Happy Brackets, everyone! I'm sure we're all glad the speculation about bubbles and seeds is over, and we can get down to talking hoops. My own bracket picks are here. I've gone through each of the four regions and have offered up a few Hoop Thoughts below to explain why I filled it out the way I did. Feel free to follow my advice on your own brackets, but remember my No. 1 rule: No blaming!
Also, at the end of my region-by-region Hoop Thoughts, I've weighed in about what I'm hearing regarding the annual offseason coaching carousel which, alas, got another push this week when Virginia parted ways with Dave Leitao. That's four major openings and counting, folks. Lots to cover and speculate about.
Herewith, then, my thoughts on the bracket and the hirings and firings to come. Enjoy the Madness, Hoopheads!
• I agreed wholeheartedly with the committee's decision to make Louisville the No. 1 overall seed, but if you take a magnifying glass to the Cardinals' r�sum�, you see it's not quite as impressive as their seeding would indicate. Yes, they won the Big East regular season, but they did not have to play at UConn or at Pittsburgh. (They split those games at home.) Nor did they have to play either of those teams en route to winning the Big East tournament, where they also got a gassed Syracuse team in the final. Louisville won during the regular season by one point at Villanova and by three at West Virginia. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost at Notre Dame by a whopping 33 points, they lost at home to UNLV and on neutral courts to Minnesota and Western Kentucky. Again, I'm not saying Louisville isn't a very good team, but they don't look like a juggernaut, either. That, plus the fact that they basically do not have a point guard, is the reason why I took a chance and picked them to lose in the Sweet 16 to Wake Forest. As Charles Barkley would say, I may be wrong, but I doubt it.
• Why do I like Wake to beat Louisville and make the Final Four? Well, the Deacs have shown the type of inconsistency one would expect from such a young team, but my experience tells me that inconsistent teams tend to play to their potential come tourney time. You might get caught sleeping against Maryland in the ACC tournament, but nobody sleeps in the NCAA tournament. If you're going purely by future NBA players, Wake is arguably the most talented team in the country. I've got a hunch it'll maximize that talent, but it's kind of a scary pick considering it's playing a very dangerous Cleveland State team in the first round. But hey, this wouldn't be any fun if I went all chalk, would it?
• I am apparently one of many people who questioned Arizona's inclusion in this tournament. Still, I had the Wildcats as my second team out (behind Penn State), so it's not like I'm screaming high dudgeon on this one. Besides, I like Arizona to beat Utah in the first round because the Wildcats should be able to overwhelm the Utes with their athleticism. The bottom line is, Russ Pennell has done as good a job this season as could possibly be expected given the circumstances under which he took the job. He should be congratulated for keeping this school's NCAA tourney streak alive. Plus, his team's pretty darn good when it wants to be.
• The lower half of the Midwest region is the best eight-team grouping in the bracket. If you take out the two Cinderellas, Robert Morris and North Dakota State, then every team bases its game on defense and toughness -- except for Kansas. I'm not saying that the Jayhawks don't play D, but it is not part of their DNA the way it is those other teams. That's why I think it will be very, very hard for Kansas to make the regional final. They would have to win two-straight games against tougher teams, and whoever they play in the Sweet 16 is going to be on some type of offensive role (or else they wouldn't still be in the tournament). The No. 1 sign of toughness is the ability to win on the road, and Kansas' best road win this season was at Oklahoma on a night when the Sooners didn't have Blake Griffin. In their last two games away from Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks got blitzed at Texas Tech by 19 points and lost to Baylor in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Something to keep in mind.
• I argued that UConn deserved a No. 1, and obviously the committee felt the same way. Where we apparently differed, however, is in my belief that the No. 5 overall team in this tournament would be Memphis. Many fans do not realize that the committee ranks the entire field one through 65, but while the NCAA never releases that list (and pooh on them for that), it's clear to me that Memphis was, in fact, seeded behind Michigan State and Duke.
Here's how I can tell. I used to believe in the S-curve myth, too, where the top No. 2 seed is automatically paired with the last No. 1 seed, but it is in fact a myth. After the committee places the four No. 1 seeds in the bracket, it then places the first No. 2 seed in the closest available region. In Memphis' case, it wasn't allowed to go to the South because that regional is being played in Memphis, so the next available spot would have been Indianapolis. But Michigan State went to Indy. Boston is closer to Memphis than Glendale (Ariz.), yet Duke, not Memphis, went there. The committee keeps track of the competitive balance only through the first four lines, but it's more important for them to keep teams as close as possible to home than to hew perfectly to an S-curve. I realize this is getting really deep into the weeds, but this is something most commentators have missed. I wrote last week that Memphis was closer to a three seed than a one, and it turns out that's how it went down.
