by Justin Cherot
Much of who I am today and who I still aspire to become (although retractions probably aren’t helping my cause) I attribute to yearly immersion into college basketball in the month of March. Heck, my buddy Colin Donohue gave me my first shot at writing about college basketball (bet you didn’t remember that one, did you, buddy?). So, yeah, it’s no secret that I’ve always loved basketball.
But, how did I become so entangled in March Madness?
For that, I have to thank my former cross country and track teammate Luke Kim.
In 1998, it was Kim, a senior, who approached me, a freshman, one day during pre-practice stretching and asked if I wanted to take part in a college basketball pool for $10.
I was already a basketball fanatic, but saying “yes” on that cool March day helped turn me into the fan/addict/pseudo-expert I am today… and quite possibly was a gateway drug that led to excessive gambling.
I struggled my first two years in his now world-renowned pool, mainly because I didn’t grasp the concept that upsets–moreso than actual wins–are basically what seperates the winner from someone stuck in the middle of the pack.
I finally got it in 2000, deciding to buckle down and follow every single trend in college basketball. It was around February that I decided that the Florida Gators were going to win the national championship.
Everybody thought I was nuts. Duke and Michigan State were clearly the two best teams in the tournament, and here I was– this 17-year-old kid–who thought a fifth seed was going to win it all, no questions asked.
So, what happened in March? They get bounced by Auburn in the second round of the SEC tournament and everybody is saying I’m crazy. You can only imagine what people were saying after they needed a buzzer beater against lightly-regarded Butler to get past the first round of the NCAA tournament (I think the prevailing comment was “You don’t know #$%! about basketball”). Even after they beat Illinois, nobody gave them a shot against a Duke team that featured four future NBA pros (five if you count a cameo appearance by Chris Carrawell).
But, low and behold, Justin was right. The Gators won for the very same reason I picked them way back in February: ridiculous depth.
From then on it was like destiny, as they pretty much cake-walked into the championship game against Michigan State. And, even though they lost, I had clinched my first ever pool win. Cha-ching.
Why? Because while everybody filled out straight-chalk that year, upsets dismantled the field like crazy, and my Gators were essentially the only team scoring points in the end.
You can say a legacy–and a curse–were born that same year. Yes, I ran off a mini-dynasty, capturing at least one pool title in four of the next five years. Friends would call me for advice. One unnamed friend (who probably doesn’t remember this) and I definitely had this conversation circa 2003:
“What up, Cherot?”
“Nothin’ much, man. Just doing some homework, listenin’ to Dipset.”
“Oh… cool. So, listen… I’m filling out my bracket. I’m gonna pretty much copy every single thing you tell me. We’ll collaborate.”
“Cool… except how are we collaborating?”
If I had been more business-oriented back during those lost years of Dipset listening (chyeah!), then I would have charged for my services. But, whatever: I was making enough money in tournament earnings, right?
Except around 2004, it started getting tougher. I could no longer live up to my lofty expectations. In 2006, Cadence was born, so then obviously my viewing habits took a predictable turn. I couldn’t tell you if Adam Morrison could lift Gonzaga to the Final Four, but at least I could tell you that Swiper the Fox only has a 16% swipe rate (which has gone down considerably since 2008: they almost treat him like a friend now). Last year, however, I think I turned a corner by winning my first pool in six years… except that it wasn’t Luke’s pool, whose buy-in has increased dramatically since that track practice in ’98.
So, as a pre-cursor to this year’s preview (“Wow… 611 words in and he just mentioned the word ‘preview’? Hasn’t he learned anything about verbosity from the Sun?”), I probably wouldn’t go out gambling life-altering amounts of money on what I’m about to spit out… but I wouldn’t count me out of any pool.
WHAT YOU ACTUALLY CAME TO READ….
As always, whenever I write a tournament preview, I do not “preview” the preview. I fill out my bracket as I type, meaning these thoughts are purely off the top of the dome.
Yes, this region is pretty loaded on paper, but to be honest, it looks like this region is outlined in chalk. Outside of a really good Northern Iowa team beating UNLV and Georgia Tech beating Oklahoma State–none of which are upsets–I see this region pretty much holding to form… horrible news for any Maryland Terrapin fans like myself. When I first heard that we–see my list of “we” teams for further explanation– got a No. 4 seed, I was elated… until I saw that Kansas and Michigan State were in the bracket before we’re even out of the Sweet 16. As happy as I am about how this year played out for Greivis Vasquez and company, I’d be shocked if we went any further than the Sweet 16.
As for the non-affiliated portion of the bracket, Georgetown/Ohio State–assuming they get there–is probably the toughest game in the region to call. On paper, I would think the Hoyas have a pretty big edge in talent at four of the five spots, but given what we’ve learned this year about Evan Turner, it’s basically impossible to bet against that man. He literally broke his back and missed like five minutes! Then, he just became the most clutch human being on the planet not named Kobe Bryant.
I’m not betting against Turner in this tourney… until they play Kansas.
Yeah, I don’t think there’s ever been a more appropriate time to say “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk.”
Get it? Chalk?
The beauty of this process… here’s where things get interesting.
