I lost my shirt in Vegas. Well, not exactly, but I certainly have had better years (handicapping) here. Wichita State killed me. I have been drinking the Shocker Kool Aid since 2012, so I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit here. Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle stepped up. The “young, inexperienced team” also beat the Shockers at the free throw line. I counted six free throws that the Shockers missed, including a pair of empty trips in the second half. It was an uncharacteristic loss for the Shockers. This sets up a fantastic sweet sixteen matchup between Blue Grass rivals Louisville and UK. Like Michigan State versus Virginia on the other side of the bracket, I feel the winner of Kentucky vs. Louisville will play in the national championship game. Those four teams are just playing at a higher level right now. (PS- I wrote on November 8th how the SEC is the best conference in America. SEC is 6-0 in the NCAA tournament).
Even in their wins, I feel Arizona and Florida have shown subtle signs of being in that second tier of remaining teams. For Florida, I think Casey Hill at backup point guard could be exploited under pressure, as well as an extremely muscular yet not super-tall front line. In the SEC Championship game, Kentucky killed Florida on the boards when its entire front-line attacked the glass. I can envision Michigan State, Virginia, or UK again doing the same. For Arizona, I feel its Weber State and Gonzaga path has been the easiest road to the Sweet Sixteen so far. Freshman Aaron Gordon is showing why he is a lottery pick. However, I feel there will come a point where the injury of Brandon Ashley will catch up to them. A substitute so far has been for guard Gabe York to play more minutes. I think that move to a smaller lineup will eventually not work out.
Speaking of size, the two teams I just put $5 to win it all remains Baylor and Tennessee. “You can’t teach size.” Tennessee blasted an upstart Mercer team because of its bigs – Mayben and Stokes. For Baylor, not only do they have Jefferson and Austin, but Rico Gathers is playing really well thus far in the tournament. I think he has a future in the NFL, literally. I made those football comparisons with Jordair Jett, but this is one that I actually mean when you look at the way Gathers rebounds the ball. If you look at the above picture, I jumped all over the 75-to-1 odds for Baylor to win it all. I did a double-take when I saw that longshot exists at Caesar’s Palace. At the MGM Grand, Baylor was 30-to-1. At my “hometown” resort South Point Casino, the Baylor Bears remain 15-to-1. It’s surprising yet comical how the speculation continues to vary. I doubled-down on my Michigan State pick as well. I have believed they were the odds on favorite from the beginning. (Sadly, I wished I had re-read my own blog, where I wrote on November 8th how Wichita State, Gonzaga, New Mexico, Indiana and Oregon are my top 5 teams to take step backwards in 2013-14. Today, I also hedged that bet slightly with Virginia at 11-to-1. Again, I feel the winner of Michigan State vs. Virginia will play the winner of Kentucky vs. Louisville in the championship game. I also love the way Anthony Gill is playing for Virginia, hence listing him pre-tournament as one of my Elite 8 Unknowns…until tip. With either Dayton or Stanford a sure-fire for the actual Elite Eight, there is still much madness to be had. I hope you are all enjoying it. And hopefully your bracket doesn’t have as much pink highlighter as mine!
Sitting here in the Phoenix airport. One flight left until Vegas. Eight hours left until tip-off. I want to tell you about the eight players I feel could be household names by Saturday.
1. Jordair Jett – G – St. Louis
Jett epitomizes the senior leadership exhibited by the Saint Louis squad. NC State has become a fashionable pick to defeat the Billikins tomorrow in a 5-12 matchup. I would caution those looking for the obligatory 12 seed upsets tomorrow; UTEP was written on almost everyone’s bracket back in 2010 with Derek Caracter. Butler beat them by 20 then went on to the Championship Game. I see Saint Louis as very similar to Butler in that spot. Although “Jordair” sounds like the combination of His Greatness and his sneakers, he is actually more like a football player. I think he’ll move the chains, get to the rim, and beat Louisville or Manhattan to advance to the Sweet 16.
2. Elfrid Payton/Shawn Long – G/F – Louisiana Lafayette
The Ragin’ Cajuns duo here are the most productive pair in the entire NCAA Tournament. I don’t know if Creighton will have the defensive tandem to be able to guard them. They are both a tough cover with pure scorer mentalities.
3. Anthony Gill – G/F – Virginia
Gill played one season at South Carolina, averaging almost 8 points as a freshman before bolting to the Cavaliers. He took over a couple of games in the ACC Tournament and I think this is just the tip of the ice berg. It’s funny, I asked myself whether he is related to Kendal Gill, because he plays somewhat similar. Like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Virginia is a great team, but can go through its offensive droughts. I believe Gill will be the answer this first weekend.
