Can Anybody Beat Kentucky?

I know I’m posting this a little (or a lot) late, but I promise all these thoughts and projections were formulated before the opening weekend.

My general thoughts while predicting the NCAA Tournament: if a game is up for grabs, I tend to lean first towards coaching, then the best player on the court. This technique usually turns out well for me. Though I sometimes overstate high-upside NBA prospects.

Here’s my general run down on how I selected my bracket. Because I was rushed (read: came up with this idea two days too late) and wanted to post it before the Madness had subsided, there is not a tremendous amount of detail on some games.

MIDWEST REGION

(1) Kentucky over (16) Man/Ham

Obviously Kentucky. Don’t see anyone that can beat them in the entire country. Definitely not a 16-seed play-in game. Moving on.

(9) Purdue over (8) Cincinnati

This one is kind of a toss-up for me. Purdue has exceeded expectations all season in the very talented Big Ten. While the Boilermakers haven’t passed the eye-test with flying colors, I have yet to see a Cincy game this year, so it’s hard to judge one team for something I can grade both on. But from watching clips and reading about them, Cincinnati appears to be a very athletic squad that could give Purdue fits. But in the end, I think Purdue plays tough enough defense to grind this one out.

(12) Buffalo over (5) West Virginia

This and the Georgetown game were literally my last two selections in the bracket. I decided to go with the upset here because Buffalo impressed me in two of their lopsided losses, and I love their coach. I think Bobby Hurley is going places as a coach, and I want in on the ground level. Having said that, WVU still significantly wins the coaching battle. Even though that is true, and they have the best several players on the court, I’m still picking Buffalo over an above-average Big 12 team. In a bracket where I was scrounging for upsets, this one wins out. (However, I hedged my bets by drafting West Virginia in both fantasy-football-style bracket pools. So go Bulls! But also go Mountaineers!)

(4) Maryland over (13) Valparaiso

Valpo doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Maryland is an easy choice to advance for me here. Really like what this squad has been doing all year–excluding their “game” in Iowa City–and I think this one will be pretty straight forward.

(11) Texas over (6) Butler

Yes, Texas just barely squeaked in to the tournament. Yes, Butler has more tournament success than Texas. Yes, I think the Big 12 has been very overrated this year (not bad, just overrated). Wait, where am I going with this? Didn’t I pick Texas? I suppose I haven’t given up on Isaiah Taylor and (more so) Myles Turner yet. Also I’m not big on Butler this year. I guess that’s enough to overcome my doubts and choose this upset.

(3) Notre Dame over (14) Northeastern

Notre Dame is one of–if not the–hottest team in the country right now. Wins against Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back days in the ACC Tournament will do that for you. Having a roster built the way they do, will get me on board with your chances too. Irish win an easy one here.

(7) Wichita State over (10) Indiana

Indiana hucks up a ton of threes. A TON. That’s a great recipe to beat anyone (other than Kentucky). Unfortunately it also leaves you susceptible to defeat against anyone. I think Wichita State is disciplined enough on defense to prevent the Hoosiers from getting a lot of open looks. I think they are talented enough on offense to put this away early. Not a lot of thought into this one either. Mark it in Sharpie.

(2) Kansas over (15) New Mexico State

Unless you’re superstitious and always choose the team you’re rooting for to lose first round, you really have to hate a 2-seed to pick one of these upsets. That being said, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if another 15-seed wins this year. And Kansas just might be the team to give it away. Unfortunately, I don’t see NMSU as the team to take it from them. Jayhawks advance.

(1) Kentucky over (9) Purdue

Do I really have to write this six times? Kentucky wins. Always. Until they play an NBA team, Kentucky wins.

(4) Maryland over (12) Buffalo

It was fun while it lasted, Buffalo. A 12-seed has only beaten a 4-seed twelve times since 1985. Not terrible odds, but I like Melo Trimble to put the team on his back if it comes down to the end–both in this game and the Valpo game.

