Something disturbing happened last year when I did my annual "Pick the NCAA tournament in 64 seconds" thing. I actually got some picks right. I picked North Carolina to beat Michigan State in the final, and that's what happened. This led numerous people to make the remarkably absurd assumption that I actually know something about college basketball or making picks. I will simply say that this year's picks should clear up that misunderstanding.
The idea remains the same: I pick the 63 NCAA Tournament games in 64 seconds. The reason? Well, for one thing, I believe in Malcolm Gladwell's concept of Blink -- it's better in situations like this to go with your instinct. Two, more importantly, doing the whole thing in 64 seconds frees me up to finish the most intense breakdown you will ever see of the 2009 season. No, seriously, I've been working on this thing for two days. It's intense.
So, anyway, let's get to it ... a tournament bracket destroyed in 64 seconds. And, go:
First roundElapsed time: 29 seconds
As always, I move the top two seeds through ... they almost never lose. Well, the No. 1 seeds have never lost*, and the No. 2 seeds have lost only four times. None of the No. 2s feel vulnerable to me, though Villanova has been getting beat up lately. Every other year or so, a No. 3 gets beat ... and I took an extra second to think about that Oakland (Mich.) game against Pittsburgh. Oakland has won 20 of its last 21, not that I knew that when I considered picking them (nor did I know their nickname was the Golden Grizzlies). In the end I stuck with Pittsburgh.
*The No. 1 seeds have won all 100 games played against No. 16 seeds. Right: The top seeds are 100 for 100. And they usually win by 30 or 40 points. You know, that seems pretty compelling evidence that we don't need to ADD teams to the tournament.
A 4 seed usually loses, and I'm going with the obvious upset choice, picking Purdue to lose to Siena. You have to feel terrible for Purdue having lost Robbie Hummel. The 5-12 game is almost always hottest upset matchup of the tournament -- last year THREE 12 seeds knocked of No. 5s -- and I pick No. 12 UTEP to knock off Butler, which might find itself confused because usually Butler is the 12 seed playing underdog. And even though Temple has been playing great, I'm picking No. 12 Cornell to win because I really like Cornell coach Steve Donahue, I saw the Big Red scare the heck out of Kansas in Lawrence and because Andy Bernard went to school there.
More upsets: No. 11 Old Dominion beats Notre Dame; No. 11 Minnesota, led by Tubby Smith, takes out Xavier; No. 10 Missouri outruns No. 7 Clemson; No. 10 St. Mary's beats giant killer turned favorite Richmond. And in the 9-8 games, I pick a split, with the "favorites" No. 8 Texas holding on against Wake Forest and No. 8 Gonzaga beating Florida State.
Second roundElapsed time: 49 seconds -- yikes!
My bracket is disintegrating. I'm picking too many upsets. This is a mode I get into when I start running out of time and panicking. I should pick the No. 1s through to the Sweet 16 ... but I can't help myself. I pick Louisville to knock off Duke. It's too perfect -- Rick Pitino with an underachieving team exorcising the ghost of Laettner with a mighty upset. As soon as I write it down, I regret it ... I know Louisville will not really upset Duke. In fact, I suspect Duke is a real Final Four contender with those three big scorers. But once I write it down, it's too late. With 64 seconds, once you write it down, you've got to go. Duke is out.
All the twos go through, though I see Oklahoma State scaring Ohio State, with the winner getting to claim for a year that it is the true OSU (poor Oregon State, being out of the tournament, is automatically disqualified). I have a couple of No. 3 teams getting upset ... like I say, I'm picking too many upsets. I have Tennessee beating Georgetown. I know Georgetown is the darling of a lot of prognosticators, but when that Tennessee team is good, they can (and have) beat anybody. I also have Marquette beating New Mexico because, well, I don't know. I think I got confused there.
And rounding out the Sweet 16, I have No. 5 Michigan State beating No. 4 Maryland; I have UTEP upsetting No. 4 Vanderbilt, I have No. 11 Minnesota beating Pitt, and I have No. 5 Texas A&M knocking out Siena.
Too many upsets. And I'm taking too much time.
Sweet 16Elapsed time: 54 seconds -- back on track
I don't have time to mess with things, so I try to fix my bracket by having order restored and the favorites winning. The only upset I pick is No. 9 Louisville over No. 5 Texas A&M -- I don't even LIKE this Louisville team. You ever have that happen to you in a bracket? You keep picking a team you don't particularly like because, well, the momentum has already started.
