Sunday Elite 8 predictions

Went 2-0 today, much to my dismay since the Pitt loss pretty much took me out of a high-money pool I was leading. Hopefully I’ll go zero for two today if you catch my drift.

Midwest Regional Final
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Louisville
The Spartans pulled out their bag of tricks to get past defending-champion Kansas on Friday, as point guard Kalin Lucas made a tough and-1 leaner to break a 62-62 tie. If Michigan State hopes to pull the upset, Lucas will have to have a big game, as point guard is one of the few positions that the Spartans have a personnel advantage over the Cardinals.
MSU will also have to slow the Louisville press-and-run attack quite a bit. The Cardinals played their best game of the tournament – and perhaps the best game of any team in the tourney – in killing Arizona 103-64. They are deep, quick, talented and motivated. If they force MSU into turnovers – an occasional bugaboo for the Spartans – the Cards win this going away.
Pick: Louisville

South Regional Final
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 North Carolina
Just in case anyone was wondering if Blake Griffin was worthy of being the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, Griffin has gone for roughly 30 points per game in his first three games. He’s going to have to continue that type of production against the Tar Heels, who can score against and with anyone in the nation.
However, the key may be how the Griffins – Blake and older brother Taylor – deal with Hansbrough inside. They have the athletic advantage over the bullish Tar Heel senior and if they can frustrate him, they can keep UNC based on the perimeter. That, plus big performances from guards Willie Warren and Tony Crocker, would give the Sooners a chance. But I don’t see it.
Pick: North Carolina

Saturday Elite 8 predictions

Will we have four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four for the second straight year? The way this tourney has gone, I wouldn’t doubt it. But let’s see.

West Regional
No. 3 Missouri vs. No. 1 Connecticut
The Tigers opened some eyes Thursday, running and gunning past Memphis while putting up over 100 points in the process. After that performance, which saw Mizzou up by as many as 24 points in the second half, confidence should be high.
But Missouri has never played in a Final Four. And UConn might be playing the most consistent basketball in the tournament to date. Expect Missouri to try to get the Huskies out of their game through the full-court press, but the Tigers will be hard-pressed to contain 7-foot-3 UConn center Hasheem Thabeet. Their best bet would be to get Thabeet in foul trouble and even the odds. Otherwise, the Huskies should win this convincingly.
Pick: Connecticut

East Regional
No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 1 Pittsburgh
Pitt may be the No. 1 seed, but the Wildcats seem to be gathering most of the buzz going into this game. That makes a lot of sense, as Villanova has just wasted Duke and UCLA while the Panthers seem to be ekeing out victories over everyone they play. If you go by how each team is playing, Villanova should be OK.
A couple things could factor in Pittsburgh’s favor though. If DeJuan Blair can stay out of foul trouble, he provides a space-eating low-post scoring threat that Villanova has no real counter for. And perhaps like Louisville (which struggled at times in its first two games before destroying Arizona Friday), perhaps the Panthers have a big game in them. They’ve gotten big individual games from Blair (E. Tenn State), Sam Young (Okla. State) and Levance Fields (Xavier). They need a combo to win this game.
Pick: Villanova

South Region predictions

Lots of intrigue in this region, between title favorite North Carolina, Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, the overtime-heavy squad of Syracuse and an experienced Gonzaga squad. Fun stuff if you ask me.

No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 North Carolina
The Bulldogs might be one of the more tournament-experienced teams in the field, but they needed Jeremy Pargo to do his best impersonation of Tyus Edney to survive Western Kentucky and make this round. However, Gonzaga is tough being long, athletic Austin Daye, sharpshooter Matt Bouldin and the speedy Pargo.
North Carolina’s fortunes are based on how much defense it wants to play. The Tar Heels can score any day of the week, especially with Ty Lawson looking good, but their defensive intensity wanes and leaves them vulnerable during the course of 40 minutes. I’d expect Gonzaga to exploit this and even take a lead into the final 10 minutes before succumbing to UNC’s abundance of talent.
Pick: North Carolina

No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 2 Oklahoma
This might be the toughest game to call in the Sweet 16. On one hand you have a Syracuse team that can score in a variety of ways – off the drive (Jonny Flynn), on the catch and shoot (Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins) and inside (Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku). Add in a tough matchup 2-3 zone and the Orange are tough.
Oklahoma, however, has the most dominant player of the tournament in sophomore Blake Griffin. Griffin is a physical specimen and can eat up the Orange down low. However, the Sooner guards have to hit 3s to loosen up the Syracuse zone so they can drive with Willie Warren and hook up Griffin in the post. That’s easier said than done though. I like Syracuse’s overall balance to win out here.
Pick: Syracuse

Midwest Region predictions

I went three for four in my predictions on Thursday, which I’ll take every day of the week. Let’s see if we can’t go perfect today.