If West Virginia beats Buffalo, I still like Maryland here, though not as definitively. They had a better year in a better conference. Don’t have the coaching advantage, but do have the go-to player advantage. Congratulations on the good year, Maryland. And welcome to the Big Ten. I mean that with 100% sincerity, but now you won the right to get crushed by the Wildcats in the Sweet 16.

(3) Notre Dame over (11) Texas

Notre Dame has a dangerous feel to them this year. They have an NBA point guard in Jerian Grant, who’s only still in school because of last year’s suspension. Zach Auguste is a stud in the post. And those two open up a lot of space for Pat Connaughton & Co. to rain in threes. The good news: Rick Barnes will likely be thrilled even making it to the Round of 32.

If Butler avoids the upset, I still see ND in the Sweet 16. Like I mentioned above, I’m just not sold on Butler this season, and Notre Dame has more than impressed me in the games I’ve watched. In either match-up, the Irish won’t have to Fight much for the win and Sweet 16 berth.

(7) Wichita State over (2) Kansas

I LOVE that the committee matched these two up so early. Two great programs, separated by just a two hour drive, yet they haven’t played each other since 1993. That means that for a majority of the players on either team, Wichita State has never played Kansas in their lifetime! That’s absurd for two teams so close to each other, but it’s not from lack of effort (at least not on Gregg Marshall’s side). Kansas has been ducking the Shockers requests to play non-conference games for years. But they cannot avoid this matchup–unless Indiana pulls out an improbable victory in the Round of 64. I think Wichita State is going to get up for this game and play their hearts out. This is the reason I’m choosing Wichita State to advance to the Sweet 16, and the same story line is the reason I chose Dayton to upset Ohio State last season. Oh, and Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, etc. help. After all, this team + CleAnthony Early went undefeated last season. Not to mention KU is missing Cliff Alexander, and Perry Ellis will be limited with his knee injury. I like Wichita State here in a close battle. Man, Omaha is going to be rocking on March 22nd!

(1) Kentucky over (4) Maryland

Eventually I will have to start defending my Kentucky wins with actual analysis. I’m just not convinced that time has come. Maryland (or West Virginia) does not have the size to compete with Kentucky up front or the skill to go against the Wildcats’ guards. Kentucky advances yet again.

(3) Notre Dame over (7) Wichita State

Wichita State is a good team, but Notre Dame is better. I think Jerian Grant will best the Baker/VanVleet backcourt combination from the Shockers and Auguste can hang with the best of them inside. In a somewhat tough battle in Cleveland, the last remaining of the Midwest’s five Indiana teams will pull through to the Elite Eight.

Another strong factor in this choice, you gotta play the odds. I think ND is a near lock for their Sweet 16 berth, and it would not Shock me if KU realizes the ramifications of losing to Those Guys From Wichita and pulled out a victory in the Round of 32. Half the battle is just showing up, and Wichita State has to pull off a decent upset to achieve even that. I like Notre Dame against both teams, but from a sheer probability standpoint, they have significantly the best chance of reaching the Elite Eight.

(1) Kentucky over (3) Notre Dame

Notre Dame is having a great year. I just don’t see them advancing past this point. While Auguste is good in the post, he is still outmatched by Trey Lyles and possibly Dakari Johnson. (I’m not forgetting any of UK’s seven-footers, am I?) Jerian Grant will be the best guard in this game, with the possible exception of 5’9″ Tyler Ulis. Eight inches are a lot to cede, but Ulis is used to being the smallest guy on the court, and I do not foresee him completely collapsing with the season on the line. Kentucky gets their first real game, but step up in the last 12 minutes and win by 10-15.

WEST REGION

(1) Wisconsin over (16) Coastal Carolina

Wisconsin is very good. Coastal Carolina won the Big South. Maybe someday a 16-seed will win, but not today.

(9) Oklahoma State over (8) Oregon

As a Colorado alum, I pay attention to the Pac-12 more than most. For those who missed a lot of the late night west coast games, I’m envious. Beyond Arizona, this is not a good conference. KenPom.com gave Oregon a 3.6% chance to win the Pac-12 Tournament. They were the 2-seed… Le’Bryan Nash hasn’t been the player I thought he would be after Marcus Smart left, but I still like the Cowboys to pull this one out.