• So if I argued for UConn to be a one seed ahead of Memphis, why am I picking Memphis to make the Final Four? Two reasons. First, I just have a nagging feeling that the loss of Jerome Dyson is going to catch up with UConn at some point. It's not that the Huskies aren't capable of winning a national championship, but they are definitely operating on a reduced margin for error. Second, while I don't think Memphis is as good as they were last year, I do think this is a better defensive team, though. Tyreke Evans would be a very tough matchup for A.J. Price, and if Price can't score 20, UConn will have a hard time beating good teams.
• The one team seeded below the two line in this region that could be dangerous is Washington. The Huskies have a high-octane offense as well as arguably the best defensive rebounder in the country in Jon Brockman. Other than that, I just don't see anyone in this region who can really challenge the big two. Missouri has done a fabulous job maximizing its talent this season, but if an opponent can handle the Tigers' full-court pressure and force them to score in the half court, they're going to be in trouble. Like everyone else, I was loving Marquette until Dominic James went out. The Golden Eagles lost five of their last six without him and will be lucky to get by Utah State in the first round.
• Look, I know picking these games is a silly exercise, and nobody really cares what I say anyway. Still, I put a lot of thought into who I announced as my championship pick on the CBS Selection Show. I was dead set on picking Pittsburgh for the last several weeks, but I got spooked by their loss to West Virginia in the Big East tournament. After checking with a source out in Pitt, I came to the conclusion that this team will actually benefit from having lost -- mostly because Levance Fields' sore back (which as you'll recall almost kept him out of the UConn game) needed time to heal. Remember, Pitt won the Big East tournament last year and lost in the second round. This may just be one case where a few days of rest and practice, combined with the healthy and humbling reminder that it can be beat if its not mentally ready, should be very helpful. That's my theory, anyway.
• Xavier is another team that was leaking a little bit of oil coming down the stretch. The Musketeers lost at Richmond in their last regular-season game, and then bowed out to Temple in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Xavier has never gotten into a groove at the point guard position, and that is a fatal flaw to carry into the NCAA tournament. If, as I expect, the Musketeers draw Florida State in the second round, that is a really bad matchup for them. Not only will the Seminoles have the best guard on the floor in Toney Douglas, but FSU's frontline tandem of Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton is really good defensively. I think they would give Derrick Brown some problems, though of course Brown is mighty capable of creating a few problems of his own.
• UCLA has already found out the NCAA tournament is a little tougher when you're not a one seed. Instead of playing all its games out west, the Bruins now have to travel east to Philadelphia. I picked VCU to beat them in the first round on the Selection Show, and I'm not the only one, so Ben Howland will have plenty of bulletin board material to fire his guys up. But bulletin board material only gets you so far. How often does UCLA play a first-round game where the other team has the better point guard? That would be VCU's Eric Maynor, and I think he'll get the better of his matchup with Darren Collison.
• You may want to argue that Duke's ACC tournament championship should come with an asterisk since the league's player of the year (Ty Lawson) didn't play, but it's still pretty remarkable the Blue Devils won the thing given where they were a few weeks ago. Remember now, at one point they lost four out of six games, including a humiliating 27-point drubbing at Clemson, and everyone in Duke Nation was despairing at the specter of another late February swoon. Mike Krzyzewski's decision to insert freshman Elliott Williams, who didn't play a minute in their losses to North Carolina and Boston College, as his defensive point guard and move Jon Scheyer to the point on offense was a stroke of genius (or desperation, whatever you want to call it). This Duke team is far from perfect, but it is much more mentally tough than the Duke teams of the previous two years. That should at least be enough to return the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16.
• Why, then, do I think Duke is a great matchup for Pitt? Because it's one thing to be mentally tough, it's another to be physically tough, and that's exactly what Pitt is. Plus, while Duke's half-court offense may be more efficient with Scheyer at the point, the team is getting fewer run-outs and fast-break opportunities with him at quarterback. To beat a team like Pitt, you've got to get a few easy baskets, but Levance Fields is so good at taking care of the ball that it's hard to imagine Duke turning the game into a track meet. That means it would be a grinder, and nobody -- least of all Duke -- is going to out-tough Pitt in a grinder of a game.
