It’s a Christmas tradition for me to declare that this is the year I’m cutting back on gifts. My kids laugh at me every year. So, you’re cutting back this year, right? Then I break down and overdo it again.
That’s how I feel before my annual NCAA Tournament prediction column. Every year, I promise to be more frugal, less prone to wild, impulsive acts. I’m cutting down on upsets, I’ll say. No more Houstons, Belmonts or Northern Iowas in the Final Four.
But inevitably, I weaken. I see upsets hiding between the couch cushions. What’s the fun of picking all favorites? If Northern Iowa hadn’t blown a 12-point lead in the last 35 seconds of the second round last year, they would have made the Sweet 16 and maybe revealed my true genius.
I’ve been overbuying for 27 years. Why stop now, when the evidence is so compelling? The upsets are out there. It’s the joy of the NCAA Tournament, trying to figure out who will be this year’s Georgia State, Mercer or Florida Gulf Coast (it might be Florida Gulf Coast).
Last year, a record 10 double-digit teams won first-round games. Michigan State, a chic pick to reach the Final Four, got stunned by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State. Stephen F. Austin beat West Virginia as a 14. Hawaii won as a 13, Arkansas-Little Rock and Yale as 12s.
All four beat teams from the major conferences. That’s what I live for, seeing the underdogs strike a blow for the little guys in a sport where the money and power keep flowing to the privileged elite − like the country itself.
But the gap has been closing. From 1985 through 2011, the No. 15 seeds went 4-104 in the first round. Since then, the 15’s are 4-16. They’ve pulled off as many upsets in the last five years as in the previous 27 years combined.
The No. 14 seeds are 5-11 in the first round in the last four years. Between 2008-13, at least one No. 13 seed won a game. A No. 1 has never lost in the first round, but it’s bound to happen some day.
On to the tournament.
Game to watch: Virginia vs. UNC-Wilmington. Classic contrast in styles. Wilmington is 10th in the nation in scoring at 85.4 a game. The Seahawks love to shoot threes and are careful with the ball. Virginia is first in the country in defense at 55.6 a game. So the Cavaliers allow 30 fewer points a game than Wilmington scores. It should be a fascinating match-up.
Upset city: East Tennessee State over Florida. The Buccaneers are a deep, veteran team with senior guards. Star guard T.J. Cromer wears the number 0, which is how many Division I offers he had out of high school. Florida is vulnerable after losing 6-11 center John Egbunu, their leading rebounder, to a knee injury late in the season.
Sleeper: UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks (29-5) are a dynamic team in their second straight NCAA tourney. They pass and shoot well and don’t turn it over. They played a soft schedule, including a one-point win at St. Bonaventure in December. They played Duke tough in a 93-85 loss in the first round last year. Coach Kevin Keatts was an assistant on Rick Pitino’s national champions at Louisville in 2013.
Go figure: .500. Over the last seven tournaments, the No. 11 seeds were 14-14 against the No. 6 seeds in the first round.
East regional finalists: Wisconsin, UNC Wilmington, SMU, Duke.
It’s easy to become cynical about the NCAA Tournament. The event loses much of its innocence and charm when you acknowledge that it’s a $10.8 billion TV enterprise, with coaches and executives profiting handsomely in the name of higher education.
Mike Krzyzewski, the sainted Duke coach, earns $7.3 million a year, six times more than his university president. The field is flush with freshmen who will be “one and dones,” future pros who are forced to serve a one-year hitch in the college game, giving it needed star power, because they’re not yet eligible for the NBA.
During the interview sessions, the NCAA insists on calling the participants “student-athletes,” rather than simply “players.” Never mind that many top players are students in a marginal sense, with the schoolwork an incidental burden in the overall college experience.
But smarts matter in basketball. It takes an essential intelligence to excel on the court. I’m calling this the Egghead Regional, because it contains some of the top educational institutions in the country.
I checked a list of America’s top-rated colleges on niche.com. Seven of the top 25 schools were in the NCAA tourney field. Four of those seven are in the West region: Princeton (5), Vanderbilt (14), Notre Dame (18) and Northwestern (24). The others in the top 25 are Duke (11), Southern Cal (17) and Michigan (23).