I just slid BYU into the Elite Eight. Why?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jimmer Fredette AKA “Stephen Curry-White”:
Yes, as a shooter, I’m partial to shooters. But, that’s not the entire reason BYU is going to the E-8. Three main reasons:
1) Maybe the Cougars haven’t beaten anyone spectacular en route to their admittedly ballooned record, but they’ve handled middling teams from power conferences, and even though the one great team in their league–New Mexico–beat them twice, both games were ridiculously close. This is a team that knows how to win and they won’t be scared off by teams from the bigger conferences.
2) Kansas State and Pittsburgh, the two “best” teams in their half of the bracket, don’t scare me. Yes, K-State has some impressive wins at home, and they did get to the finals of a pretty tough Big 12 Tournament, but to me they didn’t come across as a top five team when confronted with the eye test. They rely heavily on two guards in Jacob Pullen and Denny Clemente who collectively shoot around 40% from the field, and if they go cold, good night. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is historically a nice blue collar team that can never score enough to get over the hump. Why should this year be any different?
3) Upset points. And when you’re picking a team to try to gather upset points, you’d better have good guard play. Fredette is as steady as they come.
Also, look for Murray State and Minnesota to pull first round stunners, and do not fall for the trap and pick UTEP over Butler. The Miners are one of the few off-the-radar teams I’ve seen play, and they’re too one-dimensional (i.e. throw it to Derrick Caracter and get the %$#@ out of the way) to go far.
But, when it’s all said and done, nobody in this region is really touching Syracuse.
Thought about doing something crazy for a minute and moving Washington into the Sweet 16, then I thought about it: while I’m not crazy about the New Mexico Rebecca Lobos, the Huskies haven’t exactly killed it this season. I’ll give New Mexico the benefit of the doubt until they see West Virginia, who I have going to the Final Four.
The Kentucky Wildcats are tremendously talented, but if the Mountaineers can keep the pace slow against John Wall and Co., I think they can neutralize that talent gap. Oh, and Da’Sean Butler has a reputation for coming through in the clutch.
Other games to watch for in the region: yeah, I’m not completely sold on Washington, but I think the middle of the Big East is somewhat overrated. They can and will beat Marquette (sorry Adam, but keep reading…). Ignore the impulse to pick Cornell over Temple, but pick Wisconsin over Temple in the round of 32. Also, the past two seasons I’ve picked teams with stacked rosters (Arizona in ’08, Wake Forest in ’09) that limped into the postseason to go far. Not making that same mistake with Texas, although I do think they’ll beat, of all teams, Wake in round one.
But yeah, so far that makes two of the three teams I picked to go to the Final Four at the beginning of the season (sorry Michigan State, Vasquez has something for you). Will I clinch my own prop bet and go 3/4?
Toyed with the thought of Utah State beating Texas A&M, but to be dead honest, I haven’t seen either team play. I’ll do the exact opposite of what I normally do in these situations and play it safe. I DO know, however, that Siena is battled tested and can definitely make it to the Sweet 16. I remember watching last year when they made me look super smart. It’s not just a token Cinderella pick, either. Purdue is a .500 team at best without Robbie Hummel, and even though I haven’t seen Texas A&M play so far this year, let me guess: blue collar, overachieving team. Typical. I’ll take Siena, thank you.
Once the dust settles in this region, however, it’s all about Duke or Villanova, which if seeding held to form (it is March, remember) would be a rematch of last year’s regional semi-final. Both teams are basically upgraded versions of last year’s squads, with Duke more dynamic now that Nolan Smith has become an offensive threat and not just, “Gee, lemme just slide off and help off him” guy, and Villanova more calculated in their run and gun attack now that Scottie Reynolds is a more complete player. Honestly, as a Terp fan it’s just not in my nature to back Duke. Call me biased, but in pretty much every single instance within the past several years, I’ve had them being knocked out at about the right round each time. And, this year it’ll be the Elite Eight.
So, the way the bracket works out Kansas and Syracuse would play each other on one half, with West Virginia and Villanova facing off on the other side.
Is that really three Big East teams? I believe that may be unprecedented. Is the conference really that good this year? God, I guess so.
I actually don’t like the way this bracket turned out. No, my picks are perfect, stop hating… it’s just that the two best teams– unless you subscribe to the theory that John Wall’s AAU squad will be tearing down nets– in the country are basically left squaring off in the semi-finals. Not cool.
Anyway, I’m surprised that the Jayhawks aren’t getting anywhere near the buzz that the Tar Heels got about being a “lock” to win it. Personally, I think this Kansas team is better than last year’s UNC team. Boggles the mind.
I think they’ll roll Syracuse and it won’t even be that close. There’s a pretty big gap in guard play, and while I love Wesley Johnson, Kansas has enough bodies to neutralize him.
On the other side, I think ‘Nova would have too much firepower for West Virginia. Butler and Devin Ebanks will do everything in their power to keep the Mountaineers afloat, but I think the ‘Cats win this hypotehtical match-up by double figures.
I actually like the title game. I know technically the Orange are a better team than Villanova, but I think the match-ups lend the Wildcats to have a better chance against the Jayhawks. KU only has one clear advantage, and that’s Cole Aldrich in the middle. But, no pun intended, that’s a huge advantage.
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.
PROP BT ALERT!!! PROP BET ALERT!!! KU not only wins the title, but wins every game by eight-plus. Will someone take me up on these prop bets???
Finally, if this entire 2100 word post hasn’t gotten you hyped for the madness, some buzzer beater stuff: