It seems like only yesterday that North Carolina and Michigan State tipped off the season on the USS Carl Vinson. The four months of basketball that followed now seem like a blur. If you thought the regular season went by fast, just wait for the next three weeks.
The NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, bar none. When CBS fires up its theme music and Greg Gumbel greets the millions of us all skipping the more “important” duties of our lives to tune in at noon on Thursday, I get goose bumps every time. As we prepare for the 2012 edition of the big dance, it is sure to be as dramatic and memorable as ever. I can’t wait.
Here’s the first of four regional installments in my NCAA Tournament preview. Read at your own discretion.
Top Seed: Kentucky
The selection committee did the Wildcats no favors by placing several potential landmines in their path to a Final Four. A possible second-round match-up with a loaded but disappointing Connecticut team will quickly put the overall No. 1 seed to the test. The Huskies are one of very few teams who can match the Wildcats talent and size inside. Anthony Davis is the future No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but he’ll go up against Andre Drummond, who many believe will be picked immediately after Davis.
The Huskies lost nine of 12 games during one stretch late in the season, but that was when Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun was absent for medical reasons. Calhoun’s back on the sideline, and Connecticut won two games in the Big East Tournament before losing by just three points to Syracuse. This is the most dangerous Round-of-32 game possible for Kentucky.
The Wildcats boast five, if not six, future NBA first round picks. Davis is the unquestioned star, averaging a team-high 14.3 points, 10 rebounds and 4.6 blocks. Terrence Jones is a stretch-four forward who creates match-up problems for opponents with his blend of size and explosiveness. Doron Lamb is the team’s three-point marksman, shooting a ridiculous 46 percent from long range. Lamb is the key beneficiary of opponents clamping down on the paint to contain Davis and Jones.
If Kentucky has a weakness, it’s that freshman point guard Marquis Teague can be erratic at times as a ball handler. His 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was 13th in the SEC and 255th nationally. Fortunately for the Wildcats, there isn’t a team in the region that plays great high-pressure defense, so their biggest flaw isn’t likely to be exposed in the first two weekends.
First-round upset picks:
(9) UConn over (8) Iowa State
(14) South Dakota State over (3) Baylor
(10) Xavier over (7) Notre Dame
UConn over Iowa State barely qualifies as an upset, but the Huskies have enough talent to win a national championship. While another miracle run like last year won’t happen, they seem to have at least somewhat settled their differences and are playing the best basketball they have in more than two months.
A lot of folks will want to pick VCU over Wichita State in the 5/12 match-up. I think that’s a sucker pick. The Rams are deep, hungry and getting hot at the right time (sound familiar?), but this is not the same team that made the Final Four last season. This team doesn’t shoot threes nearly as well as the 2011 team did, which was the main reason for their Cinderella run. The Shockers are extremely well coached by Gregg Marshall and, being a mid-major themselves, won’t be caught napping by a perfectly capable underdog like so many early-round favorites usually are. The Shockers are for real.
Baylor is an interesting case. The Bears have NBA-ready talent in Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Jones. Only Kentucky and North Carolina boast comparable athleticism in their starting five. However, inconsistency has plagued the Bears all season. Poor shot selection and long defensive lapses left everyone wondering why this team wasn’t more dominant. That said, they beat the teams they were supposed to beat but couldn’t come through against the best competition they faced. Their worst loss came by one to Kansas State at home.
South Dakota State isn’t a surefire upset pick by any means, but the Jack Rabbits boast a high-scoring shooting guard in Nate Wolters who scores 21.3 points per game. He topped 30 points six times this season. The Jack Rabbits win by asking Wolters to penetrate and kick out to a plethora of three-point gunners if he can’t get an open look himself. The Rabbits have four players in their main rotation who shoot better than 40 percent from three. If they’re hot against Baylor, it will be upset city. I’ll probably go back and forth on this on up until Thursday, but now you know to at least be wary of Wolters and company.
Xavier is one of the more disappointing teams this season. An ugly brawl at the end of its loss to Cincinnati in early December derailed the Musketeers’ season. They managed to rally and sneak in as an at-large. Tu Holloway is Xavier’s enigmatic leader and a future pro. Notre Dame plays at a painfully slow pace, which is never a formula for success in March. I like Xavier to move on before falling to Duke on Sunday in Greensboro.
If South Dakota State beats Baylor, they could just as easily knock off UNLV (which is an absolute lock to beat Colorado, in my opinion) in the Round of 32, though I think the Runnin’ Rebels will make the Sweet 16. Otherwise, there’s still the outside chance UConn beats Kentucky. Otherwise, it seems like Duke and Kentucky have as good a chance as any of the top two seeds from the other regions to meet in the Elite Eight.
Best player: Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Already took care of most of this earlier, but Davis is the best player in America. His ability to completely alter the game defensively is the biggest reason why Kentucky lost just one game in the regular season. Despite his lanky frame, he can absorb contact and finish around the rim, not to mention he is always quicker than hisdefender. He’ll face plenty of double teams during the Wildcats’ march towards a title. John Calipari knows how valuable Davis is to that run. Over the last few weeks, he’s put Davis on the second team in practice to simulate what it would be like if Davis gets in foul trouble. That is undoubtedly the Wildcats’ biggest concern moving forward.
Regional Final Prediction: Kentucky over Duke
I wanted to pick Duke for an early exit, I really did. They rely much too heavily on the outside shot and are shaky at times on the glass. I’m also scared that Austin Rivers will think this is his time to shine and disrupt everything the Blue Devils want to do offensively. However, Duke got an extremely favorable draw. If they face Baylor in the Sweet 16 it will pose problems, but I just don’t see the Bears making it that far.
Besides, this match-up would mark the 20-year anniversary of the teams meeting in the Elite Eight when Christian Laettner offered up one of the most lasting images in NCAA Tournament history with his last-second turnaround jumper to beat the Wildcats. If both teams do indeed make it to the regional final, expect enough media coverage in the two days leading up to the game to make Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow jealous.
The Wildcats have too many weapons for Duke to contain. The Blue Devils are a mediocre defensive team, especially on the perimeter. They get beat off the dribble at an alarmingly high rate in addition to giving up tons of open looks from three. As mentioned earlier, the way to beat Kentucky is by bottling them up on the outside and making it difficult to get good looks into the post for Davis. Kentucky is a terrible match-up for Duke, and it will show as the Wildcats will earn a second straight trip to the Final Four.
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