4. Amedo Della Valle – G – Ohio State
If you give me the opportunity to sneak in a paisan, I will. This kid looks like a cross between Danillo Gallinari and Sideshow Bob on the court, but his play has propelled the Buckeyes into the tournament. They could have easily ended up like Illinois and Indiana in the Big 10; Highly talented, but left on the outside looking in. Ohio State Coach Thad Matta has been looking for a second guard off the bench, especially in situations where they need to score. The freshman Loving from Toledo has recently been benched in lieu of Della Valle. I look for the Italian to continue his clutch play, quietly being the glue that gives this team a second wind in the second half.
5. Josh Newkirk – G – Pittsburgh
As previously mentioned, the Panthers can struggle to score at times. This freshman is changing that. He is an exceptionally quick guard. With the seniority surrounding him, Newkirk has been able to find his niche and contribute more scoring late this year. If there is a guy to hit a big shot to win a close game versus Colorado.
6. Eric Stutz – C – Eastern Kentucky
The Colonels beat a respectable Belmont squad to make the tournament. Picture NBA euro-star Luis Scola and you’ll see the NCAA equivalence in Stutz. What he lacks in athleticism, he will make up for in hustle. Eastern Kentucky is a very small team, but one of the best 3PT shooting team in the U.S. Stutz’s foul count could be the key to them covering a spread against the Kansas Jayhawks.
7. Deandre Bembry
Look for the afro on the court. Bembry reminds me of a young Sam Perkins. You’re not sure if he is a big or a guard. He will find himself in the paint when it’s time for offensive rebound for the team. He will sneak along the baseline when it’s time to knock down a twelve foot jumper. Bembry joins Kanacevic and Roberts Jr. on a very athletic front court for the Hawks. They can get above the rim. That’s why I believe Saint Joseph’s will make the actual Elite 8 with this one of my Eight Unkowns.
8. J.J. O’Brien – F – San Diego St.
O’Brien is the guy who you pick up on your team during pickup basketball because you actually want to win and hold the court. Fans who watch the Mountain West already know his name. I have credited coach Steve Fisher for training this Aztec defense as the best in the country for double-teaming. They confused Joel Embiid earlier in the year at Allen Fieldhouse during a win. J.J. O’Brien is usually the guy who comes over as the second defender, then quickly rotates to help side once the ball is passed opposite wing. I can see him knocking down a crucial and-one to catapolt the Aztecs into the Final Four. Right now I have Wisconsin in that region, but it could easily be San Diego St., Arizona or Oklahoma State. I am not believing in Creighton, Gonzaga, Oregon or Oklahoma as a Final Four team from that region.
I hear the conspiracy argument that the selection committee is fixing the bracket with compelling story-lines. So…where exactly is the controversy? Bring on the narratives!
Remember when you were a little kid and you couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve? If I did get to sleep, I’d remember my sister Regina waking me up at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. to help her kill time. Well, since the bracket has come out it has been consecutive days of the Christmas insomnia. I am like a giddy little kid awaiting the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. And so I took this video on another holiday, Saint Patrick’s Day. I hope they give you good luck to strike the pot of gold in YOUR office pool.
Thank you anyone and everyone who read my rookie season of this blog. I squeaked-out an above-.500 record up until this point. I am 45-41 Against the Spread (Matt’s ATS) on my season picks. Depending on what shakes out with the league championships, this could be my last Saturday of regular season picks. Here they are…
Eastern Kentucky +7 vs. Belmont *This is the Ohio Valley Championship game and I think Eastern Kentucky will win the game outright. Both teams are wildly similar. The team that plays either in the first round of the NCAA Tournament better GUARD the 3-point line!
Kentucky +8 @ Florida Missouri St. +12 vs. Wichita State North Carolina +8 @ Duke Illinois +11 1/2 @ Iowa Oregon -3 vs. Arizona Iowa St. -3 1/2 vs. Oklahoma St. UCONN +10 vs. Louisville Georgetown +11 1/2 @ Villanova
Some awesome spreads this week for underdogs making a comeback into the bubble conversation. Georgetown, Illinois and Oregon have played great ball of late. In the words of Denny Green, “they are who we THOUGHT THEY WERE.” And they’re getting a chance today. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last time Louisville won by 10+ points let alone the last time UCONN received that generous spread. I would trust Shabazz Napier with my house keys as far as point guard play is concerned. UNC Duke is too mar-key a matchup to be an 8 point game.
Matt’s ATS stands at 41-36 on the season.
(Take team on the left),
Miami + 4 1/2 @ NC State
LSU + 13 @ Florida
Oklahoma -5 vs. Texas
Syracuse +4 @ Virginia
Creighton -2 1/2 vs. Xavier
Minnesota +9 @ Michigan
VCU – 4 1/2 vs. St. Louis
California +4 1/2 @ Arizona St.
Oklahoma St. PK Kansas