Tag Archives: Duke basketball

March Madness 2011: Which Teams Will Reach Houston?

For the last few Novembers, my older brother Brian, my friend Lee, and I have shared our Final Four predictions with each other via e-mail. This year, we waited longer than ever before—I sent the initial e-mail yesterday afternoon and they sent their responses earlier today.

One reason for the delay is the growing importance of star freshmen. I never really considered picking Memphis in November 2007 because I hadn’t seen Derrick Rose play. Waiting until Thanksgiving gives me the opportunity to see what these highly-touted rookies can do.

Of course it’s still way too early to make confident predictions regarding potential Final Four teams. Even once the brackets are released in March, I struggle to accurately forecast more than two of the teams.

That doesn’t stop me from sending out the e-mail and leaving an electronic paper trail of my picks, so I figured I’d share them on this space as well. For the 2011 Final Four, to be played in Houston, I am going with Duke, Villanova, Ohio State, and UNLV.

Duke is the consensus top team in the country and the Buckeyes are currently ranked second. Nova, already a preseason favorite to reach Houston, received extra attention because I saw the Wildcats in person last week. I often see at least one eventual Final Four team in person during the season (last year I saw two: Duke and Butler), and while I could have gone with Tennessee, which I also saw last week, or Kansas, Memphis, Michigan State, Purdue, or Syracuse (teams I’ll see later this season), I’m confident in Jay Wright’s squad.

Coach K fills out his 2011 bracket, thinking long and hard about which other three teams to include. (Credit: Ahodges7)

The UNLV pick was obviously outside of the box. But I have high expectations for the Mountain West this season—San Diego State and BYU should be very good also—and UNLV already had two quality wins at the time of my prediction, having knocked off Wisconsin and Murray State. The Runnin’ Rebels (6-0) rewarded my confidence by beating Virginia Tech last night to win the 76 Classic in Anaheim.

While I went with the Buckeyes, another Big Ten team certainly can’t be overlooked: Michigan State. Tom Izzo seems to always have his team playing its best come Tournament time. Kansas State is also a chic preseason Final Four choice, but Denis Clemente was perhaps more important to K-State’s success than many realize. Kansas, Pittsburgh, and Kentucky are also in the mix, but all have flaws.

Feel free to use the comments section to voice your Final Four picks as well as any sleeper teams to watch this season.

Other notes:

  • I was extremely skeptical of Harrison Barnes’s inclusion on the Preseason All-America team. It had nothing to do with Barnes—like most high schoolers, I had never seen him play—but simply with the fact that he was a freshman. The top-tier talent in college hoops may not be as great as in past years, but that didn’t mean voters needed to turn to a kid who had yet to play at the college level. Sure enough, Barnes has underwhelmed so far this year, but it was nearly impossible to meet the expectations placed upon him.
  • I covered Iona last season and will try to attend as many games as I can this season. I saw the Gaels in their home opener against Richmond and was impressed. Siena dominated the MAAC the last two seasons, but I think Iona and Fairfield will make the top of this conference much more balanced.
  • I have connections to Wake Forest and would like to see the program succeed under new coach Jeff Bzdelik, so I was not pleased the Deacs lost to Stetson to open the season. Wake has too much youth and inexperience to be a competitor in the ACC this season, but don’t write off Bzdelik. Athletic director Ron Wellman has made a lot of good hires in his 19 years at the university; give Bzdelik some time.

Final Four 2010: Duke, Michigan State, West Virginia, Butler

Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? I mean, it’s not like there’s a George Mason in this bunch. It’s been a wild Tournament with a lot of upsets, sure, but to call this year’s Final Four unpredictable, crazy, a fluke — now that’s taking it too far. You may not have seen Cornell reaching the Sweet 16, Northern Iowa beating Kansas, or Tennessee going to the regional final, but you should be ashamed of yourself for not having a perfect Final Four. Here’s why.

Do I really need to waste Internet ink on the Blue Devils? They were a one seed, they’d been to 14 Final Fours before this trip, and they get all the calls. Seriously though, do you know anyone who didn’t have Duke in at least the Elite Eight? The committee paved a very smooth road for Duke to reach the regional final, where it likely would be matched up with either Villanova or Baylor. It was the latter, and the Bears were a formidable foe. But come on, Baylor? This was not the team that was going to knock off mighty Duke. This was an obvious pick, so I’m sure you had it.

