This is the point where I remind people that Warren Buffett, genius financier and benevolent owner of your Buffalo News, has offered $1 billion to anyone who can pick a perfect NCAA bracket. Math experts estimated the odds are about 9 quintillion to one against it. I believe that’s nine plus 18 zeroes. It’s my theory that Buffett didn’t even know the odds. He watched me fumbling through my picks for 25 years at his newspaper and figured it was a fool’s errand to even try.
My odds are probably 90 quintillion – or slightly worse than the odds of the Sabres winning the Cup next season. After staring at the brackets for a few hours, I think every game is going to produce an upset. Sometimes, I’m right. But there’s a reason I don’t gamble.
Man, I can see this East region tearing everyone’s bracket to shreds. Maybe it’s my New England bias, but I see Providence, Connecticut and Harvard all winning in the first, excuse me, second round.
I’m also a big fan of guard play. It goes back to my childhood days, rooting for Jimmy Walker, Jimmy Larranaga and Ernie DiGregorio at Providence. Did I mention the Friars won the Big East and are in the field?
This is a great region for guards. At a time when the best players turn pro early, it’s amazing to have so many fine senior guards in one region: UConn’s Shabazz Napier; Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick; Virginia’s Joe Harris; Villanova’s James Bell; Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane; Delaware’s Devon Saddler; Providence’s Bryce Cotton.
I almost left out Jeremy Ingram of North Carolina Central, which made the tourney for the first time. My old pal Allen Wilson, who loved his hoops, was a North Carolina Central grad. He’s probably looking down from above and warning me not to pick Iowa State over his alma mater.
But defying logic is what this exercise is all about. I like UConn and Villanova on Thursday night at First Niagara Center, though I’m tempted by Milwaukee. Hey, the 15th seeds are 3-5 against the No. 2 seeds the last two years. Who saw Lehigh, Norfolk State or Florida Gulf Coast coming? Perfect bracket, indeed.
Game to Watch: Iowa State-North Carolina Central. One of those classic contrasts in style. Iowa State is sixth in the country in scoring offense at 83 ppg. NC Central, the “other” team in Durham, is seventh in scoring defense at 58.5. Something has to give. The Cyclones, my pick to win it all, better not look past them.
Upset City: Harvard over Cincinnati. A chic pick, which doesn’t make it wrong. Tommy Amaker has most of the guys back from the team that upset New Mexico last year as a 14 seed. It won’t be nearly as shocking if the Crimson win this year. Vegas made Cincinnati, which needs a big game from Kilpatrick, a mere two-point favorite.
Clearly, they know that the 12th seeds are 23-29 in openers since 2001.
Sleeper: Connecticut. Remember 2011? The Huskies staggered into the Big East Tournament as a ninth seed. Led by Kemba Walker, they caught fire and never lost again, delivering Jim Calhoun his third national title. This team, a No. 7 seed under coach Kevin Ollie, also has a senior on a mission – Napier. Don’t sell them short. I’ll miss Calhoun roaming the sideline in Buffalo, even his swearing.
It’s always risky to judge the relative strengths of the four regions, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a region with more depth, talent and personality than the South. And we’ve got one of the “pods” here in Buffalo, at First Niagara Center.
Florida, Kansas and Syracuse, the top three seeds, were all ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point this season. Florida is the top overall seed in the tournament. The Orange were 25-0 a month ago. If not for an injury to 7-foot Joel Embiid, Kansas might be a No. 1 seed.
Injuries are always a factor come tourney time. A couple of bad backs could determine which South representative winds up in Dallas – excuse me, “North Texas” – at the Final Four early next month.
Freshman Embiid has a stress fracture in his back and might not play in Kansas’ second-round game in St. Louis. There are hoop experts who believe Embiid will be the first pick in this year’s NBA draft – if it’s not teammate Andrew Wiggins (right).
Meanwhile, Syracuse has an ailing back of its own to fret about.
