Wednesday March 24th, 2010

For true college basketball junkies, March Madness means two things: the games, and the games behind the games.

The first refers to the NCAA tournament. The second refers to the annual coaching carousel that picks up steam around the second week of the tournament.

I'm not one of those who report on every twist and turn of the coaching searches, but I must say it is fun trading gossip with people who think they know things. So I burned up the phone lines the last couple of days to see what I could find out. I'll start you off with my breakdown and predictions of the Sweet 16. Then I'll give you my, ahem, informed speculation as to what you can expect on the coaching front.

As always, in both cases, any similarities between my predictions and the actual course of events is strictly coincidental.

MICHIGAN STATE VS. NORTHERN IOWA

A lot of people are going with the Panthers based on the absence of Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas, but I'm going to stick with Michigan State for two reasons. First and foremost, they are coached by Tom Izzo. No disrespect to Ben Jacobson or any other coach in America, but nobody gets his players ready to compete and win in the NCAA tournament better than Izzo does. Second, I often find that after Cinderellas break through during the first week of the tournament, they return home to tons of accolades and distractions, which detracts from their preparation for the next game. It's hard picking against the Panthers while The Rok is on fire, but the Spartans are ready to douse him.

Michigan State 65, Northern Iowa 61

TENNESSEE VS. OHIO STATE

There was a very unusual stat in the first half of the Buckeyes' second-round game against Georgia Tech: Evan Turner took 15 shots in the first 20 minutes. That is very unlike him, and unlike Ohio State. This team has excellent offensive balance, and when Jon Diebler and William Buford get open looks they're almost impossible to defend. Turner took just four shots in the second half and Ohio State pulled away. Unlike Ohio U, the Buckeyes have a big man inside (Dallas Lauderdale) who can bang with Wayne Chism. I also don't think Tennessee will fare well against Ohio State's funky 1-3-1 zone.

Ohio State 79, Tennessee 71

REGIONAL FINAL: OHIO STATE VS. MICHIGAN STATE

It's an old-fashioned Big Ten battle, but in this case the absence of Lucas is too much for Michigan State to overcome. Remember, the one time these teams played during the season, the Buckeyes won by seven in East Lansing -- and that was with a healthy Lucas.

Ohio State 70, Michigan State 64

SYRACUSE VS. BUTLER

If you like smart, fundamental, efficient, team-oriented offensive basketball, this game is for you. Still, I think Butler is going to be a little overwhelmed. The Bulldogs have done well to win 21 straight games, but they didn't do much outside the Horizon League. Butler lost to Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown on neutral courts, and they fell at UAB by 10 points. Nor is Butler as good an outside shooting team as most people believe.

Syracuse 74, Butler 60

KANSAS STATE VS. XAVIER

The Musketeers are not used to playing teams with a guard tandem that is as good (if not better) than theirs, but that is what they're facing in Kansas State. Xavier's Jordan Crawford will be the best guard in the game, but as a twosome Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente are more potent than Crawford and Terrell Holloway. Xavier will have more size inside, but Kansas State has more quickness up front and overall toughness up and down the roster.

Kansas State 78, Xavier 75

REGIONAL FINAL: SYRACUSE VS. KANSAS STATE

As Syracuse moves along, it is going to be harder to envision the Orange winning games without Arinze Onuaku. I am going to assume that he will at least be available (albeit limited) for this game, and given the way Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson are playing, that should be enough.

Syracuse 72, Kansas State 69

KENTUCKY VS. CORNELL

The Big Red are a great story, but the Wildcats are a great team. I was extremely impressed with the way Cornell shredded Temple and Wisconsin in its half-court offense, but Kentucky is different from those teams in two important ways. First, the Wildcats are much bigger, stronger and quicker up front, which means Cornell center Jeff Foote is going to have a hard time scoring and staying out of foul trouble. Second, Temple and Wisconsin play a slowdown style and don't look to punish you in transition. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and company are devastating on the break, and they will score too many easy baskets for Cornell to keep up. I really hope I'm wrong, but I don't think it's going to be close.

