Thursday, March 11, 2010

Definitive March Madness Preview (Nearly 3,000 Riveting Words!)

(Update: I added an extra pick pick below and also went into more depth in my preview of Baylor-Notre Dame, an expected secound round tilt. Please read it. It's the kind of thing that will end up making me look really smart or really goddamn stupid. Anyway, it's less than eight hours before the tip of the tourney's first game, and I can't get to sleep. I might be 29-years-old, but this weekend will always turn me into a sixth grader...and I'll not apologize for this.)

I like basketball. Proof:

1. A lot of people will tell you March Madness is the perfect product, and that the field should stay at 65 teams. Now, I can't argue that the NCAA basketball tournament -- as it currently stands -- isn't my favorite sporting event of the year...because it is. It absolutely is my favorite sporting event of the year. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be better with more teams.

For one, more games equal more gambling. Always a plus. More games also means more potential for crazy shit to happen. And it wouldn't eliminate Cinderella at all; the Morgan States and Sam Houston States and Vermonts would still be sizable underdogs. And an upset by any of those teams would still make for front page news.

In the end, how could anyone have a problem with more tournament games? So what if teams like Cincinnati, UConn, Ole Miss, et al., were mediocre all year, I can guarantee you their tournament games would be as hard fought as a typical Wisconsin rebounding drill. Trust me, more games would work. And you would watch. And you'd be just as unproductive at work.

And you'd love every freaking second of it.

I vote YES on a field of 96!

2. Since I was a teeny tiny boy, this time of year always brings about an annoying trend: Every TV or radio host complains that his guest is being too boring with his or her Final Four picks. Inevitably, Guest X predicts three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed (or whatever), and the annoying host always says, "C'mon! Be a little bold with your prediction!"

This drives me nuts. Isn't the objective -- especially if you're an ESPN college basketball analyst -- not to be different, but to be right? I'm kind of like Marlo Stanfield: My name is my name.

My opinion matters to me. I like it that people want to know what I think -- and if I predict Syracuse, Kentucky and Kansas to make the Final Four, don't give me crap because I didn't give you Cornell, Clemson, Villanova and Michigan State. I like being right about this stuff. In related news...

3. Advice: When filling out brackets, only pick sleepers if you know a little something about them (or everything about their opponent). Usually what happens is this: Some dope picks Sam Houston State to win in round one for the hell of it, and loses. Meanwhile, some other No. 13 seed eeks out a win you didn't predict and now you're stuck with two losses instead of one. Sticking with the top four seeds (and probably the top five) in each region is generally the smart play.

4. I watched ninety seconds of the Warriors-Lakers match last night and received plenty of usable material for this section of my March Madness post.

After Stephen Curry embarrassed a Laker defender with a nifty step-back high banker, the camera zoomed in on Kobe Bryant, who was sitting on the bench. Kobe's reaction? He leaned over to Adam Morrison, and said, "That mutha fucka awesome." I am not deaf, nor am I an expert lip reader, but I would bet my mother's life that those were his exact words. I can't tell you why I love that so much, but I can't stop thinking about it. Which makes for a nice little transition for me...

Stephen Curry was an otherworldly college player, and although he didn't play point guard much back then (at least not when Davidson made it to within an eyelash of the Final Four), he was clearly capable. Stephen Curry is the greatest college three-point shooter ever. And again, he's also a good NBA point guard as a rookie. Fact and fact.

So why in the hell did Davidson's coach, Bob McKillop, run Curry right into a double team on the most critical play in the history of the program? Watch the video. Steph Curry can get his shot off over every guard in the NBA, and yet his dumb coach -- down two to eventual champion Kansas -- instructed a freaking high screen with a big post player with no perimeter skills. In other words, whoever was guarding the big white screener was now going to help swallow up Stephen Curry and force him to give up the ball. Which Curry did, roughly five seconds before the end of their season. To recap: Bob McKillop drew up a play that guaranteed the tourney's best player would pass the ball on a possession where his team needed a bucket.