Jerami Grant, a 6-8 sophomore forward, missed a couple of games with back trouble during SU’s staggering, 2-5 finish. Surely, nervous SU fans will recall that it was an injury to center Orinze Onuaku that severely compromised the Orange’s chances to make the Final Four in 2010, when they also began in Buffalo.
The South has the nation’s two hottest teams. Florida, which rode four senior starters to an unbeaten SEC season, has won 26 in a row. Stephen F. Austin, the unbeaten Southland champion, puts a 28-game winning streak on the line against VCU in San Diego.
It’s a great coaching region. Kansas’ Bill Self, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Florida’s Billy Donovan have all won the national title.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta and VCU’s Shaka Smart have been to the Final Four. Tulsa’s Danny Manning and Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins are first-time NCAA tourney coaches who were stars as players.
Here’s a look at the bracket. Remember, by “sleeper” I refer to a team seeded fifth or lower that has a chance to make a Final Four run:
Game to Watch: Kansas-Eastern Kentucky. If Embiid isn’t around to challenge shots, this could be a show. Eastern Kentucky is an experienced, offensively skilled bunch. The 15th-seeded Colonels are 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage and 26th in scoring (79 ppg). Kansas is sixth in FG percentage and 20th in scoring.
Eastern ran up those stats in the Ohio Valley, but if they can play a fast tempo with Kansas, they can keep it close.
Upset City: Tulsa over UCLA. Steve Alford did a nice job in his first year with the Bruins, but his teams have a way of faltering in the NCAAs. Alford has lost twice as a third seed – with Iowa against Northwestern State in 2006 and last year with New Mexico vs. Harvard. UCLA is capable of losing as a “4” against a young, hot Golden Hurricane team that has won 11 in a row.
Sleeper: VCU. Who better than the Rams, who made a run to the Final Four in 2011 under Smart and won a game in the last two tournaments?
VCU, playing its “Havoc” defense with a veteran squad, led the nation in steals for the third year in a row.
I can’t believe I’ve gone this far in my silver anniversary NCAA Tournament predictions and haven’t whined about the mid-majors. Either I’m getting old, or I can’t keep track of which teams are in which conferences anymore.
But my God, can Wichita State get a little respect? The Shockers made the Final Four last year. They came within a few minutes of beating Louisville and getting to the final. They’re 34-0, a top seed in the Midwest. And almost no one (including me) expects them to go back.
It’s not that I don’t respect Wichita. But the committee threw some serious land mines in their path. I’m sure it’s all a coincidence – like Rick Pitino and Steve Masiello getting matched up in the first game, or two Ohio teams playing a game in Buffalo.
Wichita State’s reward for being unbeaten and a top seed? A possible meeting with Kentucky, the preseason No. 1, in its second game. And if they get to the Sweet 16? How about a date with Louisville, the defending NCAA champ, which somehow got a mere No. 4 seed?
Why don’t they slash the tires on the team bus and put tacks on the chairs in the Shocker locker room while they’re at it?
Anyway, the Midwest is absolutely loaded. The top three seeds (Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville) were in last year’s Final Four. I’ll bet the fellows smiled at each other in the committee room and considered tossing in Syracuse as the third seed, too.
Then there’s Kentucky, the 2012 national champ, and Duke, the 2010 winner. Kentucky (eight) and Duke (4) have 12 national titles between them. I love this region. Even the presence of an ordinary Pac-12 team, Arizona State, can’t ruin it.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has used the respect card with his team all year, will not be lacking for motivational material this week.
Game to Watch: Louisville-Manhattan. Pitino goes against Masiello, who played for him at Kentucky and was his assistant at Louisville. One of those happy coincidences of the selection process! Masiello can’t be happy with it. Louisville is the defending champion and third choice by the oddsmakers to win it all — and a No. 4 seed in the region. But the Jaspers peaked in the MAAC tourney and play the sort of defense that could give Louisville trouble.