No. 12 Arizona vs. No. 1 Louisville
The Wildcats qualify as a Cinderella this year, though its a pretty big stretch to call Arizona an underdog. This “Cinderella” has three potential NBA players in Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise and have the longest streak of consecutive tournaments made at 25. Many people rued Arizona’s inclusion into the field this year, but they seem to have risen to the challenge.
Can Arizona keep its roll on. The Cardinals have struggled a bit in the tournament, taking more than a half to break away from play-in game winner Morehead State and having to fend off Siena late. Louisville hasn’t played its best, but its depth and athleticism will get it through to Sunday.
Pick: Louisville

No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 2 Michigan State
This is a rematch of a January matchup in East Lansing won convincingly by the Spartans. It might be harder for Michigan State this time around, as the defending champion Jayhawks looked impressive in outscoring North Dakota State and subduing Dayton. Sophomore center Cole Aldrich has been dominant thus far, though he’ll be matched up with a Michigan State team with a lot of big men, though only Goran Suton is a scoring threat.
The big key to the game is how Kansas handles the penetration of Kalin Lucas and if Michigan State can get production from athletic wings Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen. That happens, the Spartans cruise. If not, MSU struggles like it did against USC. I think Sparty has enough to move on.
Pick: Michigan State

East Region predictions

We’ll move our focus along to the East Region, which went pretty much to form during the first two rounds. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little seed variation here.

No. 4 Xavier vs. No. 1 Pittsburgh
Xavier probably was the most overlooked No. 4 seed coming into the tournament, but the Musketeers proved their chops pretty nicely during the opening weekend, running past Portland State in the first round while toughing out Wisconsin in the second.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has looked vulnerable, as No. 16 seed East Tennessee State pushed them late, as did No. 8 Oklahoma State. The Panthers have also never beaten a team seeded higher than fourth in program history. Will the Panthers break that string? I’m going to go with yes.
Pick: Pittsburgh

No. 3 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke
For a while there, it looked like my pick of Villanova as a team to watch out was going to go poof in the wind, as the Wildcats were down 14 points in the second half to No. 14-seeded American. However, Villanova righted the ship to cruise past the Eagles and added a rout over UCLA in the second round for good measure.
Duke also looked pretty decent in its two wins over Binghamton and Texas, holding off a charge from a talented Longhorn team. This should be an interesting matchup, as both teams are talented on the perimeter with a wide array of options. However, I think the game could come down to how the big men – Dante Cunningham of Villanova and Kyle Singler of Duke – match up. I kind of like the Wildcats to pull a mild upset here.
Pick: Villanova

West Regional predictions

After a relatively successful first round of predictions, I’m going to make a stab at it again. It will be a little more conventional this time around, as I’ll be going with straight-up predictions from here on out.

No. 5 Purdue at No. 1 Connecticut
You never know how motivated the Huskies will be from game to game, but if the first two games are any indication, UConn is taking the tournament seriously. Sportsmanship was a bit of an issue in the Chattanooga game, but the Huskies were impressive in trouncing Texas A&M.
Purdue, on the other hand, has won its two games in a variety of ways, subduing Northern Iowa in a half-court, possession game while outlasting Washington in a back-and-forth, fast-paced 76-74 donnybrook. Purdue will give the Huskies a game, but UConn is on a roll now.
Pick: Connecticut.

