'ville's players average total boards per game.

Point Spread: Louisville -9.5
Over/Under: 131

President Obama: Louisville
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Louisville
SI's Seth Davis: Louisville
Special K of the Harlem Globetrotters: Louisville
Nate Silver/538: Louisville (81%)
David Letterman: Louisville
WWOD?: My heart says Morehead State (while my head agrees with everyone else), especially if I'm getting the points.

No. 7 Temple Owls
25-7, 14-2 A-10
No. 10 Penn St. Nittany Lions
19-14, 9-9 Big Ten

West Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
2:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Temple -2.5
Over/Under: 121.5

Prominent among my many annual bracket biases is a distrust of the Big Ten. I understand that Ohio State is the highest rated of the No. 1 seeds, but I don't believe that a rising Buckeye tide lifts all Big Ten boats. In terms of building a bracket, I don't see either of these teams giving San Diego State a problem in the next round so I'm not overly invested with this one either way.

Worth Mentioning: Penn State twice beat a ranked Wisconsin squad, along with wins over ranked Illinois and Michigan State.

President Obama: Temple
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Temple
SI's Seth Davis: Temple
David Letterman: Penn St.
Nate Silver/538:Temple (55%)
WWOD?: Temple

No. 4 University of Kentucky Wildcatts
25-8, 10-6 SEC
No. 14 Princeton Tigers
25-6, 12-2 Ivy

East Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
2:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Kentucky -13.5
Over/Under: 131

Princeton edged Harvard on the below buzzer-beating basket just to reach this game. It took everything they had to beat Harvard, who just got walloped in the opening round of the NIT by Oklahoma State.

I think most hoops watchers out there would be awfully surprised if the Ivy League school added another highlight to its year-end tape. Even without John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins, this Kentucky team managed to win the SEC Conference Tournament last week. Like any Calipari-recruited team, they've got talent for miles and a lack of poise and scheme for days. As much as I'd like for brains triumph over braun, I'm going to side with the athletes.

Worth Mentioning: This is a senior-laden Princeton squad that isn't going to give up no matter how far they fall behind. I could see a back-door cover against a younger 'cats group that might let their guard down if they seem to have the game in hand.

President Obama: Kentucky
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Kentucky
SI's Luke Winn: Kentucky
Conan O'Brien: Kentucky
Nate Silver/538: Kentucky (88%)
WWOD?: Kentucky

No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers
27-5, 15-3 Big East
No. 16 UNC-Asheville Bulldogs
20-13, 11-7 Big South

Southeast Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
3:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Pitt -18
Over/Under: 135

Considering that UNC-Asheville sells itself as the public liberal arts school of North Carolina, I'd like to think that, win or lose, the world will be richer some riveting narrative accounts of the Bulldogs' journey into the NCAA tournament. Thinking as an editor, I'd suggest that the book would open with the delirious high of Matt Dickey's ridiculous buzzer beater against Coastal Carolina.

Beginnings, though, are the easy part. For this story to have a memorable ending rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition, Asheville probably needs to be absolutely pasted by Pitt. Perhaps Dickey will blind himself with lime like Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Now that would cause a stir.

President Obama: Pitt
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Pitt
SI's Luke Winn: Pitt
David Letterman: Pitt
Nate Silver/538: Pitt (97%)
WWOD?: Pitt

No. 5 Vanderbilt Commodores
23-10, 9-7 SEC
No. 12 Richmond Spiders
27-7, 13-3 A-10

Southwest Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
4:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Vandy -3
Over/Under: 135

Unlike the West Virginia-Clemson contest, this game is your classic 5/12 matchup. In Vandy, you’ve got a middling team from a power conference that no one really thinks can do much. Yeah, the Commodores played a solid schedule and have accrued a few signature wins (over UNC, Kentucky, St. Mary’s and Belmont), but nobody is sold, least of all the President of the United States.

On the other side of the ledger, you’ve got the Richmond Spiders, a potentially under-seeded squad with 27 wins out of the Atlantic 10. The Spiders can fill it up at better than 70 points per game and word on the street is that Vandy's defense is Knickerbockerian. If you recall, the Spiders were outsed last year by Omar Samhan and St. Mary’s after earning a No. 7 seed. They had one less regular-season win last year than they’ve got this season. I'd imagine that they're more comfortable in the underdog role here whereas I don't know if Vanderbilt can see itself as a Goliath. A marquee win against Purdue early in the season proves the Spiders have got the minerals for an upset here.

President Obama: Richmond
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Richmond
Dan Shanoff: Richmond
SI's Andy Glockner: Richmond
Nate Silver/538: Vanderbilt (59%)
WWOD?: I'm afraid of Spiders. Also, Richmond with the points.