Interesting games in my bracket include Kansas against Michigan State ... a semi-rematch of last year's tournament game, though not really. College teams fluctuate way too much for there to be a true rematch. Either way, it's hard to take out a team coached by Tom Izzo. I picked Michigan State to go to the finals last year basically because I thought last year's tournament was wide open and in those tournaments I would bet on the best coaches. I don't think this year's tournament is that wide open. I think there are six or seven really good teams and the rest are a step below. I know some people think Kansas got a raw deal with Ohio State, Georgetown, Maryland and Michigan State in their bracket, not to mention Oklahoma State and Tennessee, the two teams that beat the Jayhawks this year. But let's face it: Kansas is better than any of those teams. If the Jayhawks play good basketball, they'll go to the Final Four.
Villanova has been pretty mediocre lately, but I expect Villanova to be pretty tough to beat in the tournament. They have a great backcourt with Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, throw Corey Stokes in there, too, and coach Jay Wright seems like the kind of coach who can take his team on a run.
Final EightElapsed time: 58 seconds
I take one second for each pick. That's probably not enough because I think each of these games has a chance to be epic. I think Ohio State's Evan Turner is the best player in the country, even a touch better than Kentucky's John Wall, but I think Kansas is just too deep and too good on both ends of the floor. So Kansas goes to the Final Four.
I think the Syracuse-Kansas State game has chance to be the game of the tournament -- two intense and tough teams. I think people still don't appreciate just how good Kansas State is ... when Kansas State coach Frank Martin was hired, I thought (and wrote) that it was a mistake, that the school was only hiring Martin to keep a couple of big-time recruits. Not long after, I wrote that while I still think that's the reason the school hired Martin, I was rooting for him because he's a good guy, he worked his way up through the coaching ranks and he never had anything handed to him. He has a great story. I wrote that I hoped he would be successful.
Well, he is successful. And he is a terrific story. Martin's great ability is to get his players to play preposterously hard -- not surprisingly this is also the great ability of the guy he coached under, Bob Huggins. Some coaches can draw art on a chalkboard, and some coaches can teach players a system, and some coaches can just recruit great talent and let them go. What Martin does is something different: He convinces his players that they can be better than what other people think and better than what they believe themselves. It has been a great year for Kansas State.
Of course, after all that, I think the Syracuse zone will be too much and Kansas State will lose.
On the other hand, I'm picking a related upset: I'm taking Huggins' West Virginia team over Kentucky. I have a long and somewhat tortured history with Huggs going back to the days when I wrote newspaper columns in Cincinnati, columns that (it's fair to say) he did not always agree with. And we all know about Huggins' various troubles. Still, I'm not sure that people appreciate this: He's one heck of a basketball coach. His teams play ferociously. And this West Virginia team is probably the best example of a true Bob Huggins team that I have seen since his early days in Cincinnati. They have trouble shooting, and they don't have a lot of size. But man oh man will they clamp on some defense, and they will get every loose ball, and they will get so many offensive rebounds that teams lose themselves in frustration. Kentucky is terrific but young; I've got West Virginia going to the Final Four.
And finally, I have Villanova ending that Louisville run that went on way too long in my bracket. I should have had Duke play through.
Final FourElapsed time: 61 seconds
I take two seconds on Kansas beating Syracuse. No offense to Kentucky, but I think that's a matchup of the two best teams in America. The thing I've seen with Kansas, though, is its ability to adapt to different styles and beat teams different ways. I think the Jayhawks win this game.
And in the other bracket ... Villanova vs. West Virginia. Whew. How did I lose control over my own bracket? I'm picking Villanova.
Final GameElapsed time: 64 seconds
OK, so, you probably knew a while ago that I am picking Kansas to win the national championship. The thing everyone understands is that the tournament can go so many different ways. To win six games in three weeks under intense pressure ... so many things can happen. A team can hit 15 three-pointers against you and just shoot you right out of the tournament. And your team can go ice cold and not be able to hit any open shots. A certain style can baffle and frustrate your team. As Kansas coach Bill Self says, "It doesn't take but a second to find yourself on your heels. It happens fast and then it's really hard to turn things around."
So, I'm picking Kansas because I think the Jayhawks are the team best built -- because of senior leadership, depth, shooting ability, defensive intensity -- to handle the various challenges. But I also know that I might come up with a different answer if I had another 64 seconds.