No. 3 Missouri at No. 2 Memphis
This game should be a fun one. Missouri’s full-court press, “40 Minutes of Hell” offense can erupt at any time and the Tigers have a bevy of scoring threats led by forward DeMarre Carroll. Memphis, meanwhile, might have the most athletic team in college basketball.
The key to this game will be Memphis’ outside shooting. The Tigers have been torrid from 3-point range in their first two games, with Roburt Sallie going for 10 3-pointers against Cal State Northridge and Doneal Mack leading the rout of Maryland. If that continues, then bye, bye Missouri.
Pick: Memphis

Rice joins Miller staff

Former Eisenhower High School football coach John Rice, who resigned in December after three years coaching the Eagles, has found a home on Jeff Steinberg’s staff at Miller, joining the staff as a defensive assistant.

“Jeff and I have talked in the past about being on the same staff together if the opportunity presented itself and it was something we were both interested in,” Rice said. “He’s done a great job of building that program and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Rice, who has served as a defensive coordinator in previous coaching stops, has worked with Steinberg before, albeit briefly. Rice assisted the Miller defensive staff when Steinberg coached the San Bernardino All-Stars in the 2008 Inland Empire All-Star football classic.

South Region Breakdown

The best is saved for last – at least when I let bias leak into my opinion. Let’s go down South.

Overall theme:
Is Ty Lawson healthy? All year North Carolina has been regarded as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship, with Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Deon Thompson expected to grab a title before (presumably) going to the NBA. Even when the the top-seeded Tar Heels stubbed their toe, it was generally theorized that they’d be the team to beat.

However, Lawson sprained the big toe on his right foot, keeping him out of the ACC tournament and almost assuredly making him less than full strength for the NCAA Tournament. Who wins this region, and perhaps the national title, might be decided on how Lawson’s toe holds up.

Watch out for: Syracuse
Typically I’d see a team like the Orange – a team that played a combined seven overtimes in the Big East Tournament before losing in the final – and declare that they shot their wad emotionally and physically. I definitely would have said that if Syracuse had won the Big East tourney. But their loss to Louisville leaves some unfinished business.

And No. 3 Syracuse has the personnel and scheme to take care of business. Sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn is extremely explosive, Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf can fill it up from outside while Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku can score in the paint. Add in their always tough matchup zone and the recent flakiness of No. 2 Oklahoma and the Orange could cruise to the elite 8.

Stay away from: Illinois
The No. 5 Illini were a pretty good story in the Big Ten this year, as they emerged from a rare losing season to finish in a second-place tie in the conference. Illinois plays a tough, matchup defense that yields very few points and a lot of confusion. But Illinois comes into the tournament hurting, as senior point guard and floor leader Chester Frazier is out with a wrist injury.

Frazier’s defense will be missed, but his ability to find the open man in Illinois’ sometimes stagnant offense might be missed more. With No. 12 Western Kentucky, which made it to the Sweet 16 with the exact same seed last year, appearing in the first round, odds are that the Illini’s return to the tournament will be a short one.

High risk, high reward: Michigan
You knew I was going to throw these guys in here somewhere, as the No. 10 Wolverines are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. But personal loyalties aside, the Wolverines have a style that could get them on a roll of upsets – or send them to a quick, painful defeat by No. 7 Clemson in the first round.

Michigan coach John Beilein has spun magic in the tourney before, taking a No. 7-seeded West Virginia team to the Elite 8 in 2005 and a No. 6-seed Mountaineer team to the Sweet 16 a year later. The Wolverines are predicated on a funky 1-3-1 zone and a propensity for the 3-point shot. When the 3 is falling, Michigan can assert its pace and beat anyone – as evidence by wins over Duke, UCLA, Purdue and Illinois. When its not, the Wolverines – even with star guard Manny Harris – can look ugly.

Upset special: No. 11 Temple over No. 6 Arizona State, first round
Both of these teams have players that can carry a team just through scoring in Dionte Christmas (Temple) and James Hardin (Arizona State). They both have master strategists as coaches in Fran Dunphy (Temple) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). It should be an interesting chess match and one of the better first-round games to watch.

I’m picking Temple here because, quite frankly, Temple is playing better right now. The Owls surged at the end of the year to pick up their second straight Atlantic 10 title while the Sun Devils have been prone to lapses in concentration. If another one of those happens, ASU won’t be in the tourney long.