Kentucky 80, Cornell 63

WEST VIRGINIA VS. WASHINGTON

Have you ever seen an 11 seed make the Sweet 16 and generate so little buzz? The Huskies were very impressive against Marquette and New Mexico last week, and they present a tough matchup for West Virginia, especially now that the Mountaineers have lost their starting point guard, Truck Bryant, to a broken foot. The point position is the Mountaineers' one discernible weakness, and Washington is a quick, aggressive teams that loves to generate steals and score in transition -- much like Missouri, which gave the Mountaineers a run in the second round. West Virginia does a good enough job taking care of the ball that I think their experience, size and toughness will prevail, but I don't expect it to be easy.

West Virginia 75, Washington 73

REGIONAL FINAL: KENTUCKY VS. WEST VIRGINIA

In my original bracket, I picked West Virginia to lose to Kansas in the championship game, but now that the Jayhawks are gone I honestly have a hard time envisioning West Virginia winning the title. And while the Mountaineers struggled against Mizzou, the Wildcats were making Wake Forest look like a jayvee team. The injury to Bryant gives me a lame excuse to change my pick.

Kentucky 76, West Virginia 74

DUKE VS. PURDUE

The Boilermakers are not as good an offensive team as they were with Robbie Hummel, but they are a little quicker and tougher on the defensive end. And point guard Lewis Jackson, who missed the first two-and-a-half months of the season with a foot injury, has quietly played some excellent basketball. (He had nine assists to one turnover in the first round against Siena, and on the season has an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3-to-1.) Still, that won't be enough to beat a Duke team that also butters its bread with defense and rebounding. Sometime in early February, a light went on in 7-foot-1 senior center Brian Zoubek's head, and since then he has been the most improved player in college basketball. He and the Plumlee brothers give the Blue Devils much more margin for error than they have had in recent years.

Duke 66, Purdue 60

BAYLOR VS. SAINT MARY'S

The Gaels are going to face the same challenge as Northern Iowa with respect to maintaining their mental edge, but they have a bigger problem -- literally. While Richmond and Villanova had gaping holes in the middle, leaving them defenseless against Omar "Mr." Samhan, Baylor's front line consists of 6-10 Ekpe Udoh, 6-10 Anthony Jones and 7-foot Josh Lomers, with 6-7 Quincy Acy coming off the bench. That's 20 fouls if you're scoring at home. St. Mary's is a great three-point shooting team and it should get a few looks against Baylor's zone, but the Bears have a sweet guard tandem of their own in Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn.

Baylor 85, St. Mary's 75

REGIONAL FINAL: DUKE VS. BAYLOR

This is a scary matchup for the Blue Devils, especially since the Bears would have a de facto homecourt advantage in Houston. Duke's problem this season has been the fact that it rarely gets all three of its Big Three clicking at the same time. The Blue Devils won't beat Baylor if Jon Scheyer can't make threes, but my sense is that Scheyer and Co. will rise to the occasion on the big stage.

Duke 77, Baylor 74

ST. JOHN'S SPECULATION

Let's start with Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who interviewed Tuesday night in Atlanta for the St. John's job. Many are assuming Hewitt is as good as gone, but I fully expect him to turn St. John's down. From what I am hearing, Hewitt is very happy living in Atlanta with his wife and three daughters, the oldest of whom is a sophomore in high school. Hewitt's relationship with Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich has been a little spotty in recent years (Hewitt was not hired by Radakovich), but Radakovich has been more publicly supportive of Hewitt the last few weeks, and I think Georgia Tech's strong finish has kept the wolves at bay for now.

If Hewitt turns down the job as I expect, where does St. John's go next? It's hard to say. The school had shown some interest early on in Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, but that seems to have cooled. They might insult Greenberg by going back to him at this late stage, which would mean being rebuffed a second time. The idea that St. John's could lure a Billy Donovan or a Rick Pitino was always a pipe dream, and athletic director Chris Monasch has a little egg on his face because those guys gave him the Heisman before he could even officially pursue them.