Maybe Curry would have bricked a step back three, or dribbled off his leg. And maybe Kansas would have sent a double team anyway. Regardless, I'd like to point out, two years later, that I still haven't forgiven Bob McKillop for robbing us of, potentially (and I'm not overstating this), the greatest moment in tourney history. Jackass.

4. Remember 1993? I do. That's when a fierce rivalry was going down: Elite Eight vs. Great Eight. Back then, some of us called it the Great Eight, while others preferred the Elite Eight. It was pretty annoying, really. But then, one day (probably '96 or '97), the rivalry went away and America agreed to call it the Elite Eight. Had to get that off my chest.

5. Before I get to my round one locks -- and believe me, I have more than a few -- allow me to, without any real flow, speak a few words on this year's field...

*Syracuse, Kentucky and Kansas are markedly better than every other team in the field. Are they sure-fire locks for the Final Four? Of course not. But picking against them because of a flaw (such as Kentucky's youth/outside shooting or Syracuse's depth) is kind of dumb. All 65 teams have flaws, but the aforementioned trio have the least of them. They also have the most next-level talent, best defenses and guard play. You'd be a fool not to pick one of these three squads to cut down the nets.

**Just because Duke was gift-wrapped a relatively easy bracket, and just because everyone in America seemingly hates them (Hell, I hate them) doesn't mean they suck, either. They're pretty damn good, and if they were a No. 4 seed, we'd all be discussing how dangerous they are. For yet another season Duke isn't overly deep or athletic, but they have a roster most coaches would die for. I have the Blue Devils going down in the Elite Eight to Baylor (and they could go down sooner), but it shouldn't surprise anyone if they make it to Indianapolis.

***It's too bad Villanova revealed their warts at the end of the season, because I've thought they were overachievers all year. Great coach + marginal talent only gets you so far in March...especially when you're not sneaking up on anyone (like Nova won't be). Whether it's round two or three, I'm betting against Nova and winning money. This also means, for all you office pool maniacs, that Scottie Reynolds is nowhere near talented enough to lead his team to six (or even four) consecutive March victories. Trust me.

****Prepare for Jimmer Fredette's coming out party. Who? Jimmer Fredette, BYU scoring machine. He's got the catchy name, the skin color and the Mad Bomber style of play that both media and fans adore. I'm not sure if they'll get by Kansas State in round two (and they should get by Florida in round one), but he has a legitimate chance to be the Wally Szczerbiak or Bryce Drew of the 2010 tournament. I'm rooting for it, too, because, for two months now I've predicted that Jimmer Fredette is giving somebody 40 points in the tourney. Don't let me down, Jimmer. And if you do, you should consider a name change.

*****I don't know if Richmond will beat St. Mary's, but I know their lead guard, Kevin Anderson, is plenty good enough to do it all by himself. Keep an eye on that boy. Love him.

******Nobody knows a thing about New Mexico State, and yet they receive a No. 12 seed over two teams everyone loves, Siena and Murray State? Huh? This seemed crazy when the field was announced, but even crazier when Vegas posted the lines: In some casinos New Mexico State is a 14-point underdog to Michigan State, while No. 13 seeds Siena (a 4-point dog to Purdue) and Murray State (a 3-point dog to Vandy) are considered virtual coin flips in their games against higher seeded teams. Who is this New Mexico State team, anyway, and why was an underachieving No. 5 seed like Michigan State essentially handed an easy opening-round win?

(Putting the previous paragraph in context, Big East tournament champ West Virginia is only a 17-point favorite against its first opponent, Morgan State. Strange.)

******You never hear a girl say, "I have to take a piss." Just saying.

*******The Big 12 is no joke. Listen, I know teams like Baylor and Kansas State and Texas A & M have no basketball tradition to speak of, but it doesn't mean they're not really good. Because they are. And Kansas is powerhouse. And Missouri and Oklahoma State are really solid. It's very possible that in five days the so-called experts will be raving about the Big 12's dominance.