The four smart schools happen to be playing each other. Northwestern, which made the NCAAs for the first time in 78 years, plays Vanderbilt in the 8-9 game. Notre Dame meets Princeton in the 5-12 match-up right here in Buffalo. But I’m looking at it as a 5-18 clash in the niche.com.
Game to Watch: Notre Dame vs. Princeton, in the opening game Thursday in downtown Buffalo. It should be a joy to watch for fans of fundamental hoops and outside shooting. Notre Dame, which has reached the Elite Eight the last two years, led the ACC in made three-pointers and is second in the nation in assist-turnover ratio.
Princeton, which went unbeaten in the Ivy League, shot the 10th most threes in the land and was fifth in fewest turnovers.
Two things to remember: Over the last nine years, the No. 12 seeds are 17-19 in the first round; and over the last seven years, the Ivy League is 5-7 in the NCAAs.
Upset city: Florida Gulf Coast over Florida State. The Seminoles limped to a 7-6 finish. Leonard Hamilton has 503 wins in 29 years, but never reached a regional final. FSU narrowly beat Bona as a No. 3 seed in its last NCAA trip in 2012. Gulf Coast, which became the only 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in 2013, has won 12 of 13. The Eagles played a tough non-conference slate and outrebounded Michigan State by 12 in a one-point road loss.
Sleeper: St. Mary’s. The committee did Arizona no favors by making the Gaels a 7. I see Arizona slipping by, but the Gaels, third in the country in offensive efficiency, could make a run. They’re 28-4, with three losses to Gonzaga. They’re not deep, except in Australians. The school that gave us Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills has seven Aussies. The best is 6-11 Jock Landale, who averages 16.9 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Go figure: 43. Arizona’s 7-foot Finn, Lauri Markkanen, shoots 43 pct. on three-pointers and 82 pct. from the line.
West regional finalists: Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Florida Gulf Coast, Arizona.
Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the Canisius’ last NCAA Tournament team, John Beilein said he was finally beginning to appreciate his 41-year journey as a college basketball coach. Nowadays, the Michigan coach is feeling an even more profound appreciation for his career, and his very life.
As Beilein’s team was about to fly to Washington for the Big Ten tourney last Wednesday, severe winds caused the airplane to abort at the last instant. It skidded off the runway and crashed through a fence before coming to a stop near a ditch. There were no serious injuries, but it was a scary moment for everyone involved.
Beilien, a notorious workaholic and devout Jesuit, said the accident shook him. Maybe it was God sending a message to keep things in perspective, to value every hug with his wife, Kathleen, to cherish his grandchildren a little more, to embrace every moment and not be consumed by his job.
But Beilein is a coach to his core, and always at his best at tournament time. He and his Wolverine players gathered themselves and stormed to a Big Ten tourney title, winning four games in four exhilarating, emotional days.
By now, hoop fans can appreciate what we’ve known in Buffalo for a quarter century − that Beilein, a Newfane native and nephew of the legendary Nilands, is one of the best coaches in America. Friday in Indianapolis, he’s coaching in his 11th NCAA tourney.
Beilein, 64, has taken four schools (Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan) to the Dance and has a 17-10 record. He has reached one Final Four and three regional finals. His Wolverines lost to Louisville in the 2013 title game.
I imagine much of the country will be joining Western New Yorkers and rooting for our guy to make another tourney run.
Game to watch: Michigan vs. Oklahoma State. Sentiment aside, this should be a terrific game between two of the nation’s top offensive teams. The Cowboys, who average 85 points a game, are first in the country in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings. Michigan is fifth. The Wolverines are 13th nationally in three-point attempts, seventh in fewest turnovers and near the bottom in rebounds. A typical Beilein squad.
Upset city: Rhode Island over Creighton. Go ahead, call it home-state bias. But URI was considered a Top 25 early in the year before injuries struck. They hit their stride and won the Atlantic 10 tourney. It’s no surprise that a Danny Hurley team would be among the best at defending three-pointers. Creighton, a finesse team that lost point guard Maurice Watson to a knee injury, is overseeded.
