It’s my favorite time of the year – March Madness. For once my alma mater (Michigan) is actually participating, so I’m even more giddy than ever. As some of you might know, I did a region-by-region breakdown where I point out several things to look for. These are for recreational use only, so if you lose thousands of dollars based on these picks, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
Now to the Midwest
This region is a who’s who of college coaching. As you look through this bracket, a few names jump out – Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, Bill Self. These three coaches have been to nine Final Fours and have won three championships – with Self getting one with Kansas last year. Two other coaches – West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Ohio State’s Thad Matta – have also led teams to the Final Four. If Lute Olson hadn’t resigned from Arizona at the beginning of the season, you could add four more Final Fours and one more national title to this group. So sit back and watch these guys in action.
Watch out for: West Virginia
The Mountaineers have consistently outplayed their seed during this decade, starting with their run to the Elite 8 under John Beilein in 2005 and continuing with last year, when the Huggins-led Mountaineers surprised No. 2-seeded Duke in the second round. Seeded sixth this year, West Virginia is in prime position to wreak havoc on brackets again.
The Mountaineers are strong in the frontcourt with DaSean Butler, Alex Ruoff and Devin Ebanks and are fresh off beating then-No. 1 Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament. They should be able to pound No. 11 Dayton in the first round and have a good shot at No. 3 Kansas in round two. If point guard Joe Mazzulla shows up big like he did against Duke last year, a win in the Sweet 16 over Michigan State isn’t that farfetched.
Stay away from: Kansas
Yes, I know the Jayhawks are the defending national championship. Yes, I realize they won the Big 12 regular-season crown. But Kansas, despite the heroics of point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich, are a facsimile of what they were last year. They have overachieved quite a bit this year – which is a testament to Self – but they don’t have the guns to make another run.
The last time Kansas overachieved was with a freshman-laden team was in 2006, when they lost to No. 13 seed Bradley and a No. 4 seed. I’m not saying that they’ll lose to No. 14 North Dakota State in the first round (though it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest – the Bison won at Wisconsin and have a star guard in Ben Woodside who averages 22 points per game), but I have West Virginia gobbling up the Jayhawks in round two.
High risk, high reward: Wake Forest
The fourth seed in this region, the Demon Deacons don’t present much of a risk on the surface. Wake Forest has athleticism, talent, depth and can score in bunches. If it gets hot, it can run through the region, beating the Utah-Arizona winner in round two, No. 1 Louisville in the Sweet 16 and whoever comes out of the bottom of the bracket in the Elite 8.
However, Wake Forest is also young and untested in the tournament. The Demon Deacons haven’t been to the tourney since Chris Paul was playing in Winston-Salem and doesn’t have a player with tournament game experience. Add in a first-round matchup with No. 13 Cleveland State – which won at Syracuse in December – and Wake’s run could be quite short if it isn’t careful.
Upset special: No. 12 Arizona over No. 5 Utah, first round
Arizona is wearing the title of the team that shouldn’t be in the tournament, as the talking heads are killing the Wildcats for getting in the field with a 19-13 record, a non-winning Pac-10 record and five losses in their final six games, instead pining for a mid-major darling like St. Mary’s or Creighton.
Teams in this situation tend to come into the tourney with a chip on their shoulder. Case it point was Villanova last year – which was criticized heavily and regarded as the last at-large team in. The Wildcats, a No. 12 seed, did work, upsetting Clemson in the first round and making it to the Sweet 16. Arizona has players with elite talent with recently-healthy Jordan Hill, junior swingman Chase Budinger and guard Nic Wise. If they can put it together, they have the raw talent to take out the Utes, and even the Wake-Cleveland State winner.
Lead-pipe lock: That one of the little guys is going to have big fun
This region may have some potential Hall of Fame coaches in the big seeds, but there are some plucky smaller schools here. North Dakota State, in its first year of tourney eligibility after transitioning from Division II, could easily beat Kansas and won’t be intimidated by the Jayhawks. Cleveland State, besides beating Syracuse, has a coach with tourney experience, as Gary Waters led Kent State and future San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates to the Elite 8 in 2002.
That doesn’t even mention No. 9 Siena, who toppled No. 4 Vanderbilt as a No. 13 seed last year and definitely has the guns to put away No. 8 Ohio State. The Saints could even annoy No. 1 Louisville in the second round if they beat the Buckeyes. Between the Bison, Vikings and Saints, expect one to be playing on the weekend – and perhaps beyond.