Upset City: Mercer over Duke. Mercer won the Atlantic Sun tourney. Sound familiar? Florida Gulf Coast, the darling of last year’s Dance, came from the Atlantic Sun. Mercer is legit, a deep, experienced squad that ranks 23th in the country in scoring, 25th in rebound margin and 10th in assists. Duke has Jabari Parker, a fabulous freshman who could take the game over. But this is the kind of matchup (cough, Lehigh) that keeps Mike Krzyzewski up late at night.
Sleeper: It turns my face red to even type this, but … Kentucky. Hey, John Calipari’s latest bunch of fab freshmen worked for this eighth seed. They might even have attended a class now and then. They’re young and erratic. They struggled to go 12-6 in a soft SEC. But they’re enormously talented and might find themselves at just the right time. Good luck, Wichita State. Hello, NBA.
OK, maybe it’s a classic East Coast bias. I don’t stay up late to watch much basketball these days, and if I do, it’s to check out the best collection of hoop teams on the planet – the NBA West.
This NCAA West Region doesn’t do much for me. Arizona deserved the No. 1 seed, but it’s hard to put much faith in a Pac-12 team nowadays. There hasn’t been a Pac-12 team in the Final Four since UCLA finished its three-year run in 2008.
Otherwise, no Pac-12 team has reached the Final Four since Arizona in 2001. How come mid-majors like George Mason, VCU, Butler and Wichita State can get there, but the secondary Pac-12 teams never make a run?
What happened to Stanford? Cal? Oregon, it’s time to stop living off that 1939 national title. Then there’s Wisconsin, which got a generous No. 2 seed. Come on, do you really think the Badgers would beat Louisville right now? Bo Ryan is a fine coach, but Wisconsin has this nagging habit of finishing near the top of the Big Ten and losing to lower seeds in the NCAAs.
Over the last seven years, the Badgers have been upset five times by lower-seeded teams, four of them mid-majors. They lost to UNLV, Davidson, Cornell and Butler. A year ago, as a No. 5 seed, they went out against Mississippi in their first game. This year, they’re a No. 2 seed. At least they might get Oregon in the next game.
Then there’s Creighton, the third seed. I rode the Blue Jays the last two years. I picked them to reach the Final Four in 2012. I’ve hopped off the train. For one thing, I can’t claim them as a mid-major anymore. They jumped to the watered-down Big East this year and joined the ranks of the mighty. They lost the Big East final to Providence. It was the same old Creighton. When they run into a team that made it tough to run their offense around the basket, they struggled to score and it became Doug McDermott trying to save the day with 25-footers.
So I see upsets in the West. Arizona is without its third-leading scorer, Brandon Ashley. That’s why I took a stab at Baylor, which is the most talented team in the region and a very live Final Four team as a sixth seed.
Game to Watch: Oklahoma-North Dakota State. You like offense? Settle in. The Sooners are seventh in the country in scoring and allowed the most points in the Big 12. ND State shoots 51 percent from the field, tops in the nation. The Bison won at Notre Dame and Western Michigan. They’re a live underdog. Hey, shouldn’t a team nicknamed the Bison be playing in Buffalo?
Upset City: New Mexico State over San Diego State. Maybe it’s a bias from the Michigan days, but I always expect Steve Fisher’s teams to screw up. His Aztecs are a terrific defensive team, but perhaps the worst shooting team in the tournament. New Mexico State played in the NCAAs a year ago and has a 7-5 center, Sim Bhullar, who could make things even more exasperating for San Diego State.
Sleeper: Baylor. Talentwise, they’re no sleeper. But you never know which Bears team will show up. They lost eight of 10 in midseason. But they’ve won nine of their last 11. In the last month, they’ve won six games against teams that are in the NCAA tourney field. They have an underrated coach in Scott Drew and could go very far. Or with my luck, they’ll lose to Nebraska.