West Virginia
The Big East has been regarded as the top conference in college hoops the past few years. You had to expect one Big East team to reach Indianapolis, and why not the conference tournament champ? Like Duke, WVU had a fairly easy path to the regional final. As it turned out, it was even easier than most thought, as the Mountaineers faced a 15, 10, and 11 seed before toppling Kentucky.

The Wildcats are very talented, but also very young. WVU has its own star in Da’Sean Butler, and he’s an experienced senior. Upperclassmen top youngsters in March, didn’t you know that? Sure you did, so you probably had WVU, too.

Michigan State
What’s that you say? That you had Duke and West Virginia, but the left side of the bracket was just too crazy? Wrong. How could you overlook a team that had gone to five Final Fours in the past 11 years? This is practically the same Spartan squad that danced all the way to the title game last season. Sure, the top three seeds getting bounced before Michigan State had to play them helped, but Tom Izzo would have found a way to get his team to the Final Four regardless.

I don’t want to hear about Kansas. Kansas always chokes; you should know this. Michigan State never chokes. Did you think you were going to go the entire Tournament without seeing Magic Johnson? Shame on you if you took any other team in the Midwest region, no matter how loaded it was.

OK, you convinced me about Michigan State, but you’re not going to tell me Butler was an obvious choice, too, you say. Guess what, bracket braniac, I am. Butler was a preseason top 10 team. Better yet, in the last poll before the Tournament, it was ranked eighth. The top seven teams all received one and two seeds. The Bulldogs, inexplicably, got a five seed.

But surely you recognized this was no typical five seed. While some of your friends foolishly took UTEP as an upset in the first round, you knew Butler, with all that Tournament experience, would coast to the Sweet 16. That’s where top-seeded Syracuse awaited, a team that seemed too big, too athletic, too good for a lowly Horizon League team, at least to some. But not to you. You valued defense, team chemistry, timely three-point shooting, and a desire to “go home,” to Indianapolis, that propelled this team to the Final Four.

There you have it. Four different paths, but all of them equally predictable: a perennial favorite, the best of the best, the top Tourney coach, and the hometown kids. Shame on you for whiffing on all of them, yet alone one of them.

My Final Four? Baylor, Kentucky, Kansas, and BYU.

Big Ten-ACC Challenge 2009

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge tips off tomorrow night, and I had intended to write about how this was the year. How after 10 straight losses — the entire history of the Challenge — the Big Ten was finally going to win. Then I looked at the match-ups. I’m no longer very confident.

I’m a fan of Big Ten athletics but I don’t claim it’s the best conference every year, in football or basketball. I did, however, enter this hoops season believing the Big Ten was the best conference in the country. It has a couple of really good teams (Michigan State and Purdue) and aside from its two worst (Indiana and Iowa), is very strong top to bottom. Most of the teams in the consensus three through nine (Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois) are very good.

The ACC, on the other hand, appears to be in a bit of a down year. North Carolina, despite its high preseason ranking, has a ton of young, unproven players. Duke should be strong again, but overall the conference simply doesn’t have the depth of the Big Ten. The Big Ten takes a lot of flack for whatever reason, and its winless streak in the Challenge was not helping matters. Yet it seemed to be in great position to end that streak this year.

So why am I less certain now than I was before I knew the match-ups? Let’s take a look:

Penn State at Virginia
Wake Forest at Purdue
Maryland at Indiana
Northwestern at North Carolina State
Michigan State at North Carolina
Virginia Tech at Iowa
Illinois at Clemson
Boston College at Michigan
Minnesota at Miami
Duke at Wisconsin
Florida State at Ohio State

The Challenge sets up favorably for the ACC. Two teams that are likely going to lose no matter what, Indiana and Iowa, are “wastes” of home teams. In some of the more balanced match-ups, the ACC has home court advantage (North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State).

But these just sound like excuses for the Big Ten, which has had 10 previous attempts to win the Challenge and failed each time. So, although I wasn’t as confident as I once was, I’m still going to say that this is the year for the Big Ten. It should certainly grab wins with Ohio State, Michigan, and Purdue. Virginia Tech and Maryland will most likely prevail for the ACC. Other than those, it’s difficult to project winners, but I think the Big Ten will get the requisite six victories to win the Challenge.

Just for the heck of it, here are my projected winners.
Big Ten: Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State
ACC: Maryland, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson

Do you agree that the Big Ten will end its drought or will the ACC win its eleventh straight? Share your opinions in the comments section.