(5) Arkansas over (12) Wofford

Bobby Portis is a BEAST. Simply put, no one on Wofford can shut him down. The other nine guys on the court won’t matter. Portis will win this game.

(4) North Carolina over (13) Harvard

Who says the Ivy League doesn’t have a conference tournament? One of the country’s oldest rivalries was rehashed in a one-game playoff to determine which group of brainiacs got to the Big Dance. Harvard beat Yale in the waning seconds for that right. Unfortunately, I do not think this is enough to overtake North Carolina. They’re playing their best ball as of late, and I like them to advance pretty easily.

(6) Xavier over (11) BYU/Ole Miss

This was going to be a tough one to predict for me. I see BYU as an absolute crap-shoot. As a fast-paced, three-point heavy, defense-optional team, the Cougars can beat anyone and be beaten by anyone. If BYU had pulled it out against Ole Miss in the play-in game, I would have taken this upset pick. Alas, they proved my point exactly in that game and couldn’t sustain their lead when the going got tough. I don’t think Ole Miss has enough to beat Sean Miller’s old squad.

(3) Baylor over (14) Georgia State

The Panthers are a trendy upset pick here. Ron Hunter made headlines after he ruptured his Achilles celebrating his team’s conference title. His son R.J. will be a first round pick in June. Kevin Ware–yes, that Kevin Ware, don’t Google him!–is returning to the NCAA Tournament. I wrestled with this one for a while, but Baylor’s size and athleticism won out for me.

(10) Ohio State over (7) VCU

I don’t see this as an upset. I think D’Angelo Russell absolutely crushes VCU and the Buckeyes move cleanly on to the Round of 32

(2) Arizona over (15) Texas Southern

Not much to talk about here. Arizona is one of my favorite teams in the field this year. Keep this game as your fourth option when deciding what to watch.

(1) Wisconsin over (9) Oklahoma State

Beating an over-seeded Oregon team is not enough to convince me you can be just the fourth team to beat Wisconsin this season. If Le’Bryan Nash had taken that next step, this might be close. (However had that happened, they also wouldn’t be a 9-seed.) I like Wisconsin to easily handle either OSU or Oregon in this match-up.

(4) North Carolina over (5) Arkansas

Finally! A good game in the West region! The Round of 64 was pretty straight-forward for me. But there are some good teams fighting to play in LA and make the Final Four, and here is the first time any of them meet. I like UNC for a couple reasons. Marcus Paige is just the next in line of elite Iowan ballers, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks provide the consistency needed to withstand a Paige shooting drought, and Roy Williams can supply the X’s and O’s needed in crunch time. Bobby Portis will make the Tar Heels earn it, but I see a couple huge Paige three-pointers to seal the game late.

(3) Baylor over (6) Xavier

This is one of the two or three match-ups where I am not excited to move either team on to the Sweet 16, but I think Rico Gathers will win this one for Baylor. Again, their size and athleticism will end up being the deciding factors and they’ll win a boring one.

If Ole Miss pulls off a Round of 64 upset, this game becomes a little more exciting. Not just because of their athleticism, but I think there will be actual points scored in a Baylor-Ole Miss match-up–along with some high-flying dunks. If Georgia State beats Baylor, I expect they will also advance to the Sweet 16. I can 100% see them being this year’s darling. The story lines are just too good.

