Well, the first two of the zeroth round games have now been played and if they're any indication of how the rest of the tournament will go, we're in for a hell of a ride. In the opener, Western Kentucky erased a 16 point lead in the final five minutes to steal a win from Mississippi Valley State. Not to be outdone, BYU chased down a 25 point Iona lead to advance to the Sexy 64. With just one day and two play-in games separating us from the time our brackets lock, the pressure to pen a winning bracket continue to increase.
On Tuesday, I gave you my Round One and Two winners (also known as the first round, but apparently the play-in games are technically the first round. Whatever). Today, I effort to correctly pick the belles who will attend the Sweet 16. Onward!
#1 Kentucky vs #8 Iowa State
The Wildcats ain't getting any less good in the day between their first-round waxing and their matchup with the Cyclones. Iowa State is sure to lean heavily on do-everything sophomore Royce White. Meanwhile, Kentucky is sure to lean on their do-everything everybody.
#4 Indiana vs #5 Wichita State
The Hoosiers are very good, and a delicious choice here, as a win would likely give them a rematch against a Kentucky team who had their run at a perfect season ended by IU earlier this year. It's the team CBS would like to see win, as it would let the teams who played one of the most incredible games of the season duke it out again and do so with the entirety of two rabid basketball states watching. Unfortunately for Hoosier fans, CBS heads, and my old pastor Kirby, I don't think they get by the Shockers.
Wichita State has been spending the last three years molding the squad that we'll see in this tournament and their cohesiveness (and flat-out talent) make them my choice to be Kentucky's huckleberry.
PICK: Wichita State
#3 Baylor vs #6 UNLV
I really like Baylor. They're extremely long, well coached and may put three players in the league. The best of those is Perry Jones III, but the team gets their fire from Quincys Miller and Acy. This team can bring an NBA-style of basketball to the court and as much as I love what the Runnin' Rebs have done this season (including beating North Carolina), it'll take a letdown performance from the Bears for them to get this one, and I don't think that's gonna happen.
#2 Duke vs #7 Notre Dame
When Duke is at their best, they are an infuriating team to play. Their offense is designed to get their excellent three-point shooters open looks, and it's something they do with remarkable consistency. The Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, do a good job of cleaning up misses and they play effective defense that leads to wide-open shots in transition. They're as capable of a 15-0 run as anyone in the country, and that style of play is a momentum nightmare if the shots are falling. I think Seth Curry and Austin Rivers (who'll create his own shot if one doesn't present itself) are gonna get close to 40 between them and I can't see the Irish keeping pace.
#1 Syracuse vs #8 Kansas State
Well well well, didn't see that coming. If you haven't heard, the 'Cuse's best player, center Fab Melo, has been suspended for the entire NCAA tournament. It's a very disappointing development, as Melo was poised to become a star in this post-season. Well, it's disappointing unless you're one of the Orangemen's potential opponents. Kansas State's coach, Frank Martin, is excellent at exploiting weaknesses in his opponents and he's been given a very large opportunity to do just that. Without Melo, it's hard for me to see Syracuse being much better than a #4 seed, but this early in the tournament, it should still be enough to advance.
#4 Wisconsin vs #5 Vanderbilt
I'll be honest with you, this game is extremely tough to pick. I love the size of Vanderbilt's front-court, and the athleticism they bring, but I'm also a gigantic fan of the way Jordan Taylor plays. He's as flawless in his decision-making as any guard I've seen and the ball is gonna spend more time in his hands than in any others' on either team. Call it a sin to pick a team based on one player if you must, but Taylor is the type of player that can dictate a game, and his supporting cast is good enough to go man for man with Vandy's squad anyway.
#3 Florida State vs #11 Texas
Florida State is sensational defensively and are extremely adept at taking away their opponent's best player. Texas is uncomfortably reliant on J'Covan Brown to carry them and while I think he'll be good enough to get them past Cincinnati, I can't imagine a 42% shooter faring well against a team as smothering as the Seminoles.
PICK: Florida State
#2 Ohio State vs #7 Gonzaga
With the exclusion of Fab Melo, Ohio State becomes the de facto #1 seed in this bracket and I think they'll play like it. Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and William Buford will be too much for the Zags. It's tough to beat a team that has the three best players on the court.
PICK: Ohio State
#1 Michigan State vs #8 Memphis
Josh Pastner's Tigers are talented enough to go farther in the tourney than a second-round bounce-out, but if they had played up to their talent, they wouldn't have to face the Spartans in Round 2. There will be no answer for Draymond Green.
PICK: Michigan State
#4 Louisville vs #5 New Mexico
I'll say this for Lobo fans, they sure do love their team. Yesterday, I chose their team to win and I still got angrily tweeted at by multiple UNM fans because I didn't say they'd win in the manner they would have like me to have said it, I guess. Tough luck this time, guys. Methinks Louisville will send the Lobos home to rejoin you before the first weekend of the tournament has concluded.
#3 Marquette vs #6 Murray State
If these two teams do play each other, I will be absolutely fixated. Both the Golden Eagles and the Racers are teams that I could easily see making Elite Eight runs in this tournament, except that only one of them will get that chance. For me, the fact that Murray State is among the nation's best at shooting from behind the arc is enough.
PICK: Murray State
#2 Missouri vs #7 Florida
It's hard for me to like a team much more than I like the Missouri Tigers. Mizzou has four (that's right, four!) of the better guards in the country, meaning a relentless, pace-pushing attack that never gets tired. It's a matchup nightmare and I don't think Florida has the horses to overcome it.
#1 North Carolina vs #8 Creighton
ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson's wrist should be all better by Sunday, meaning he gets to join ACC overall Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, likely top-three NBA draft pick Harrison Barnes, and Kendall Marshall, who's arguably the best point guard in the country. There's just no way to shut down all of them at once, meaning you'll need more than one of them to have bad games, plus shoot extremely well yourself to have a chance. If there's one thing Carolina's been vulnerable too, it's guards that get hot from the perimeter, but even if that happens, you still need to overcome the 2nd-highest scoring team in the country. At some point in this tournament, the Tar Heels will feel guard Dexter Strickland's absence, but that isn't likely to come in this one.
PICK: North Carolina
#4 Michigan vs #5 Temple
Michigan has a couple of game-breakers in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr at guard, as well as the ability to speed up a game when they decide to let the threes rain. Against old-school Temple, that would provide an interesting contrast in styles, but against Owls coach Fran Dunphy's shoot first, worry about defense later troop, it could lead to a record amount of long-distance attempts. This game will be won or lost from long-distance and I think Temple's Juan Fernandez and Khalif Wyatt will make enough of them to win.
#3 Georgetown vs #11 North Carolina State
If there was any top-three seed that I thought was in the most danger of losing to a double-digit seed, it would be the on-again, off-again Hoyas. NC State is capable of being very good for stretches, but they've had a hard time keeping it up for entire games and if Georgetown wins the rebounding battle, which I think they'll do, the Hoyas should hold serve.
#2 Kansas vs #10 Purdue
Kansas has Thomas Robinson, Purdue does not. The Boilermakers are going to shoot the nets off the rims to compensate for the wreckage Robinson will make of the paint and while the Robbie Hummel-led train-operators are capable of getting real hot, it won't be enough. Mark my words, Thomas Robinson is going to cause a lot of scout-drool to form over the course of this tournament.
So here we are, down to 16 teams and three-quarters of the way to finishing the bracket. Check out the site early tomorrow to see how the rest of my bracket plays out, and then send me the customary 10% of the winnings you get from your office pool.
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