Monday, March 12, 2012

March Figures to Have Much Parity, Thrills -- Let Madness Begin

The madness is essentially part of our sports culture, which could start an interesting conversation at the water cooler where co-workers all week will discuss their tournament brackets and devote much time away from the workplace to secretly engage in a gambling pool. Each year, we have fun penciling in schools in a field of 68 teams -- watching the unthinkable unfold in arguably the most enthralling tournament in sports. This has been the most exciting season for college hoops. It's always fun to witness the tourney because of underdogs, upsets, breathtaking finishes and thrills.

March Madness is, after all, the time of year when fans fill out brackets, which are busted by the second round to only define a crazy month of March Sadness as no one's bracket is never perfect and usually is obliterated before the Sweet 16. There is nothing new about the majority being at work all week, focusing on brackets, checking the scores and rooting for the underdog -- a tradition we have culturally braced for years. It's a moment in time for a field of 68 teams to ultimately advance to the Final Four in a tourney of single elimination by having the drive, willpower, character, determination and ammunition at the right possible time.

With all due respect Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina all earned No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament Sunday despite stunning conference losses. A team that solely ruled the Big Ten was Michigan State after beating Ohio State, now the only school to earn No. 1 seed after winning its conference tournament. But in truth, all season, the schools worthy of top seeding dominated and were well deserving of largely earning the top spot. The road to the 2012 Final Four -- which is played in New Orleans two weeks from now -- is elusive in which anything is possible.

Like the rest us, President Obama, who has shown enthusiasm for sports, will likely fill out a bracket even if there are more important issues on his to-do list such as restoring a nation financially battered by a long-suffering recession. He is, without a doubt, enamored with college hoops, perhaps maybe even too much. But what sports fan isn't in love with March? The most interesting, fun three weeks on the calendar looms ever so closer, a tournament of dreams, miracles, ecstasy and agony. Even though Kansas are favorites to win all to some, that is, the Jayhawks were given a No. 2 seed.

It's almost as if the deepest teams in the nation exist in the Big 12 with the likes of Missouri and Baylor, two teams that may actually be stronger and more efficient than Kansas. Truth is, every region is competitive and the least expected team, as the NCAA tournament begins -- would wear the class slipper -- like George Mason and Villanova as giant killers in the past. So let the Madness begin.

Where exactly does Kansas stand? You can't ever tell with the Jayhawks.

For whatever reason, as people are so fascinated by Kansas because its considered one of the most talented and deepest teams in the country, the Jayhawks are marked to advance to the Final Four -- but tends to stunningly fall against sleepers in a game of chillers and thrillers. It's hard to believe that Kansas will survive the madness, with far too many people sold on a program that is the most vulnerable team in March. Bill Self, head coach for Kansas, doesn't get much sleep these days, incapable of winning the big ones when it counts. Remember when Ali Farokhhmanesh hit a big three-point shot to help Northern Iowa stun Kansas for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history? Remember when eleven-seeded VCU beat Kansas that ended in a stunning collapse last season?

Once again, Self, who has won one national championship in eight seasons, is one of the nation's best offensive set coaches and has recruited brilliantly throughout his tenure, but Kansas hasn't had the Big 12's top recruiting class in four years. This is the man who made Kansas relevant after the Roy Williams regime, bringing in Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, and Mario Chalmers -- in the same class. This class has Thomas Robinson -- college basketball's MVP, if not national player of the year, averaging 11.8 boards per game and scoring 17.9 points on 53 percent shooting.

It can't be denied that Kansas is talented and loaded with offensive weapons, but relatively speaking it's always unknown how far they'll go in the tourney, a basketball program that can never, ever be trusted -- even with third-year starter Tyshawn Taylor, who is indispensable if the Jayhawks are playing to get through the first two rounds of their hardest challenge. And the big man, Jeff Withey, a seven-foot center, couldn't disrupt more in the middle as a solid defender.

This team is so equipped with talent of all sizes and athleticism, for which a loss is considered a failure. There's a reason this team is bigger and advertised more than any other team in contention, why Kansas' expectations are immense following a dominant, remarkable 27-6 season and why it's quite a shock when the Jayhawks have tourney misfortune. And if Kansas doesn't watch it and let its guard down, it's feasible that Belmont or Saint Mary's could painfully strike them by surprise. Is this the nation's best offensive team? That remains to be seen.