No. 2 San Diego State Aztecs
32-2, 14-2 MWC
No. 15 Northern Colorado Bears
21-10, 13-3 Big Sky

West Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
4:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: SD State -15.5

I have purchased tickets for the night when the Steve Fisher Redemption Tour stops in my town. The former Fab Five coach, Fisher has the Aztecs bringing it every night, and they have an average margin of victory of 13.3 points per game this season. Their only losses of the season came to BYU, who they later beat in the conference tournament. And, last I checked (which happened just once a few minutes ago), the University of Northern Colorado is not a Mormon school. In other words, no Jimmer.

President Obama: SD State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: SD State
David Letterman: SD State
SI's Luke Winn: SD State
Nate Silver/538: SD State (93%)
WWOD?: Aztecs

No. 2 Florida Gators
26-7, 13-3 SEC
No. 15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
18-13, 8-8 Big West

Southeast Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
6:50 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Florida -13
Over/Under: 128

Without any must-see team in the SEC this season, I didn't see very much of Florida ths year. I'm aware the Gators won the SEC regular-season title and that they looked good heading into halftime at the SEC Tourney Final (before Kentucky ran away from them). I also know that gifted 6-foot-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons leads the team in rebounding (11.5) and assists (3.5). That second fact, particularly, impresses me. I know that guard play is huge in the Dance, but Bigs who can board and dime are rare.

Like I said, I may not know much about Florida, but I do know that everything that I do know about them is far more impressive than playing .500 ball in the Big West Conference like the Gauchos did during the regular season.

Worth mentioning: The Gauchos won the Big West Tournament to earn this bid by beating teams that had swept them during the regular season. Perhaps they've caught lightning in a bottle. Not necesarily enough lightning to strike down a No. 2 seed, but perhaps enough to cover the Vegas point spread.

President Obama: Florida
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Florida
SI's Seth Davis: Florida
Nate Silver/538: Florida (95%)
WWOD?: Gators

No. 4 Brigham Young Cougars
30-4, 14-2 MWC
No. 14 Wofford Terriers
21-12, 14-4 Southern

Southeast Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
7:15 p.m. EST

Point Spread: BYU -8.5
Over/Under: 147

Without forward Brandon Davies, who was kicked out of school for violating the honor code by having consensual intercourse with his girlfriend, there is no pretending that BYU is anything but a one-man band. They are arguably the most vulnerable favored team in the tournament because if all-world guard Jimmer Freddette rolls an ankle or gets in foul trouble then this team is cooked. Well, I'm sure that the Cougars are more worried about the ankle because Jimmer takes the same view on defense as his school's administrators do on premarital sex. That being said, as a one-man band this dude is about as effective as Trent Reznor. He can do it all.

On the other hand ...

President Obama: BYU
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: BYU
SI's Tim Layden: BYU
Nate Silver/538: BYU (86%)
WWOD?: Jimmer

No. 2 UConn Huskies
26-9, 9-9 Big East
No. 15 Bucknell Bisons
25-8, 13-1 Patriot

West Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
7:20 p.m. EST

Point Spread: UConn -10.5
Over/Under: 132

The concern that everyone has about Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies is their fatigue after running the gauntlet of the Big East Tournament with five wins in five nights. I share that concern. But I don't think it applies to this game because these guys haven't played in a few days. Maybe it catches up with them on Saturday or next weekend. But I think today they need to be more concerned with coach Calhoun's celebratory antics. That guy is a danger to himself and those around him.

President Obama: UConn
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: UConn
Conan O'Brien: UConn
Nate Silver/538: UConn (81%)
WWOD?: Kemba

No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers
23-8, 13-5 Big Ten
No. 13 Belmont Bruins
30-4, 19-1 A-Sun

Southeast Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
7:27 p.m. EST

Point Spread: 5
Over/Under: 126

I played on a university soccer team while studying abroad in England. Our team was the Badgers. We had a Welsh graduate student named Gareth on the roster. He was a sort a den mother, who was more useful off the pitch when it came to arranging train schedules and drink meet-ups, then he was in action against UCL. Still, he was very proud of his affiliation with the team and is surely playing on the old boys side in a London park every weekend. Aside from being very pleasant company, he was full of knowledge about our animal namesake. From him, I learned just how fierce a badger can be. I leanerd that the way a badger's jaw is constructed makes it impossible for any prey to unclamp it. Once a badger has it's teeth sunk in, you're surrendering whatever appendage that it's got before it unhinges that jaw.

Now, I don't think that these Wisconsin badgers are particularly fierce. Their power is more in their conservative consistency than in any sudden ferocity. In this way, they're sort of like Gareth. To their credit, they did beat Ohio State. The Bruins, meanwhile don't seem to have a win over a ranked team in their deceptive total of 30.

