March 14, 2012
NCAA tournament primer
By RICHARD ZUSSMAN, QMI Agency
Procrastinating time is over.
Get your bracket done. Get it in and watch your boss' 13-year-old daughter take the office's annual March Madness pool. Even in Canada there is no inter-office activity quite like the NCAA tournament bracket.
Everyone has their own style. Some research diligently in the days leading up to the first game on Thursday and then carefully rip up their bracket Sunday night after the sure-fire No. 1 seed everyone loves is knocked out on a buzzer beater.
Then there are those who pick the teams with their favourite mascots, favourite colours and best team nicknames. They are also the ones who brag when they are the only one left with multiple teams once the Final Four rolls around.
This year's tournament will be no different.
There is a clear favourite, the Kentucky Wildcats (32-2, SEC), that most people will have going all the way to the end. What makes the Wildcats good is their ability to beat teams in many different ways. Freshman Anthony Davis is a monster on the defensive side of the ball. The 6-foot-10 forward is the best player in the tournament after he averaged a team-high 14.3 ppg, 10 rebounds per game and swatted away 154 blocks during the regular season.
The South region is not totally smooth sailing. Defending champions UConn lurks in the third round. Indiana and Duke could be on the cards for later in the tournament. But even with the tough matchups, Kentucky should emerge as the Final Four team from this side of the bracket.
For most of the season it seemed like Kentucky had an equal in Syracuse.
But with the suspension of Fab Melo, the Orange are a much smaller and less intimidating team than they were expected to be. The East region is now wide open. Conference tournament champions Vanderbilt, Florida State and St. Bonaventure join Ohio State in making this the most wide-open part of the bracket. Watch out for John Jenkins. The Vandy guard is one of the best shooters in the country and connected on 45% of his three pointers during the season.
Storylines are going to be easy to find in this year's tournament.
In the Midwest bracket, you don't have to look any further than a potential Elite Eight game between Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels against his former team, the Kansas Jayhawks. The last time the Final Four was in New Orleans, Williams and the Jayhawks walked off the court the loser. This year, his Tar Heels have the firepower to reverse their coach's fortunes. Future NBA stars Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall lead a squad that scores points in bunches.
Depth is often rewarded in the tournament, where teams must win six games in a row over three weeks to be crowned champions. The Missouri Tigers are hoping that's not the case in their road out of the West region. The Tigers have only seven scholarship players and play with four guards on the court at one time. Standing in the way is Michigan State and a potential dark horse in Memphis.
Now take the next few minutes, use this information, fill out your bracket. Then when it all falls apart by Sunday you can blame me on Monday.
New Mexico State: Las Cruces, New Mexico may be a long way away from the 49th parallel, but it feels very Canadian on the Aggies' home basketball court. Four of the team's players are Canucks, including Montreal native Hernst Laroche. The senior averaged 12 ppg this season. The team is exciting to watch, scoring an NCAA 11th-best 78.5 points per game.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have the two elements Canadians love; homegrown talent and underdog attitude. The 'Zags are the team most casual fans love to cheer for because they always seem to be pulling off upsets. Newmarket product Kevin Pangos and Vancouver native Robert Sacre are two of the biggest stars for the Bulldogs.
Texas: Canadian Tristan Thompson is out. Canadian Myck Kabongo is in. Thompson, the fourth overall pick in last summer's NBA draft, brought a legion of fans north of the border to Austin, Texas. Now Kabongo, the first year guard, carries the flag for the red and white Longhorn fan base.
Kentucky: John Calipari is due. The head coach of the Wildcats is widely considered the best college basketball coach without a national title to his name. This looks to be the year his team gets over the hump. Led by All-American freshman Anthony Davis, the 'Cats can score in bunches from any position on the floor.
North Carolina: U.S. President Barack Obama may have jinxed them. The Tar Heels are the choice in the "First Bracket," not only to win the Midwest but to cut down the nets in New Orleans. The possible return from injury of top rebounder John Henson would be a big boost for the Heels.