The nation's second-best teams, such as Duke, Missouri and Ohio State, all earned two seeds and may have felt they should have been ranked higher. One can argue that they all deserved No. 1 seeds, just as much as a person can argue that Drexel and Washington, winner of the Pac-12 title, should have been given at-large bids. It amazes me to see that, of all teams, Iona secured a bid for the tourney, and as it turns out, it seems like an absolute joke come to think of all the craziness. Iona over Oral Roberts and Drexel? Iona over Washington? Are you kidding me?

Sixty-eight teams qualified and, as always, there is much controversy over snubs and seeding for which you can't please everyone, even if you tried. The outcry of snubbed teams is nothing more but bickering on whether a school was legitimately good enough to compete in the NCAA tournament and, from the scheme of things, the committee apparently thought those schools were undeserving.

It's my inclination that the real jockeying for the big dance comes this week in a tourney of much parity, mystic and excitement. Now that we've established the brackets, rightfully so, we can predict a winner and digest the beauty of the big dance, comprised of sixty-eight teams, four regions, three weeks of intense drama.

1. Potential Cinderella

Not many college basketball games have been played lately without George Masons or even an unexpected Cinderella in existence, coming alive to stun the world. And this year alone, Belmont, Detroit and Memphis are a trilogy of dark horses on the road to the Final Four. It wouldn't be smart to ignore Belmont. This is the week Harvard, yes, an Ivy League school, can possibly survive early on with a win over No. 5 Vanderbilt, who convincingly beat unbeatable Kentucky in the SEC championship game. If any upsets happen, Belmont, a well-coached, experienced and powerful team, should be the favorites to pull off the stunner over third-ranked Georgetown, particularly after thrashing North Florida in the Atlantic Sun championship Saturday.

Just so you know, the Bruins finished 19-1-conference play and 30-4 overall. Watch out for Belmont. The annual notion of all the madness is that we should witness another George Mason, as we have each year, becoming obsessed with a suspenseful, compelling contest, which has grown into a popular sports event every spring -- from March Madness gatherings to brackets to online streaming at the workplaces. If you like upsets, then you may fall in love with No. 9 Southern Miss over No. 8 Kansas State or No. 12 Long Beach State over No. 5 New Mexico. This is all seemingly possible.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

The feeling of cutting down the nets in New Orleans is very possible for the Wildcats. And in the big dance, at least for what it is, Kentucky is the most dominant team in the nation and might be crowned champs in three more weeks. The feeling is, once the winner is decided, folks might be partying in Lexington. When he was hired as Kentucky's basketball coach, John Calipari described the University of Kentucky coaching position as his "dream job." It's more than just an illusion and, in reality, he's finally coaching a group of players projected to hold the gold trophy and travel back to the Blue Nation with a sense of joy.

The development of Kentucky is partly from the rise of freshman Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis, the diaper dandy as Dickie V calls them -- a surefire Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and top pick in the NBA draft, scoring 15 points a game, dominating in the middle and blocking shots. And with the likes of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, the Wildcats are the clear favorites. Among the things for which he has developed the toughest program in the nation, Calipari has influenced his driven players to contend for a national title, chasing the ultimate goal. The best team loses sometimes, and Calipari is advising his considerably talented young players to not beat themselves.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels

The toughest region is the Midwest in which the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, such as North Carolina and Kansas -- seem probable to meet in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels are obviously one of the best teams in the nation, after their opposition beat them in the ACC tournament -- which was No. 3 Florida State -- to win its first conference title in school history. Aside from the Tar Heels' loss over the weekend, the team is led by Tyler Zeller, who became the 13th Tar Heel and third in the last five seasons to be named the ACC Player of the Year. Most of North Carolina's flaws are from the inability to shoot the ball -- they don't shoot the ball consistently and depend greatly on Zeller to lead the way. For a team who potentially has enough depth to win a national title, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and junior forward John Henson are brutal in a transition offense.

3. Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim is one of America's premier college basketball coaches, and generally is considered to be an expert of the zone defense. What is a major concern is the way the Orange let their guard down in the Big East tournament, to stumble shockingly in a defeat to Cincinnati. They can't afford to duplicate a shortage of success in a win-or-go-home situation, and if Syracuse struggles, the odds is that they can unravel in the Elite Eight if they meet third-seeded Florida State, a team with enough talent to carry out the upset. By all means, the Orange must get contributions from a disappearing Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine, two players who will have to recover from woes if Syracuse is angling to overrule.

It's the time of year we die for.

Let the madness begin.