Two other names that have been bandied about for St. John's are Cornell's Steve Donahue and Siena's Fran McCaffery, but I don't believe either has been contacted. It may look early on like Monasch is fumbling his way through this process, but keep in mind it also looked that way at Arizona last year and they still ended up with a first-rate hire in Sean Miller.

Donahue and McCaffery could still find themselves in the mix at Seton Hall. Hofstra's Tom Pecora wanted that job but couldn't get an interview, but he got plucked by Fordham on Tuesday.

WHO WILL OREGON HIRE?

Moving out west, there is a ton of buzz about what Oregon is going to do -- or more specifically, what uber-alum Phil Knight is going to do. Knight has already spent a barrel of money building a new arena named for his late son, and word is that he is prepared to spend whatever is necessary to land a big-time hire. I've heard the school is initially focusing on four such names: Steve Alford, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan and Jamie Dixon. I spoke with New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs on Tuesday, and he told me that he met with Alford earlier that day and the school is going to adjust Alford's contract, which currently runs through 2017, to give him added incentive to stay. Krebs also told me that nobody, including Oregon, has contacted him to request permission to speak with Alford. I spoke with someone else close to Alford on Tuesday who echoed that, so it looks like Alford is staying put.

It should surprise no one that Oregon is reportedly interested in Gonzaga's Mark Few, who is from the state and an alum of the school. There was a report from a local media outlet in Spokane that Few was leaning towards taking the job, but I don't believe he will. I spoke Tuesday night with someone who is close to Few, and he said he would be "shocked" if he left Gonzaga for Oregon or anyplace else. I've always felt that Few's loyalty to his alma mater was overstated, and the sudden change of athletic directors at Oregon can't help. Few really values his time with his family and he has a secure, happy lifestyle up in Spokane. If Few surprises everyone and takes the job, Zags assistant Leon Rice will most likely succeed him at Gonzaga.

Tubby Smith's name is going to be floated again this year because there is a widespread assumption that he is not all that happy at Minnesota. A source at the school told me that Smith is disappointed that the school has yet to build the practice facility it promised him, plus Smith does not believe the school backed him up enough this season by suspending some of his players for transgressions off the court. And as we all know, it is very cold in Minneapolis. Smith's name was linked to the vacancy at Auburn last weekend, but a source close to Smith told me that nobody has contacted Smith's representatives about any job. From what I'm told, Smith would not appreciate schools floating their interest in him through the media or other third parties, nor would he be inclined to take a job at Oregon if he knew the school preferred Alford.

At the end of the day, a lot of people believe Oregon could end up with Texas A&M's Mark Turgeon, who coached there briefly as an assistant. Another logical choice would be St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett, who will be red-hot after taking his Gaels to the Sweet 16. But those are barely-educated guesses.

ELSEWHERE ...

As for Iowa, I was told that the school inquired about Dayton's Brian Gregory but Gregory wasn't interested. Two of Iowa's prime targets now are Utah's Jim Boylen and Wichita State's Gregg Marshall.

But the sleeper job is DePaul. While it is largely considered to be one of the worst jobs in the Big East, I am told that the school has been throwing around some outlandish salary figures in hopes of attracting a big name. I'm talking upwards of $3 million per year. If DePaul is really able to pay that kind of scratch, then they will find that a lot more people have interest than widely assumed. Steve Lavin made his interest in the job known as soon as it became available, but I have to believe if the school was going to go in that direction it would have done so by now. Isiah Thomas would crawl through broken glass to get the job, but I'm told the administration at DePaul doesn't want him because of the baggage he carries from his time with the Knicks. If the school can't land a big name then I believe UTEP's Tony Barbee will be in the mix, especially now that his good friend William Wesley, a.k.a. Worldwide Wes, is on the verge of becoming an agent representing coaches for Creative Artists Agency.

Stay tuned, Hoopheads. The carousel will be moving pretty quickly the next few weeks.

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