Florida State: It was a seminal weekend for the Seminoles in the ACC tournament. On back-to-back nights the 'Noles knocked out Duke and North Carolina. This team is getting hot at the right time and has good potential matchups against Cincinnati and Ohio State.
Missouri: Upsets loom around every corner in the West regional. Murray State, Long Beach State and Memphis are battle-tested mid-majors that could shake up the bracket. Louisville and Marquette are top teams from the Big East, the conference with the most teams in the tournament. But Missouri is poised to represent the region after posting a 30-win season.
Must see second round games (get the PVR ready)
Wichita State (5) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (12), Thursday 7:15 PM EST: Not even in fairy tales does the clock strike midnight twice. VCU introduced itself to the basketball world last year with a surprising run to the Final Four. Wichita State is hoping to leave the same impression this year after a strong regular season.
New Mexico (5) vs. Long Beach State (12) Thursday 4:10 PM EST: North Carolina, Kansas and San Diego State know all about Long Beach State. Each perennial power got pushed to the brink this regular season against the Big West champions. On the other side of the floor comes the Lobos, a team playing great basketball after beating UNLV and San Diego State to win the Mountain West tournament.
Gonzaga (7) vs. West Virginia (10) Thursday, 7:20 PM EST: It is rare for a higher-seed team to have to travel across the country and play a second-round game in their opponents' back yard. But that is exactly what happened to the 'Zags. The match up in Pittsburgh favours the Mountaineers, whose campus is about an hour away. Watch for WVU's Kevin Jones and Canadian Robert Sacre to battle in the post.
Vanderbilt (5) vs. Harvard (12), Thursday 4:40 PM EST: You won't find a tournament game with smarter players than this one. The two schools better known for academics than athletics will square off in a great matchup. Harvard, now known as Jeremy Lin's school, is making its first appearance since 1946.
Memphis (8) vs. St. Louis (9), Friday 6:50 PM EST: Memphis will get its first chance to prove it deserved a higher ranking this year. These two teams are a massive contrast in style. The Tigers are blessed with awesome athletes and the ability to run the transition game. The Billikens are expected to slow down the tempo on offence and play aggressive defence.
Long Beach State: Remember the name Casper Ware. The 49ers star is the player many fans will be talking about at the water cooler Monday. If he can get hot scoring, the Niners may survive to play the second weekend of the tournament.
South Dakota State: Brackets beware -- the first-round matchup between SD St. and Baylor could be an all-time shocker. The Jackrabbits are a team very few people have had a chance to see this season. Baylor is a team with national exposure that always seems to be under-appreciated.
Belmont: Georgetown has a track record of dropping games to teams seeded in the double digits, falling to high-seeded teams in three of the last four tournaments. Belmont is a speedy transition team that can use its tournament experience to beat the bigger, slower Hoyas down the floor.
NC State: Four straight losses in February seemed to derail the Wolfpack but a strong finish to the season earned them a birth into the NCAA tournament. Mark Gottfried's squad is looking to take advantage of favourable matchups against San Diego State and potentially Georgetown in the second round.
Syracuse: The Orange's greatest weakness is poor rebounding. Now take out 7-footer Fab Melo and you have a real problem. The Brazilian centre has been suspended for the tournament and leaves a massive hole in the 'Cuse zone. Beware of potential matchups for the east region's top seed with Kansas State and Vanderbilt or Wisconsin.
Marquette: The Big East power is a popular surprise pick for the Final Four. But the road to New Orleans is tough for the Golden Eagles. First up is BYU, who pulled off a record-breaking comeback against Iona in the first round Tuesday. Mid-major darling Murray State lurks in the third round for Marquette, which lost two of its last three heading into the tourney.
Indiana: Good point guard play is integral to good tournament play. Too bad the Hoosiers will be without their starting point guard, Verdell Jones IIII, who has a torn ACL. Mid-major darlings VCU or Wichita State lurk for a potential tough matchup in the third round.