• I think it's fair to say Ty Lawson has the most talked about big toe since Sergeant Hulka's. It's a little odd that Lawson would clear himself to play in a regular-season game against Duke but be unable to go during the ACC tournament and be in jeopardy for the NCAAs. Clearly that was a bad decision. The injury is particularly troublesome for a player who depends so much on explosiveness and change of direction. It also compromises Lawson's ability to pressure the ball defensively, which wasn't exactly his strong suit to begin with. I do believe North Carolina is still the Tiger Woods of this tournament -- that is, the team with the best A-game in the field. I also think their most likely Sweet 16 opponent, Gonzaga, is a perfect matchup for them. But whoever they face in the regional final (Syracuse, Clemson or Oklahoma) will force the Heels to slug it out to get to Detroit. They can win three games without Lawson at 100 percent. I don't think they can win six of them.
• One thing that has become certain in the tournament: a 12-seed always upsets a five in the first round. The popular choice this year is Arizona over Utah, but I sense that Western Kentucky over Illinois not far behind. It's not just that the Illini, who after all failed to score 40 points twice this season, are without their most important player, point guard Chester Frazier, but the Hilltoppers are pretty darn good. They reached the Sweet 16 last year, and while they lost three starters from that squad (most notably Courtney Lee, who was drafted in the first round by the Orlando Magic), they still had a great season punctuated by a 14-point win over Louisville back in November. I was actually tempted to pick the Hilltoppers to beat Gonzaga, but their best big man, Jeremy Evans, goes 6-9, 190 pounds, and is thus not well-equipped to take advantage of the Zags' lack of strength in the paint.
• When Gerry McNamara led Syracuse on a dramatic run to the Big East tournament championship in 2006, the Orange followed up by losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Texas A&M. So why do I not believe that the same thing will happen this year? In the first place, this Orange team was a safe at-large team before the Big East tournament began, while the '06 squad needed to play its way in. Plus, this team is older, stronger and mentally tougher at all five positions. If Syracuse was going to be affected by playing so many overtimes, it would have happened against West Virginia. The fact that Syracuse won that game -- in overtime, no less -- should tell you all you need to know about this team's heart. It's got a lot of talent, too. That should be obvious by now.
• I was speaking last week with a Big 12 head coach, and I asked him what he thought was wrong with Oklahoma. He answered me in two words: "They're overrated." His main argument that the Sooners are vulnerable when an opponent pressures their guards, especially point guard Austin Johnson, and forces them to make plays as opposed to simply running their offense. Clemson is the exact type of team that can do that. The Tigers love to pressure the basketball end to end, and in K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby they have two guards who can really stretch the defense. No, Clemson doesn't have anybody as good as Blake Griffin -- nobody does -- but it does have one of the truly underrated power forwards in America in Trevor Booker, plus a glue-guy glass eater on the other block in Raymond Sykes. Obviously I don't like the way this team finished the season (losing four of its last five, including to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament), but I expect them to crank up the effort this week.
We already have four openings at prominent programs: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Virginia. What do all of those schools have in common? They're all big state schools. We all know these schools are facing budget crunches, but aside from Arizona, their administrations made the decisions to create these openings. I don't think they would do that unless they were ready to throw out some big money to find replacements.
Taking Arizona out of the mix for the moment, the two biggest names that will be mentioned are Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Missouri's Mike Anderson. Should Anderson be inclined to leave Missouri, Alabama would seem to be an obvious choice since he's from the state, but Georgia has a dynamic young athletic director in Damon Evans, and many in the business believe that is the better job because there are more players in that state. I think it is highly unlikely that Capel would leave Oklahoma for Alabama or Georgia. Yes, he's about to lose Blake Griffin to the NBA, but freshman guard Willie Warren is probably coming back, and he'll be joined next season by two McDonald's All-Americans. Plus, Capel works for arguably the best AD in the country in Joe Castiglione. I'm sure he is prepared to do whatever he can to keep Capel at OU.