********As much as I love Baylor, they might not get by Notre Dame in the second round. Shortly after Luke Harangody went down, the Irish committed to playing grind-it-out offense and physical defense. For a team who always sped the game up and tried to goosh a million threes a game, this was pretty radical. But they had to do it. And, shockingly, it worked! Now Harangody is back (and coming off the bench), and the loud-mouthed ball hog is mostly playing by the rules. If he doesn't revert to his old ways, Notre Dame will be a tough out.

Both Baylor and Notre Dame are Final Four worthy. I'm a little more than angry that these two are squaring off in round two. Don't get me wrong, both teams deserved the seeds they received, but neither deserve to face one another so early; that's how well the Bears and Fightin' Green Midgets are playing at the moment. The last time I was this bothered by a potential second-round match was 2003, when Marquette and Missoui, as expected, battled one another in a hotly-contested overtime shootout that felt more like an Elite eight matchup than a round-of-32 match. This could be one of the better games of the tourney.

*********I'm expecting Texas and Wake Forest to produce the most boring game of the first round...and yet they could produce the most exciting. Nobody ever said Rick Barnes and Dino Gaudio weren't overseeing immense talent. Anything is possible here. Jesus, I love March Madness.

**********Siena is really good, and they've won a game in each of the last two tournaments (with the same group of guys who are seniors this year), and everybody seems to love them. Them folks out there love them darn Siena Saints. And so do I. But let's just settle down with this talk of Siena being better than Purdue simply because Robbie Hummel is out. Robbie Hummel is a nice player, but this isn't a Kenyon Martin situation. Purdue is a deep team who defends like crazy and fights for every loose ball. They also have an outstanding coach in Matt Painter who, at 39, has slapped together an impressive March resume.

ALSO...Purdue got stomped in the Big Ten tourney by Minnesota, and everyone directly attributed it to Hummel's injury. It's also fresh on everyone's mind, which puts the Boilers on upset alert. I could see buying into this if Matt Painter weren't their coach, or if senior guard Chris Kramer weren't a lunatic. Purdue doesn't quite qualify as one of my locks (to be revealed in four seconds), but I expect them to beat Siena...and I'll certainly be wagering on them.

***********Syracuse guard Andy Rautins isn't among Chad Ford's Top 100 NBA prospects. That, boys and girls, is the height of stupidity. Oklahoma's Willie Warren is 28th on the very same list. That, boys and girls, is fifty-thousand miles beyond preposterous. Rautins is far superior to Warren, and I'll bet you right now the Canadian will have a better NBA career than the enigmatic Sooner. I'm not sure what scouts aren't seeing in Rautins, but I see a guy with good size for a combo guard (6'4), excellent passing ability and range, and maybe the quickest pair of hands around (nine games with 3 or more steals this year). And for a guy with a full complement of all-around offensive skills, he's really unselfish. Maybe too unselfish, but I won't hold that against him. Anyway, if you're looking for a player to vault up draft boards this March, pay a little extra attention to Andy Rautins.

***********I'm taking Doug Gottlieb's advice on this whole Temple-Cornell thing. He says the Owls will take care of the Big Red, and his argument makes a lot of sense. Both teams share the exact system, except Temple features superior talent. Cornell has ten guys who shoot over 37% from long distance, yet Temple is pretty dang great at defending the three. Good enough for me. Betting Temple seems logical.

Final Four picks: Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse and Baylor.

Championship: Syracuse over Kentucky.

(Worth mentioning: If anyone trips up Syracuse, I'm riding Kentucky hard to the finish. UK has far and away the most talented team in the field, but I just don't think they shoot well enough to beat Syracuse's deadly zone.)


Okay, boys and girls, here we go with the first round locks. I feel extremely confident this year, so it would be wise to bet your life savings on the following games, and I guarantee a profit...