(2) Arizona over (10) Ohio State

This is the game I’m looking forward to most in this region–save for the Elite Eight match-up (maybe). D’Angelo Russell won’t be the best player on the court, but he will play like it. Thad Matta won’t be the best coach, but his face will be the reddest. I think Arizona is too big and athletic for the Buckeyes, but in the end, they are mostly just too deep. I hate writing this, because I had Ohio State pegged for a deep run before the brackets were released. Unfair they have to play the Wildcats so early. I will say this though: if this game is close with 10 minutes remaining, prepare for a Russell takeover. He will not go down without a fight and could single-handedly propel this team to the Sweet 16. I just wish he didn’t have to…

(1) Wisconsin over (4) North Carolina

This is where things get really interesting. At their best, Wisconsin can beat any team in the country. Frank Kaminsky gets my vote for Player of the Year, and Sam Dekker has out-played him several times this season. Traevon Jackson’s injury hurts them, but Bronson Koenig has been serviceable in his absence. But they haven’t really faced the athleticism that the Tar Heels boast, and UNC is hardly just a bunch of athletes. This is a good squad that plays hard and seems to live for the big moments. I’m really excited for this one. I can see it going either way, but Wisconsin just doesn’t make mistakes. And that’s what will win them this game.

(2) Arizona over (3) Baylor

An easy one for me here. None of the four teams that could possibly play Zona in the Sweet 16 can hang with them. Baylor is a similar makeup to the Wildcats, just without the depth or star power. And those are pretty important… Unless Ohio State pulls out the upset, this will probably be the most boring Sweet 16 match-up. And if they do, I still like the Buckeyes to win and advance to the Elite Eight, just in a closer game than Arizona.

(2) Arizona over (1) Wisconsin

I’m finally avoiding the chalk! Before this, the only West region “upsets” were a 9-seed (who actually win more than 8-seeds do) and Ohio State over VCU (which I think should be a 7 over 10 anyways; I don’t see that as an upset). I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb for this one either–Arizona will probably be favored in this match-up–but at least on paper it’s an upset! As I mentioned in their Sweet 16 write-up, Wisconsin might struggle with athleticism. And Arizona has athleticism in spades. Kaminsky will be forced to defend his Player of the Year status against a couple true ballers in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. I just don’t think they’ll be able to pull it out, but if they do it will because they force the young’ins from Tucson to commit too many mental errors late in the game.

EAST REGION

(1) Villanova over (16) Lafayette

Nova might be the worst 1-seed, but that doesn’t mean Lafayette can win this.

(8) NC State over (9) LSU

LSU has some NBA talent in their front line. Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are both averaging about 15-and-9 and can hang tough with anyone. Including Kentucky. This is the team that had a last second three clank out in their upset bid against the Wildcats last month. And Martin and Mickey were the guys everyone was shocked didn’t get the ball to force overtime. These guys can play. NC State stayed afloat in a great ACC. Although they are barely above .500 in conference play, wins against Duke, at Louisville, and at North Carolina, and a couple close losses helped solidify their bid. Built entirely different from LSU, NC State’s attack is run through stellar guard play. Headlined by Trevor Lacey, the Wolfpack’s four leading scorers all shoot more than 36% from behind the arc, making them a legitimate threat to beat anybody. Starting with LSU.

(5) Northern Iowa over (12) Wyoming

When the Cowboys won the Mountain West Tournament, I was excited to pick them as an upset, in at least the first round. Wyoming has been a talented squad for several years, and they would have been an at-large team had Larry Nance, Jr. been healthy. I was really looking forward to picking them to advance. But UNI is built to last. Seth Tuttle is an excellent low-post player, almost always needing a double-team. When that second defender comes, Tuttle uses his great vision and passing abilities to find one of the four sharpshooters ready to knock down the open three. Wyoming does not have the low-post defender to beat Tuttle.

(4) Louisville over (13) UC Irvine

I’m not big on Louisville this year. Pitino is a great coach and can make the most out of a situation, but I just don’t see it in the roster this year. I wanted to pick Irvine to win this game. My elaborate process to make my decision: I literally Googled “Mamadou Ndiaye highlights” strictly to watch the 7’6″ Anteater run up and down the court. If he could run with any fluidity, I was going to pick the upset. Obviously, I didn’t like his gait. Irvine isn’t good enough to topple Louisville.