Lead-pipe lock: Mid-major powers will have fun…till Carolina takes them out.
Two of the premier “mid-major” programs of the past decade are present in this region. No. 9 Butler plays a talented, but young and somewhat struggling, No. 8 LSU team in the first round. The Bulldogs’ tournament savvy should rule the day in that matchup, but they don’t have the guns to take down the Tar Heels in the second round.

No. 4 Gonzaga also has its program humming and got hot after a tough start to grab its usual spot as a high seed in the tournament. The Bulldogs should make quick work of No. 13 Akron – which is likely overseeded – and should have the advantage over the Western Kentucky-Illinois winner as well. But Carolina in the Sweet 16 will be the death of the Zags as well.

East Region breakdown

Today’s version of my bracket breakdown goes into the East and South. I wish I had more to introduce, but I don’t. Sue me.

Overall theme:
Physicality vs. free-flowing offense. This region brings some teams that like to throw down. No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, with bruising forward DeJuan Blair, will elbow you in the face and smack you down with some brass knuckles. No. 12 Wisconsin is fortunate to get to the 60-point mark but has a tendency to hold its opponents below that number. No. 6 UCLA has been to three straight Final Fours thanks to lockdown defense and No. 7 Texas likes to bang with Damion James, Gary Johnson and 295-pound Dexter Pittman.

On the other end of the spectrum, No. 2 Duke shoots threes all day and has junior Gerald Henderson slash to the bucket, No. 3 Villanova has a bevy of guards named Corey and talented junior point Scottie Reynolds while No. 5 Florida State has a dynamic scorer in senior Toney Douglas. None of those teams have much of a post presence, so it will be interesting to see how they match up with the bruisers, and vice versa.

Watch out for: Villanova
The Wildcats have perhaps the best setup of any team in the tournament during the first two rounds, as they get to play in their hometown of Philadelphia in an arena (The Wachovia Center) where they host games from time to time. How Nova got that prime setup is beyond me, but it allows them a nice passage into the Sweet 16.

From that point on, the Wildcats will likely have a No. 2-seeded Duke that they match up with athletically and might even be superior to inside thanks to Dante Cunningham. Then they’d have a good shot at Big East rival Pittsburgh. Jay Wright has coached teams with less talent and less diversity to the Sweet 16, so there’s no reason Villanova can’t make a run.

Stay away from: UCLA
The Bruins have had a ton of success in the tournament recently, making it to the Final Four three years in a row. But No. 6 UCLA hasn’t been able to turn it on for an extended period of time – either falling into shooting lapses or defensive lapses. It hasn’t found a replacement for Kevin Love in the post and freshman guard Jrue Holiday hasn’t been the scoring threat that the Bruins expected him to be.

Add that in with a tough No. 11 VCU team that knocked out Duke in the first round two years ago and a virtual road game with Villanova if it survives that and it’s foolish to be taking UCLA anywhere.

High risk, high reward: Florida State
The No. 5 Seminoles have two things that typically make for good tournament teams – lots of athleticism and a go-to scorer in Douglas. Douglas averages over 20 points per game and has the complete offensive package – allowing him to take over games and giving the Seminoles an ability to take out any team in the bracket – even No. 1 Pittsburgh – who they’d meet in the Sweet 16 more than likely.

With that being said, No. 12 Wisconsin is a terrible matchup for them in the first round. The Badgers are very adept at taking away a team’s best offensive option and forcing its opposition to play at a slow pace. If FSU is sucked into that, it could be bye, bye Noles.

Upset special: No. 12 Wisconsin over No. 5 Florida State, first round
Yes, its kind of a copout after the previous category, but it was either this or VCU over UCLA. Expounding on what I was saying about Florida State, if Wisconsin can take away Douglas, there’s no other Seminole that averages double-figure points. Wisconsin has good guard play in Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon and several bigs that can come at the Seminoles in waves. The last time Florida State played a slow-paced Big Ten team it was whipped 73-59 to Northwestern in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. I wouldn’t be shocked to see that happen again.

Lead-pipe lock: Some team is getting a monkey off its back
That team will likely be top-seeded Pittsburgh – which has fallen in the Sweet 16 four times since 2002 and has never beaten a team seeded No. 5 or higher in its history. The Panthers set up like Kansas did last year – a talented, well-rounded team with a good coach that has had issues getting over the hump. Don’t be surprised if Pitt wins it all.