President Obama: Wisconsin
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Belmont
SI's Seth Mandel: Belmont
Nate Silver/538: Wisconsin (81%)
WWOD?: Fear the Badgers

No. 7 UCLA Bruins
22-10, 13-5 Pac 10
No. 11 Michigan State Spartans
19-14, 9-9 Big Ten

Southeast Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
9:20 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Michigan State -1.5
Over/Under: 125

What an odd spot for these two teams to meet. And, no, I don't mean Tampa. I mean, the first round. For the better part of a decade, these two clubs wouldn't likely meet until the second weekend at the earliest in the NCAA tourney. Yet after up-and-down-and-down-again years, here we are. Tom Izzo and Ben Howland coaching against one another in the (real) opening round. Although I historically bet Izzo, I'm more impressed by UCLA's recent win over Arizona and their not-so recent almost-win over Kansas. In the Bruins' last game (loss to Oregon) in the Pac-10 tourney, they started two sophomores, a freshman and two juniors while getting big minutes off the bench from two freshman and a junior. Perhaps these Bruins Kids are finding their stride at the right time. If they're not awestruck by the moment then I trust Howland to keep them disciplined enough on defense to win this game. If not, I'll return to betting on Izzo next year.

President Obama: Michigan State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Michigan State
SI's Andy Staples: Michigan State
Bill Simmons/Joe House: Michigan State
Nate Silver/538: Michigan State (67%)

No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats
25-8, 11-7 Big East
No. 11 Missouri Tigers
22-10, 8-8 Big 12

West Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
9:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Pick
Over/Under: 137.5

Cincinnati is on the upswing. No doubt about it. They've improved their win total in each of the last four seasons and more than held their own in the best conference in the country this season, but I just don't think they're ready for the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" style that Missouri is going to run at them. Mizzou is one of those athletic up-tempo teams that provides a bad mismatch for so many consistently solid but physically unspectacular teams. Missouri averages 81.4 points per game whereas Cincinnati gives up just 59.2. Something's got to give. I'm going to guess it's Cincy's poise when the scoreboard starts looking like a slot machine.

President Obama: Cincinnati
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Cincinnati
Conan O'Brien: Cinncinnati
SI's Luke Winn: Cincinnati
Bill Simmons/Joe House: Missouri
Nate Silver/538: Cincinnati (51%)
WWOD?: Missouri

No. 6 St. John's Red Storm
21-11, 12-6 Big East
No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs
24-9, 11-3 WCC

Southeast Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
9:55 p.m. EST

Point Spread: St. John's -1.5
Over/Under: 135

From January 30th through February 26, the Johnnies toppled Duke, UConn, Pitt and Villanova. It was February Fanaticism at Madison Square Garden. Not since the days of Ron Artest, had the Storm been getting as much pub in the Big Apple. Steve Lavin was getting massive ovations while in stands at Knicks games, and his team came into the Big East Tournament looking to serve notice to leaguemates, like Syracuse, that the World's Most Famous Arena belonged them. The Johnnies squeaked by Rutgers in their first game before getting matched with 'Cuse. Which is when senior SJU swingman D.J. Kennedy tore the ACL in his right knee. Without him for most of the game, St. John's lost.

Not only do I think the Johnnies peaked too early, but I think that they will sorely miss Kennedy and their home court. This game is being played in Denver and might as well be a home game for the Zags. Note: SJU was 5-7 on the road this year. As someone who wil be rooting for them, I'd like to think that playing what is essentially a road game with all the pundits picking against them will take them back to that us-and-them mentality they had when third-ranked Duke came calling on Feb. 26.

President Obama: Gonzaga
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Gonzaga
Snoop Dog: Gonzaga
SI's Luke Winn: Gonzaga
Nate Silver/538: Gonzaga (66%)
WWOD?: Zags (in a Tom Jackson-taking-the-Pats fashion)

No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats
22-10, 10-6 Big 12
No. 12 Utah State Aggies
30-3, 15-1 WAC

Southeast Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
10:05 p.m. EST

Point Spread: K-State -2.5
Over/Under: 129

Last season, we all thrilled to that enervating double-overtime K-State-Xavier game when Jacob Pullen battled Jordan Crawford. Although there were enough clutch shots for an addendum to the "Shining Moment" montage in that game, it was Pullen's three that propelled the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. He was epic. And he's still on the team.

Which is the only reason that I'm not wagering next month's rent on the Aggies. Under towering, paunchy and bespectacled Stew Morrill, Utah State has 87 wins in the last three years. Morrill's boys will run their disciplined offense, moving the ball the way I wished the Knicks would. They'll use the shot clock and they'll feed the rock to Tail Wesley in the post. On defense, they'll be conservative, they'll pack it in and clear the boards. They'll do what they normally do because Morrill has these guys drilled to perform in their sleep. And, it will all go to plan as long as Pullen don't explode past the Aggies on the break like they've got the howls of Frank Martin at their heels. Oh, wait.

President Obama: Kansas State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Utah State
Dick Vitale: Kansas State
SI's Luke Winn: Kansas State
Nate Silver/538: Kansas State (57%)
WWOD?: Aggies

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Not only is it St. Patrick's Day but it's also the (real) opening day of the NCAA Hoops Tournament. It's the Las Vegas Leap Year. Get your brackets in by noon.