(6) Providence over (11) Boise State/Dayton

Dayton ended up winning the play-in game (in Dayton). Because this match-up is in Columbus (70 miles from Dayton), I actually had to think about this one. While Providence is written off by most, I resorted back to my “best player on the court” philosophy, which led me to believe Kris Dunn can overcome the pseudo-home court advantage and win a game they deserve to win.

(3) Oklahoma over (14) Albany

I am not on board with Oklahoma this year. I think they are considerably the worst 3-seed in this year’s bracket. Unfortunately I just couldn’t find any saving grace in Albany to pick the upset. Oklahoma has some friends on the committee.

(7) Michigan State over (10) Georgia

Michigan State as a 7-seed is laughable. This is probably the best team in the absurdly weak East Region. Even if their pedigree should slot them as a 7, Izzo’s track record needs to bump them about two seeds. But I also don’t think their pedigree ranks them as a 7-seed. Of their eleven losses, five came in overtime, including the Big Ten Championship game against 1-seed Wisconsin. Of their six regulation losses, two were to 1-seeds and a third was against a 2-seed. The three remaining losses: two points on the road to a conference foe, five points at home, and a tough loss at Maryland. Those first two may be Nebraska and Illinois, respectively, but only two regulation losses to sub-top-five teams on the entire season is very respectable. Easy pick for me here.

(2) Virginia over (15) Belmont

If Justin Anderson plays in the tournament, he won’t be 100%. And an injury on a shooting hand is tough to overcome for a guard. Even without him, I don’t think Belmont can overcome Virginia’s stifling team defense. I paused for a second picking this one, but not much longer than that.

(1) Villanova over (8) NC State

Man, the East Region is weak. I’m not extremely confident in NC State overtaking LSU, so I’m sticking with the 1-seed to make it to the second weekend. I probably still give Nova the slight nod over either NC State or LSU head-to-head, but I definitely think they’re most likely of the three to advance to the Sweet 16.

(4) Louisville over (5) Northern Iowa

I gave more thought to Irvine’s upset bid than UNI’s. I think Montrezl can shut down Tuttle one-on-one, and that completely closes off their offense. Louisville by 15.

If there’s an upset in the Round of 64, I’ll take either one of these teams to beat the double digit seed.

(6) Providence over (3) Oklahoma

I swear I’m not a closet Providence fan. I just think they have an easy first weekend. I think Kris Dunn moves the needle in both games and they win both by about five points. I just don’t see it in Oklahoma this year. For whatever reason, I don’t see the appeal.

(7) Michigan State over (2) Virginia

If Virginia was full-strength, this would be a very tough game to decide. But with Anderson either out or significantly hampered, this becomes a lot easier. Spartans win, with or without Anderson in the lineup. But Virginia likely takes Georgia if MSU loses in the Round of 64.

(1) Villanova over (4) Louisville

This was a tough one for me. I like Louisville in this game straight up, but it’s hard for me to choose a team to make the Elite Eight when my first thought was to have them lose in the Round of 64. Hedging my bets here, and allowing the 1-seed to slide on through to face…

(7) Michigan State over (6) Providence

Providence’s run has finally come to an end. The winners-by-default of the first two games finally face a formidable foe. Michigan State has their easiest win of the tournament so far, as Izzo draws up the perfect defense to force Kris Dunn into a 3-16 shooting night.

If Oklahoma pulls through against Providence, I still like Sparty here, though maybe a few points closer. If Virginia is playing here, they advance as well.

(7) Michigan State over (1) Villanova

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this is NOT A GOOD REGION! I’m not even a big fan of Michigan State’s squad this year; there’s just no competition to get out of this region. Before the brackets were set, I did not think I would have the Spartans in the Final Four. I just think they are far better than all of the other teams they have to face.

CBS is hoping Louisville is in the game over Villanova. That would be a great battle. I think Michigan State would still pull it out, but I would not be nearly as confident. Also, I think Virginia would win this game as well most opponents. Louisville would put up the biggest fight. And probably win. Virginia would beat anyone but Louisville in the match-up.

