The National Collegiate Athletic Association is holding its annual basketball fundraiser over the next couple of weeks, providing hundreds of student-athletes the opportunity to justify their scholarships. The “student” component isn’t emphasized, of course, and with good reason: the school administrators who organized this tournament apparently weren’t so hot in the classroom themselves — they all seem to have flunked Geography. Why else would they hold East Regional games in Boise, Idaho; South Regional games in Portland, Oregon and Kansas City; West first-round games in Philadelphia; and Midwest contests in Miami?
But let’s move on to the games themselves. Here are some observations and predictions, many of which will be proven wrong by early April…
WEST REGIONAL: Every year for over a decade in this tournament, at least one upset has occurred in the 5 vs. 12 matchup, or the 6 vs. 11. In some years there have been several. With that in mind, I’m picking #12 Northern Iowa to shock Purdue, and I also think #11 Utah State could take down #6 Marquette. The Aggies went 30-4 this season, and Marquette G Dominic James is out of the tournament with a broken foot. Either way, Missouri will win the second round game…
Favorites in this bracket are Connecticut and Memphis. UConn has a dominating player in the middle, 7’3″ Hasheem Thabeet. Connecticut also has injury issues, though: they’re missing G Jerome Dyson. The Huskies have gone 4-3 since Dyson went out. Memphis has a lot of great athletes and plays suffocating defense. I’m picking the Tigers to win this regional.
Sweet 16 participants from this region: UConn, Washington, Missouri, Memphis
MIDWEST REGIONAL: Here’s a little-known fact about Siena College: that it exists. But it’s there, all right, tucked away in a suburb of Albany, New York. Siena, a #9 seed, gets Ohio State in the first round, and I’m going with the underdog in this one. All five starters from last year’s team returned; it’s the same Siena that knocked off #4 Vanderbilt in the 2008 tournament.
The rest of the games in this region follow form in the first round, and I’m reluctant to say that because it means I’m predicting that my alma mater, USC, will lose early. Beyond that, I think # 7 Boston College is capable of winning a couple of games, knocking out #2 Michigan State in the 2nd round. #1 Louisville is deep and talented and should cruise through to the Midwest final.
Sweet 16 participants from this region: Lousiville, Wake Forest, Kansas, Boston College
EAST REGIONAL: Some experts are predicting that #11 Virginia Commonwealth will upset #6 UCLA in the first round, but I disagree. I do believe that the Bruins’ participation in the tournament will be relatively brief this year; I see them losing to #3 Villanova in the 2nd round. UCLA guard Darren Collison is not 100% physically, and even if he was, this team is not as strong as in the past three seasons.
#5 Florida State has been playing well of late, and stands to win a couple before getting knocked out by #1 Pittsburgh. #2 Duke’s main strength is perimeter shooting; one off night and they’re done. I’m guessing that off night is going to come against #3 Villanova. The Wildcats and #1 Pittsburgh are the class of this bracket, with the Panthers winning the regional.
Sweet 16 participants from this region: Pittsburgh, Florida State, Villanova, Duke
SOUTH REGIONAL: My way-out-on-a-limb pick here is the #12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. I’m not only predicting they’ll beat #5 Illinois in the first round, I see them defeating #4 Gonzaga in the second. Western Kentucky has 4 players averaging double figures in scoring, beat Louisville during the regular season, and has overcome the embarrassment of playing its home games in something called Diddle Arena.
My favorites in this bracket are #1 seed North Carolina and #3 seed Syracuse. North Carolina’s fortunes depend to some extent on whether G Ty Lawson has recovered from his toe injury — the Tar Heels are much, much better with him in the lineup. I’m guessing he’ll be able to play. #2 seed Oklahoma has only been so-so in its last ten games; #3 Syracuse will defeat them in the round of 16. North Carolina wins the regional final.
Sweet 16 participants from this region: North Carolina, Western Kentucky, Syracuse, Oklahoma
Final Four: Memphis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, North Carolina
That’s what I think, anyway. But I’ve been wrong before.