Sleeper: Iowa State. The Cyclones are making their sixth straight NCAA trip, led by a starting lineup with four senior guards. You know how important guards are in March. Like Michigan, they’re a sentimental choice. Coach Steve Prohm’s wife, Katie, is expecting their second child on March 27. Prohm said he’ll leave his team if necessary to be there for the birth. If his guys are making shots, he might have to.
Go figure: 16. Iowa State guard Monte Morris is the only player in the tourney averaging 16 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
Midwest regional finalists: Kansas, Iowa State, Rhode Island, Michigan.
UCLA coach Steve Alford must feel a little embattled at the moment. LaVar Ball, the father of his best player, has been making outlandish statements worthy of the President. Ball proclaimed that his son Lonzo, a UCLA freshman expected to go No. 1 in the NBA draft, will be better than Steph Curry.
Ball has two other sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, high school stars ticketed to UCLA. Ball said early this week that his boys would sign a $1 billion shoe contract some day − though they wouldn’t need it all upfront.
Oh, and Alford’s Bruins, who are 29-4 and perhaps the most physically gifted team in the country, got seeded third in one of the most competitive − and surely most historic − brackets in NCAA Tournament history.
The South is being called the “Group of Death.” in World Cup parlance. North Carolina, the favorite to win it all, is seeded first. Kentucky, which has its usual stable of NBA talent, is No. 2. Then it’s UCLA. The most underseeded team in the tournament, Wichita State, is 10th.
It’s the first time North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA have been in the same bracket. They’ve combined for 24 national titles and 54 trips to the Final Four. Carolina has made the Final Four 19 times, UCLA 18 times, Kentucky 17 times. UCLA has the most NCAA titles with 11, Kentucky the most overall tournament wins with 121.
The first 11 seeds in the South have all reached a Final Four. Cincinnati has done it six times, Arkansas five. There are 77 Final Fours among the teams, almost one for every 78 NCAA tourneys. So there’s a lot of history here, and a tough road for Alford and all the other coaches in the South.
Whoever comes out of this region will be tough to beat. Brace yourself if Lonzo Ball leads UCLA out of the region. They’ll never shut up his dad.
Game to watch: UCLA vs. Kent State.
We get to see Ball, a fabulous talent even if he’s not Steph Curry. UCLA leads the nation in scoring (90.4) and is third in KenPom.com’s efficiency rankings. The Bruins have another big NBA prospect in 6-10 freshman T.J. Leaf. Kent State isn’t pretty to watch. I still haven’t recovered from the UB game. But they’ll go down swinging.
Upset city: Middle Tennessee over Minnesota. The Blue Raiders (30-4) have the two top scorers back from last year’s upset of Michigan State − Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts (love that name). They also have a stud forward in Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams. They shoot 49 percent and don’t turn the ball over. Minnesota overachieved this year, which makes this a classic 5-12 trap.
Sleeper: Wichita State. The Shockers are 30-4 with an average scoring margin of 19.6, second only to Gonzaga. Gregg Marshall’s team hasn’t missed a beat despite losing guards Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet to the NBA. It would be fitting if they played Kentucky in the second round. The Wildcats were underseeded at 8 when they beat unbeaten Wichita State in the second round in 2014.
Go figure: 24-9. Minnesota went from 8-23 to 24-9 under Richard Pitino, the biggest turnaround in Division I this year.
South regional finalists: North Carolina, Middle Tennessee State, Cincinnati, Wichita State.
North Carolina: Tar Heels won national titles in 2005 and 2009 after losing in semifinals of ACC Tournament. Look out.
Arizona: Won 30 games despite losing star soph Allonzo Trier to 19-game suspension. They' would beat Gonzaga with him.
Iowa State: Hot team and a heart-warming story with coach's wife expecting during regional final. CBS would love it.
UNC-Wilmington: George Mason did it out of the Colonial. So did VCU. OK, so the league is weaker now, but so am I.