Missouri (+1) vs. Clemson

Words: Text I sent out during the selection show: "Lock of millennium: Missouri over Clemson. Mike Anderson vs. shitty Oliver Purnell. Big 12 vs. shitty ACC. Line isn't out yet and I PROMISE a winner." The tribe has spoken.

But hang on, I want to stroke Mike Anderson a little more: The dude brought three tourney wins to UAB in two years (think about that for a second) and had a grossly undersized Missouri team last year just a few possessions short of the Final Four. I know he's black and everything, but Mike Anderson can coach.

Speaking of coaching ability, Oliver Purnell doesn't have any. He's an uninspiring goof who coaches team that possess no mental toughness and routinely underachieve. Clemson's talent suggests they should be a No. 3 seed; instead they're just another forgettable No. 7 who will get bounced by their first opponent.

Syracuse (-17.5) vs. Vermont

Sentences: Aside from the obvious -- a No. 1 has far more talent than a No. 16 -- consider this: It was just 2005 when Vermont took down Syracuse in round one, and I think Jim Boeheim will use that as motivation for his players to avoid a repeat of five years ago. I also think Boeheim would like to throw his fan base a bone and beat the bloody hell out of the team who ruined everyone's March not so long ago. And if everything I've just written is complete bullshit, and you still bet on Syracuse, at least you've got money on a great team at a reasonable line.

Wisconsin (-10) vs. Wofford

Stuff: I like Wisconsin a lot. They might be boring, but they're not terribly unathletic (like they are perceived) and they have playmakers and shooters outside. They also don't make mistakes and they fight like hell on defense. The Badgers might lose to Temple in round two (it'll be a bloodbath), but they will murder Wofford on Friday. I'm thinking something like 70-48

Baylor (-11) vs. Sam Houston State

Things: This is now the third mention of Sam Houston State in this post, and that's because they've been on my mind quite a bit since Sunday. I don't know a single thing about them, but I know Baylor is awesome. Baylor plays with an edge -- with a big giant chip on their shoulder -- and they also have big boy talent. It appears they've become the chic Final Four pick, and sometimes that scares me, but not with this bunch. Baylor has the Eye of the Tiger, and they're about to win by thirty. Easy money, kids. Easy money.

Notre Dame (-2) Old Dominion

Words: Old Dominion won at Georgetown and played Missouri to within the Monarchs are no slouch. But, as stated a few hundred words ago, I love what Mike Brey's done with this Irish squad. Which leads me to another lock...

Notre Dame-Old Dominion UNDER (122)

Sentences: Old Dominion only cracked 80 points in four games this year. That's remarkable. It also tells me they don't have a prayer of scoring with ease against Notre Dame. The Rudy Ruettigers went 6-1 down the stretch and squeezed the life out of the following opponents: Pitt (53 points); Georgetown (64); UConn (50); Marquette (60); Seton Hall (56); Pitt (45); West Virginia (53). It might be a gay game to watch, but it will still win you American dollars.


Other bets that don't qualify as locks: Along with Temple (-3.5) and Purdue (-4), I'm also jumping on the following: A & M (-3), BYU (-4.5), Georgetown (-13), San Diego State (+3), Richmond (-1.5), UNLV (-1), Marquette (-1.5), Murray State-Vandy OVER (141), Louisville-Cal OVER (149.5), Michigan State-New Mexico State OVER (148.5) and Xavier (+1).

That's all for now, my people. I really won't mind if I don't win money, so long as I don't lose any. I actually kind of mean that. March Madness will be glorious if I get one buzzer beater, a legitimate Cinderella still alive in the second weekend and a No. 1 or 2 seed receiving the scare of their life in round one.

Good luck to all of my fellow degenerates out there. Let's make this March a winner! My round two picks will be revealed late Friday or early Saturday. Stay tuned...

-Brad Spieser (