The NCAA Committee really deserves to take a bow with the matchups, storylines and drama they helped provide in picking the field this year. After a very compelling and topsy-turvy first two rounds, now it’s what I like to call “big boy time.”
After coaching in a few NCAA tourneys and closely following countless others, one thing I’ve learned through the years is that at this point, it’s usually safe to expect the chalk to advance. We will forever have upsets in the early rounds and great Cinderella stories, as we have certainly had so far this year, and once in a great while a VCU or a George Mason or a Butler will sneak all the way through, even to the final game, but it’s safe to say this year’s national champ will most likely be from one of the blue-blood power-conference programs
After going 8 for 8 on my picks in this Sweet 16 preview column a year ago, here’s my attempt at getting it right again.
Have to stay with my pick of taking Kentucky over the field. I do think WVU’s Bob Huggins has been a nemesis to Coach Calipari over the years, from their time at Cincinnati and Memphis in the old Conference USA, and Coach Huggy Bear is one of the few coaches around with an overall career winning record vs Coach Cal.
I like West Virginia’s toughness and athleticism. They will come after Kentucky with a scrambling, trapping pressure defense that will really challenge Kentucky’s backcourt of the Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis, but at the end of the day this game will be won in the trenches, in the paint and up on the backboard, so I believe Kentucky’s size and NBA-caliber front line of seven-footers will help the Wildcats advance.
Notre Dame vs. Wichita State:
You’ve got to love the job Wichita State coach Greg Marshall has done with this Shocker program these last few years, and I love the veteran backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
While I was the coach of Manhattan, we beat St. John’s, the big program in NYC, for the first time in 27 years, so I’m sure the win over Kansas this past weekend will linger a while for the Shockers’ fans. But I’m going to have to go with my friend Mike Brey, who unfortunately lost his 84-year-old mother to a heart attack the day of the Butler game. This seems to be a special Fighting Irish team, having beat his old boss Coach K at Duke and winning the ACC tourney. They are led by one of the most underrated guards in the nation in Jerian Grant and, in typical Coach Brey fashion, all five guys are skilled, can pass and shoot, and are a tough matchup.
Wisconsin vs. North Carolina
This will be an interesting matchup of two very good offensive teams with two different philosophies on how they want to score. UNC will try to run, but also rely on their secondary break and go inside to their bigs, while Wisconsin will try to spread UNC out with their swing offense to open up space to shoot threes.
I like Wisconsin to get by here because they have the best player on either team with Frank Kaminsky, and I feel are a better defensive team and a little more efficient and disciplined with their shot selection on offense.
Arizona vs. Xavier
It’s been old home week for Arizona coach Sean Miller. First, Sean had to coach against his old boss and good friend Thad Matta at Ohio State. Now he has to coach against his old team, Xavier, who he once went to the Elite Eight with. Sean was once my roommate at the five-star camp and also did a great job coaching my old player, C.J. Anderson. C.J. was a kid I recruited out of Cincinnati, and, after I left for the Big East, transferred to play for Sean at Xavier, where he was a starter on that Elite Eight team in 2008.
Xavier is now coached by former Miller assistant Chris Mack, a Xavier alum. The Musketeers have gone to five Sweet Sixteens in the last eight years, and they’ve had great coaches and great tradition. When coaches like myself say administrations win championships, Xavier is what we’re talking about. They are on the same page with Mack.
Unfortunately, I absolutely love this Arizona team. I think Sean Miller will beat his old team here, and Arizona is actually my second choice to win it all should Kentucky somehow stumble. With a perimeter of heady point guard T.J. McConnell, superstar freshman wing Stanley Johnson, who should be a lottery pick, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is already an NBA-level defender, to go with skilled power forward Brandon Ashley (who missed last year’s tourney with a broken foot) and big man Kaleb Tarczewki, who keeps getting better and better, and then the sixth man, sharpshooter Gabe York, they have all the pieces to win it all.
N.C. State vs Louisville
The East has become the anything-can-happen bracket, with No. 1 and No. 2 seeds Villanova and Virginia getting knocked off in the first weekend. It’s now become wide open for just about anyone left still playing in this bracket to sneak through to the Final Four after all would have been considered unlikely picks initially.
I like N.C. State to come out on top in this game. Having come back from a sizable deficit to beat LSU on a buzzer-beater in the first round, then knocking out the top seed, Villanova, who was this year’s best hope for the new Big East, this Wolfpack team coached by my old friend Mark Gottfried seems to be a team of destiny.
I also think this version of Rick Pitino’s Cardinals really labor to score. They’ve had to overcome the loss of Chris Jones, one of their best players, but I think they will reach the end of the road here. You have to love their two best players, Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier, who I believe will both be future NBA players, but those two won’t be enough to get it done.
Michigan State vs Oklahoma
This will be a matchup of two more of the nation’s best coaches: Tom Izzo, who is one of my favorites and is a remarkable 13-1 in the round of 32, vs. Lon Kruger, who now is the only coach to take four different teams to the Sweet 16. I have to go with the Spartans in this one. There is a reason Coach Izzo is known as Mr. March. His teams always do two things that travel well in the tourney: defend and rebound. This team is very blue-collar, and while Denzel Valentine may be the only sexy, household-type name, you can’t count out Sparty in March.
Duke vs. Utah
I do like Delon Wright (Dorell’s younger brother) and this Utah team, but from the time the brackets came out I have been saying this is a special Duke team. After Kentucky and Arizona, Duke in my opinion is the best bet to win it all. With a dominant low-post center in Jahlil Okafor, a terrific wing playing in his hometown of Houston in this round, Justise Winslow and great guards who shoot the 3-ball in Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke will continue to roll on through on their way to Indy.
This has turned out to be a classic west coast matchup despite the committee’s much-maligned decision to put the UCLA Bruins in the field. This should be a fun game to watch, but many people feel this is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few may have ever had, which gives them the best chance to get over the hump in this round. I agree and feel the Zags will end the Bruins’ surprising here.
Hopefully you like my picks and continue to follow me throughout all my TV and radio appearances during March Madness.
In my next column here on Sheridan Hoops, I’ll discuss which players have raised their NBA stock during this year’s tournament.
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