Virginia, however, is another story. Capel grew up in Virginia, his wife is from Raleigh, and of course he played in the ACC for Duke. Virginia is a first-rate university, it has a brand new arena and an excellent recruiting base. Plus, if you finish third in the ACC, they build you a statue. It will be awfully difficult for Capel to give up the success and job security he has in Oklahoma, but if he does, this would be the kind of situation that could be worth it. So stay tuned.
If Virginia doesn't hire Capel, I think they'll go after Tubby Smith. Tubby, in fact, is still on Arizona's radar screen. I think Smith would be interested in both those jobs, but I do not see him at Georgia or Alabama. A lot of people are speculating that VCU's Anthony Grant is going to be in the mix at Georgia, but from what I'm hearing, Grant is a longshot for that job at best. I've also heard that USC's Tim Floyd might be a candidate at Alabama, but I find it hard to believe he will go there. Not only did Floyd just get a commitment from Renardo Sidney, one of the best high school players in America, but he's a low-key guy who likes nothing more than being able to walk into a restaurant and have nobody recognize him. He certainly won't have that in Tuscaloosa.
Otherwise, I still believe the Arizona vacancy is Mark Few's to turn down. While the decision won't necessarily come down to money, Arizona is going to have to demonstrate a commitment to Few that goes beyond his own salary. Right now, Gonzaga flies a charter to many of its road games, and Few has the use of a private plane for his recruiting trips. For a man who is so devoted to his wife and three young children, that is no small issue. If Arizona can't lock down Few, then I'm hearing the school is likely to go after Tubby Smith or Reggie Theus. The sleeper? UNLV coach Lon Kruger, who is familiar with that area of the country, won't cost too much money and, most important, is a great coach who spent time in the NBA. You cannot overstate how big of an asset a pro background is with prospective recruits.
I usually try to avoid speculating on jobs that are not vacant, but unfortunately that is part of the job. That said, I can tell you that all eyes in the college basketball world are on Lexington, Ky. While it may be hard to believe that the school would get rid of Billy Gillispie after two years, I am getting indications that athletic director Mitch Barnhart could very well be moving in that direction. There is a concern that if Gillispie comes back, many of his players will either turn pro or transfer. One well-placed source told me last week that the decision to remove Gillispie was already "done." I believe that was overstated, but Barnhart's relative silence on this matter has been deafening. I left a message for Barnhart over the weekend and my call was returned not by him, but by an athletic spokesman, who naturally told me Barnhart had no comment on the matter. If Barnhart thinks he can wait another few weeks until Kentucky is done playing to resolve this matter, he is sorely mistaken.
Elsewhere, the three situations that bear watching are Oregon, St. John's and DePaul. Ernie Kent is an Oregon alum who has taken the Ducks to the Elite Eight twice this decade. But nobody is safe after a 2-16 season in the Pac-10. The key question at Oregon is how the change at athletic director will affect Kent's status. Mike Bellotti, the former football coach, will replace current AD Pat Kilkenny on July 1. Does Kilkenny get rid of Kent himself so Bellotti doesn't have to? Or does he let Bellotti make the choice since he has to live with the results? There's a lot of pressure on this decision because the school is opening an expensive new arena next fall. And as Dave Leitao can tell you, when a school spends a lot of money to build an arena, they tend to like to see people inside it.
Few, who is an Oregon native and alum, is thought to be the natural replacement here as well, but again, Few is not going to take this job out of affection for Old State U. Oregon is going to have to convince him that it is a better job than Gonzaga, and that will take some doing.
As for DePaul, I know that the school's administration has already said Jerry Wainwright will be back next year, and I certainly hope that is true. He is a great coach and a great guy who is doing his best in a very difficult situation. But again, the team went 0-18 in the Big East, and there is a tantalizing potential candidate out there: Craig Robinson, who is from Chicago, did a fabulous job this season at Oregon State, and of course has a very well-known brother-in-law living in the White House.
Finally, from everything I'm hearing, I think Norm Roberts is going to survive at St. John's. Like Wainwright, Roberts was handed a difficult situation in a challenging environment, and he has built up an enormous amount of goodwill for the way he has treated people and run his program. Roberts has had trouble landing a breakthrough recruit, but the guys he does have play their tails off for him. This situation is also affected more than most by the economy, since many of the big money people at St. John's work on Wall Street. Still, until we get the official word that Roberts is back, we should never assume anything. This is, after all, one crazy business.