Of course, Duke might have something to say about it. Say what you will about Coach K and his three titles, but barring a 2004 run to the Final Four, Duke has been fairly ordinary in the tournament in the 2000s, crapping out in the Sweet 16 six times and losing in the first and second round, respectively, the last two seasons. The Blue Devils did win the ACC tourney title though, perhaps serving as a sign of better things to come.

West Regional breakdown

Now to the West Region, which will have its regional finals held in Glendale, Arizona. It will also have some new faces near the top of the regional as well.

Overall theme:
This region will be about putting up or shutting up. The slotting of Connecticut as a top seed was pretty controversial, as the Huskies were the third Big East team to get a No. 1 seed. UConn lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament (albeit in six overtimes) and hasn’t won a postseason game – conference tournament or NCAA tournament – since beating Washington in the Sweet 16 three years ago. The Huskies have something to prove.

No. 2 Memphis, who feels that it should have been the top seed, also has a chip on its shoulder. Not only do the Tigers have to deal with the stigma of being from the weak Conference USA, but they also have to deal with their collapse at the free-throw line late in last year’s title game that cost them a ring. So if Memphis and UConn make it to the regional final, look out.

Watch out for: Purdue
The No. 5 Boilermakers have been up and down this season, as they were just as capable of losing to Northwestern at home as they were of whipping Big Ten champion Michigan State by 18 points – both things they “accomplished” this year. The volatility that Purdue showed was explained pretty simply – they just haven’t been able to stay healthy. Until now.

The Boilermakers were finally at full strength during the Big Ten tournament, with star sophomore Robbie Hummel and defensive sparkplug Chris Kramer finally 100 percent. Not coincidentally, Purdue won the tournament. They have a manageable No. 12 seed in Northern Iowa and can match up physically with No. 4 Washington. They also have the discipline and shooting capability to mess with No. 1 UConn as well.

Stay away from: California
This category could go to a host of teams, No. 13 Mississippi State (the SEC tourney champion – unlikely tourney champions tend to flame out early in the tournament) and No. 4 Washington (struggled a bit down the stretch), or No. 6 Marquette (who I’ll address later) but I went with the Golden Bears.

It’s tempting to pick a No. 7 seed to win a couple rounds, but Cal is not the one to pick. While the Golden Bears were surprising under first-year coach Mike Montgomery, they faltered a bit down the stretch and are matched up with a No. 10 Maryland team and star guard Greivis Vasquez. Forget about picking Cal to the second round, much less anywhere further.

High risk, high reward: Missouri
I guess its a little weird to have a third seed in this position, but this category has to do with the Tigers’ Final Four chances. While UConn and Memphis are getting all of the buzz, Missouri has a chance to sneak through the cracks and make it to Detroit. The Big 12 tourney champions employ a high-intensity, full-court pressing attack reminiscent of Arkansas’ “40 Minutes of Hell” under Nolan Richardson.

Missouri also has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation and two talented forward in DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. So where’s the risk? The risk is in Missouri’s relative inexperience, as it hasn’t been to the tourney since 2003, and picking them to the Final Four in a region with two No. 1-seed worthy teams. But a brassy pick here could pay off big time.

Upset special: No. 11 Utah State over No. 6 Marquette
Marquette has the scoring ability to hang with anyone in the nation with seniors Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews along with junior Lazar Hayward. But there’s one key player missing in senior point guard Dominic James, who broke his foot late in the regular season.

The Eagles, ranked in the top 10 at one point, lost five out of six since James’ injury and have been generally off. They had a similar situation two years ago when McNeal went down and fell meekly in the first round to Michigan State. With a Utah State team that has 29 wins staring them in the face, the Eagles look to be in trouble.

Lead-pipe lock: UCLA won’t win the region
That might seem like a “No, duh!!” statement, considering that the Bruins aren’t even one of the 16 teams in the region, but the West has been UCLA’s playground the last three years – as the Bruins have run through on the way to the Final Four each season. But with no UCLA on the docket, teams like Connecticut, Memphis and Missouri can play a little bit more.