Jake of All Trades: March Madness Edition

My college guidance counselor had a derisive saying for people who were familiar with many subject areas but had no one area of expertise: Jack of all trades, master of none. I suffer from a similar problem when it comes to sports — I know a lot about almost every relevant global sport without focusing on any one game. For once, I’d like to play up that fact. So every Monday, I’ll break down a sporting event from the past week that won’t lead SportsCenter or make the Sports Illustrated cover but is fascinating nonetheless. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll read about a sport or athlete too “unsexy” for most people to write about at length. Enjoy.

Even without the Wildcats, I would never pass up a chance to bracketologize (get your bracket here).

EAST REGION

Favorite: Syracuse. Despite the Orange’s 71-68 loss to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals, it’s still the squad to beat in the East. Syracuse has a stifling zone defense (24th in the country in scoring defense, 11th in FG% defense), it has a balanced offensive attack led by senior point guard Scoop Jardine, and it has Jim Boeheim. But who will take over for the Orange late in a close game?

Player To Watch: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State power forward. A likely top-two pick last year, Sullinger opted to stay for his sophomore season with the Buckeyes but seemed to actually regress this year, posting worse rebounding and shooting numbers and scoring about the same. But there he was in the Big Ten tournament, scoring 54 points on 21-for-31 shooting in wins over Purdue and Michigan. The Buckeyes are a Final Four team if the good Sullinger shows up — if not, they might not make the Sweet 16.

Sleeper Pick: Cincinnati. The Bearcats went 7-3 against ranked teams this season and they have perhaps the scariest lineup wrinkle in the region, a smallball unit with four guards and big man Yancy Gates. Their first two games are just down the road in Nashville, and Cincy’s already beaten Syracuse…

Upset Special: (13) Montana over (4) Wisconsin, first round. The Grizzlies have won 19 of their last 20 and avenged the only loss with two convincing wins over Weber State. Wisconsin likes to play slow, plodding games with scores in the 50s; Montana averages 70.6 points a game.

Winner: Florida State. Call me a bandwagon fan after watching the Seminoles beat Duke and UNC on consecutive days to win the ACC tournament title. Whatever. FSU is as athletic as any team in the tournament not named Kentucky and they have four combined wins over the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Led by hot-shooting Michael Snaer, the Seminoles hold off Syracuse to get to New Orleans.

MIDWEST REGION

Favorite: Kansas. Let me get this straight. The No. 1 seed in the region, North Carolina, would have to play Kansas (who has been ranked in the top five for much of the season) in St. Louis, with the Jayhawks getting a chance to beat Roy Williams for the second time in an NCAA tournament? Good luck Tar Heels.

Player To Watch: Robbie Hummel, Purdue forward. Go gaga over Kansas big man Thomas Robinson, sure, but don’t forget about Hummel, who must have endured the most torturous road to this NCAA tourney. The fifth-senior, a stand-up guy who was playing at Purdue when I was covering Big Ten hoops, had to recover from a torn ACL and a missed postseason — not once, but twice.

Sleeper Team: N.C. State. The Wolfpack proved they had the talent in February, when they built a 20-point second half lead at Duke before falling 78-73. And though they’ve had an uneven season, they’re peaking at the right time, winning four straight before falling just short to North Carolina because of several questionable calls. With an overachieving Georgetown squad in its part of the bracket, N.C. State has the right path to the Sweet 16.

Upset Special: (13) Ohio over (4) Michigan, first round. Proving that I hate both Big Ten teams and No. 4 seeds, I gotta take Ohio here after watching the Wolverines struggle mightily to get past an aggressively mediocre Minnesota team in the Big Ten tourney. The Bobcats’  D.J. Cooper overwhelms Tim Hardaway Jr. and Michigan gets an unceremonious first-round exit.

Winner: Kansas. That nightmare Elite Eight scenario for North Carolina that I described above? It happens.

SOUTH REGION

Favorite: Kentucky. By a huge amount. Unlike past quagmires, this NCAA tournament is actually very simple: If Kentucky plays up to its talent, it will win. The Wildcats have Anthony Davis and have a six-man rotation without a weakness or un-superathletic player. They lost one game on a miracle, another because they were bored, and that’s it.

Player To Watch: Davis. Though T-Rob will probably win player of the year, Davis is being compared favorably to Kevin McHale. Davis is an interior defender of the Marcus Camby mold, only he has a budding low-post offensive game and the tournament’s most distinctive facial feature. Yikes. If he puts it all together in the next three weeks, he could have a quadruple-double in a tournament game.

Sleeper Team: Xavier. The Musketeers are like an NCAA tournament amoeba — always around, never reaching a Final Four or scoring a really memorable win but always winning a game or two here and there. This year they most likely draw an uninspiring Notre Dame squad and a beatable Duke team in the first two rounds. They were probably underseeded because they struggled following their Dec. 10 brawl in a win over Cincinnati.

Upset Special: (12) VCU over (5) Wichita State. Shaka Smart and his team have been to the Final Four in the last 13 months. They won 18 of the their last 19 games and beat back favored Drexel in the CAA tournament final. Wichita State lost to Illinois State in the MVC tournament final.

Winner: Kentucky. Again, by a huge amount when No. 3 seed Baylor gives them no trouble in the Elite Eight.

WEST REGION

Favorite: Missouri. As much as I want No. 1 seed Michigan State — the only good team Northwestern beat this year — to go far, the Tigers just look like the better team, Tom Izzo’s magic aside. As good as forward Draymond Green has been, the Spartans will have to survive a tough bracket that includes a potential clash with No. 4 seed Louisville in the Sweet 16. Missouri, by a nose, is the more likely Final Four pick.

Player To Watch: Drew Gordon, New Mexico forward. Read the “devastating” Sports Illustrated article on the shenanigans at UCLA? Gordon was the malcontent whose hard-partying ways kept him from seeing eye-to-eye with coach Ben Howland and who left the team by mutual agreement, according to the story. Well, the Lobos are thrilled to have Gordon, who is averaging 13.4 points and 10.9 rebounds a game, sixth in the NCAA. Against UNLV in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals, Gordon had 19 points and 13 rebounds in an upset win, then put up a 12-12 in the championship win over San Diego State.

Sleeper Team: Murray State. In the final regular-season polls, the Racers were 12th in the Associated Press ranking and ninth in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. And yet they’re a six seed. With a winning wunderkind in junior guard Isaiah Canaan, Murray State can challenge any team in the bracket, including Missouri and Michigan State.

Upset Special: (14) Iona over (3) Marquette, first round. OK, there’s no real justification for this one. But the Gaels do boast the tournament’s most high-powered offense, averaging an NCAA-best 83.3 points and 19.3 assists per game. Senior guard Scott Machado averages 9.9 assists per game, best in the nation. And Iona College is in New Rochelle, N.Y., a stone’s throw from the city. The Gaels ride a roller-coaster offense to wins over BYU and Marquette and are the most unlikely Sweet 16 team in recent memory.

Winner: Michigan State. I know better than to doubt Izzo — Murray State won’t have what it takes after getting past Missouri.

FINAL FOUR

Kentucky over Michigan State (too much talent), Kansas over Florida State (too much poise)

Kentucky over Kansas. The cream rises to the top.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Simpson

     /  March 17, 2012

    Once again March madness picking proving humbling. but how great a first round in this year’s edition, with Duke and Missouri going down. And the two 15 seeds that took them down looking really good

    Reply

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