SOUTH REGION

(1) Duke over (16) North Florida/Robert Morris

These guys can’t stop Okafor. Though they won’t need to for the last 14 minutes when he’s already resting for the Round of 32.

(8) San Diego State over (9) St. John’s

St. John’s will be without Chris Obekpa, one of their best players, for this game. Even though the committee knew this and seeded them accordingly, that’s too difficult to overcome. SDSU can and will win this game.

(5) Utah over (12) Stephen F. Austin

Another very trendy upset pick here. I can’t do it. I’m much too high on Utah. I would have taken Delon Wright in the mid-to-late first round in last year’s draft had he declared. Now I’m not even sure if he’s the first pick on his own team! Jakob Poeltl (hopefully you’re not reading this out loud) is a beast in the post. Utes advance.

(4) Georgetown over (13) Eastern Washington

This was also one of the last remaining games for me to fill in. I don’t see it in Georgetown, and the Eagles can hit threes in bunches. That’s the quickest way to an upset in the tourny. The only problem is that they can’t defend. I think if Georgetown is behind or close late, they will dig their heels in and pull it out in the end.

(6) SMU over (11) UCLA

Here we go. The biggest what-if of the year matched up with the last at-large in the field. Can you imagine this SMU team with Mudiay? But they’re pretty damn good without this year’s top 5 pick. UCLA will have something to prove, but Larry Brown will guide the Mustangs to victory against Steve Alford (I hate that I have to write that man’s name) and the Bruins.

(3) Iowa State over (14) UAB

Pretty quick one for me here too. ISU is playing excellent ball at the moment. While there high-flying, three-point-heavy style of play leaves them susceptible to droughts (and ensuing losses), not happening here. Clones move on.

(10) Davidson over (7) Iowa

Back-to-back predictions for the Hawkeye State! Unfortunately this one is less optimistic. Though Iowa has some strong wins on the resume (@UNC, throttled Maryland, swept Ohio State), only a couple bad losses, and a veteran team, I have a feeling that Davidson’s shooters (four players over 42% from three) will get hot early and pull off the upset.

(2) Gonzaga over (15) North Dakota State

Though Gonzaga has troubles in March, this game will not be one of those examples.

(1) Duke over (8) San Diego State

SDSU is good, but Duke is great. This one might stay close for a little bit because of their tenacious defense, but the Blue Devils will prevail and win by about 12.

(5) Utah over (4) Georgetown

Again, another easy choice for me here. I see little promise in this Georgetown squad, and I am high on Utah.

(3) Iowa State over (6) SMU

This would be an amazing game had Mudiay decided to “get an education” this year. But without the premier floor general, I don’t think SMU has enough firepower to keep up with the Cyclones brigade of 3-pointers. ISU would also take down UCLA.

(2) Gonzaga over (10) Davidson

This is Mark Few’s best team in a long time. Some three point shooting mid-major will not be their kryptonite. I think Gonzaga handles Davidson with ease, leading to their second 15+ point win in this year’s tournament. If Iowa avoids the upset, the Bulldogs still win this game, though slightly closer.

(1) Duke over (5) Utah

I hate that Utah is in Duke’s bracket. I could talk myself into the Utes upsetting Wisconsin, and Utah over Nova is a no-brainer to me, but I like this Duke team too much. I don’t think Poeltl can slow down Okafor enough, and Justise Winslow can lock down Delon Wright in the clutch. Past that, Duke has players, while Utah does not. Simple as that.

(3) Iowa State over (2) Gonzaga

This one could really go either way. I think Hoiberg’s squad will continue to hit their threes after the five day rest and do enough on defense to win by 6 or 7. Because even though this is a great Gonzaga team, Kyle Wiltjer is maybe their best player, and he would never see the court had he stayed on Kentucky.

(1) Duke over (3) Iowa State

I like this Duke squad, though their age makes me a little nervous. Either way, Okafor, Winslow, and crew have a bigger chance to lose to Utah than to Iowa State (or Gonzaga). Coach K makes another Final Four.

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