I have a great Elite Eight story to tell you, but I know you want me to get right to my picks.
I went 7-1 in my Sweet Sixteen picks, losing with Louisville — a team I am picking against again Sunday.
I went 8-for-8 last year in the Sweet Sixteen, and my Twitter followers and Chris Sheridan want me to take that 15-1 record and try to make it 19-1.
So I’ll get right to the picks … and then the story.
Kentucky vs. Notre Dame
This Fighting Irish team is somewhat of a sentimental favorite after universally liked coach Mike Brey had to endure the loss of his mother during this tourney run. Also with a bunch of somewhat no-name guys who are skilled and can really shoot the 3 ball, outside of sensational NBA potential guard Jerian Grant most people could not name any of their starters.
What gives Notre Dame a chance is their ability to spread the floor with their terrific spacing and putting 5 skilled guys on the floor at one time who can all dribble, pass and shoot from deep. They will try to drag the big guys from Kentucky out away from the paint and make them defend out on the floor to try to neutralize John Calipari’s team’s size and shot blocking.
Another key stat will be if the Irish can make enough 3s in the game. They are 9-1 when they make 10 or more 3s in the game, and may need 12 or more to win this one. All this being said is good in theory and is always easier said than done.
I picked Kentucky from day one and I’m not going to jump off the 40-0 bandwagon. There’s a great saying that everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth, and I just feel with the play of the Harrison twins and a very underrated Trey Lyles to go along with their size in the frontcourt, Kentucky will control the backboards and be versatile enough to make Notre Dame at least take mostly contested 3s. The Wildcats will advance one step closer to history.
Wisconsin vs. Arizona
This will be a rematch of last year’s regional final in the Elite 8 when Wisconsin beat Arizona by 1 point in OT. I know most people are picking the methodical Badgers with one of the nation’s best in Frank Kaminsky, who reminds many of a young Christian Laettner and also Sam Dekker, who had a career game vs North Carolina in the Sweet 16 with 25 points.
But I’m going to go with Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats to get revenge this year and move on to coach Sean Miller’s first final four.
I believe that Arizona’s superior quickness and athleticism, especially with their two wings in future lottery pick Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, will be the difference in the game.
Another little coaching tidbit to point out.
I’ve done some coaching clinics through the years with Sean Miller, and I know that he really follows the formulas of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett and his son Tony with the same pack line defensive philosophy in the halfcourt.
So Arizona is also an equally outstanding half court defensive team, very similar to Wisconsin, but I believe with better athletes. Lastly I love the way T.J. McConnell Arizona point guard is leading this Arizona team he is the quintessential college point guard who seems to come up with whatever they need to help them win — a big steal a big 3 point shot or a big stop. He, in my opinion, will help get them over the hump to Indy.
Michigan St. vs. Louisville
From the most turbulent bracket, where the No. 1 seed Villanova, the 2-seed Virginia and the 3 seed Iowa St. all got taken out in the first few rounds. This comes down to a legendary coaching matchup between Tom Izzo, Mr. March, who has gone 13-1 in the round of 32, vs. Rick Pitino, who has gone 12-1 in the sweet 16.
Ironically both of these teams were not projected to be here, or are not considered as good as previous teams that represented these schools. But in true great coaching fashion, here we are … and no one deny that both of these Hall of Fame coaches have brought out the absolute best in each of their teams.
Louisville is really an offensively challenged team, but they do have two future NBA players that I love in Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier, who is maybe the best open court player left in the tourney and does some things like Dwayne Wade. Then you’ve got to love both undersized and underrated forwards for the Spartans, Branden Dawson, who’s a rebounding warrior, and Denzel Valentine, who has a little bit of former Spartan Draymond Green in his game.
I believe because senior Travis Trice is playing lights out for Michigan St., he will be the key with his outside shooting against the Cardinals tough and pesky matchup zone. The underrecruited senior is the epitome of a Tom Izzo player. I think this game will be a defensive struggle where easy baskets will be hard to come by. I also think the referees will be a big factor, because the Cardinals’ physical pressure defense vs. the Spartans’ halfcourt physicality, this game may turn into tackle football. At the end of the day, in what I think is the toughest game to pick in this year’s Elite 8, I believe Michigan St will come out on top in what is sure to be a possession-by-possession war.
Duke vs. Gonzaga
Duke is my other pick to finish in the title game with Kentucky, so even though this is the most impressive, complete Gonzaga team I’ve ever seen from Coach Mark Few, I have to stay with Coach K and this year’s Blue Devils to get by in this one.
With center Jahlil Okafor taking on the big Polish center Przemek Karnowski, coming off 18 points and 19 rebounds vs. UCLA to go along with excellent guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. of Gonzaga vs. Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook from Duke, we have unbelievable matchups all over the place.
I believe this will be one of the best offensive games of the tourney, and Duke small forward freshman Justice Winslow coming off a career game of 21 points and 11 rebounds in his hometown of Houston vs. Utah this matchup vs. Kyle Wiltjer may just be the most important one of all because of the versatility both guys bring to their respective teams.
I just think this is a special Coach K Duke team and it’s hard to pick against a coach with four national championship rings.
Let’s sit back and enjoy the ride, because after having just a small taste of what it’s like to compete in the Elite 8, I know it is going to be special.
Which brings us to my story.
I was in the Elite Eight in 1997 as an assistant with Pete Gillen with the Providence Friars and lost to Mike Bibby and eventual champion Arizona Wildcats. Jamel Thomas took an inbounds pass knowing 4 teams will move on to the final four and 4 teams dreams will end I believe there will be some new Magic to be made there always is.
It was in the Birmingham Arena and I was an up and coming hot assistant coach for Pete Gillen.
After Jamel Thomas, a freshmen from Brooklyn who I recruited, hit one of the biggest 3-pointers in Providence College history to tie the game with 13 seconds left. Another young man I recruited from NYC, our freshmen point guard God Shammgod, stole the ball from Jason Terry .
As Shammgod came downcourt, Bibby jumped in front of Shammgod and pulled up for a mid-range jumper that hit the back of the rim and careened out of bounds of an Arizona player with 3.9 seconds on the clock.
Next was probably the most memorable timeout huddle in my 25 years of coaching as people were leaning in and start passing out hats and t- shirts to myself and some of our players that already had our name in the Final Four with the other three teams that had already been determined.
They were doing this in a timeout with 3.9 seconds left in a tie game!
What ensued is Arizona switched all screens, and the ball ended up in Corey Wright’s hands out at the 3-point line. Austin Croshere had fouled out, and Wright was on the floor because he was our second point guard, but he couldn’t shoot. He had time to pass, but he didn’t.
Naturally, his shot missed.
And I can still recall Gillen’s comment: “Corey the reason you were so open was by design, because you were not the guy we wanted to take that shot.”
The scud missile Corey shot is still stuck somewhere in the roof of the Birmingham arena. But truly was the closest I have ever come as a player, assistant coach or head coach to the Final Four.
MORE FROM GONZO:
PODCAST: LOOKING AHEAD TO THE SWEET SIXTEEN
WHY COACH CAL’S ‘CATS WILL REACH IMMORTALITY
REMEMBERING DEAN SMITH, A GENIUS AND A LEGEND
FAREWELL TO JERRY TARKANIAN, THE ULTIMATE REBEL
MY MEMORIES OF COACH K, THE GREATEST COLLEGE COACH EVER
ANALYSIS OF THE RAJON RONDO TRADE
KNICKS, LAKERS, SHOULD BE LOOKING AT TOP 10 LOTTERY PICKS
BEST UNDER THE RADAR NCAA PROSPECTS